I’ve been saving this collection of stories for a while, ever since my friend, N, picked it up for me during a trip to New York a couple of years ago. The twenty pieces included here span the period from 1891 to 1934, virtually the whole of Edith Wharton’s career as a writer. Several are in the style of Wharton’s great society novels, exploring the tensions between restraint and passion, sincerity and hypocrisy, respectability and disgrace. In short, they are sharp, nuanced and incisive. Here we see life as it was in the upper echelons of New York society with its traditional social mores and codes, frequently stifling freedom of action in favour of compliance and conformity.
The opening story, Mrs Manstey’s View, features a protagonist outside of Wharton’s own social class – a relatively lonely, elderly woman who lives at the back of a New York boarding house, far removed from the wealthy areas of the city. Mrs Manstey is largely confined to her room where she gains pleasure from gazing at the outside world via the view from her window. In spite of the dwelling’s urban location, various flowers and plants are visible and abundant, altering in prominence with the changing of the seasons.
Mrs. Manstey’s real friends were the denziens of the yards, the hyacinths, the magnolia, the green parrot, the maid who fed the cats, the doctor who studied late behind his mustard-colored curtains; and the confidant of her tenderer mustings was the church-spire floating in the sunset. (p. 6)
One day, Mrs Manstey learns that her neighbour, Mrs Black, is planning an extension, a full-sized structure that will block out her view – no longer will she be able to see the proliferation of the natural world, the tangle of shrubs that brighten her days. Mrs Manstey knows that drastic measures are called for, and she acts accordingly – to say any more would spoil the effect. This is a lovely story tinged with poignancy, one that highlights the value of beauty and pleasure over the desire for commercial gain.
In A Journey, one of the standout pieces in the collection, a respectable woman is escorting her husband home to New York following a spell in warmer climes. The husband is chronically ill and unlikely to recover, but for now appears to be well enough to make the trip. With the train journey underway, the wife proceeds to reflect on the past. There is a sense that the couple’s marriage has deteriorated in line with (or possibly even ahead of) the husband’s decline in health, such is the extent of the change in his character.
Tensions increase when the wife realises that her husband has died during the journey, a development that raises the stakes in an already strained situation. Fearing their expulsion from the train if the body is discovered, the wife must try to conceal the death from the other passengers – something that is easier said than done, particularly given the crowded nature of their compartment.
After that many faces seemed to press upon her. The passengers were on their way to the dining-car, and she was conscious that as they passed down the aisle they glanced curiously at the closed curtains. One lantern-jawed man with prominent eyes stood still and tried to shoot his projecting glance through the division between the folds. The freckled child, returning from breakfast, waylaid the passers with a buttery clutch, saying in a loud whisper, “He’s sick”; and once the conductor came by, asking for tickets. She shrank into her corner and looked out of the window at the flying trees and houses, meaningless hieroglyphs of an endlessly unrolled papyrus. (pp. 95-96)
This is a superb story, steeped in mood and emotion, giving it the feel of a nightmare or hallucination. Wharton excels in her portrayal of a woman on the edge, the rhythm of her prose mirroring the relentless momentum of the train as it hurtles onwards to its final destination. A tour de force in miniature with some very memorable imagery.
The Rembrandt is a lovely, beautifully-observed story of opposing principles, one that highlights the importance of human emotions in any financially-based decision. It focuses on a museum art dealer who is called upon to give his opinion on a picture owned by a friend of his cousin’s – a lady by the name of Mrs Fontage. Finding herself in need of money, Mrs Fontage wishes to sell the picture, which she believes to be a Rembrandt. However, on seeing the painting, the dealer can tell it is nothing of the kind. What is he to do? If he tells Mrs Fontage the painting is worthless, he will shatter not only her future but her memories of the past, too – the story behind the acquisition of the picture is clearly very precious. On the other hand, if he says nothing or gives the impression that the painting is valuable, her hopes will be raised under false pretences. In short, there appears to be no easy way out for the dealer, irrespective of the option he chooses.
Looking at that lamentable canvas seemed the surest way of gathering strength to denounce it: but behind me, all the while, I felt Mrs. Fontage’s shuddering pride drawn up in a final effort of self-defense. I hated myself for my sentimental perversion of the situation. Reason argued that it was more cruel to deceive Mrs. Fontage than to tell her the truth; but that merely proved the inferiority of reason to instinct in situations involving any concession to the emotions. (p. 105)
All in all, this is an excellent story, one with a surprise or two up its sleeve.
Autres Temps…, another excellent piece, explores the social scandal surrounding divorce, particularly in the years of the late 19th century. Interestingly, it also illustrates how attitudes were beginning to change, highlighting the contrast between the Old New York and a younger, more liberal society starting to break through.
The story focuses on Mrs Lidcote who, years earlier was condemned by her peers for leaving her husband for another man. When it transpires that her daughter, Leila, is about to get divorced in similar circumstances, Mrs. Lidcote is assured that times have changed. Divorce is no longer considered quite as shameful as it once was, leaving Mrs Lidcote free to return to New York from her self-imposed exile abroad. However, once she is installed in Leila’s new marital home, Mrs Lidcote realises that a re-entry into society will not be quite as simple to achieve. While attitudes have moved on, Mrs Lidcote’s position has not; her time has passed, leaving her tainted for eternity.
“…Probably no one in the house with me stopped to consider that my case and Leila’s were identical. They only remembered that I’d done something which, at the time I did it, was condemned by society. My case has been passed on and classified: I’m the woman who has been cut for nearly twenty years. The older people have half forgotten why, and the younger ones have never really known: it’s simply become a tradition to cut me. And traditions that have lost their meaning are the hardest of all to destroy.” (pp. 319-320)
The final story is another standout, quite possibly the best in the collection. In Roman Fever, two lifelong friends and neighbours, Mrs Slade and Mrs Ansley – both middle-aged New Yorkers, both widows – are sitting on a roof-top terrace overlooking Rome where they are holidaying with their adult daughters. As they gaze across the city, the two women recall past times, in particular their previous visit to the capital some twenty-five years earlier. In this wonderful story of bottled-up jealously, rage and long-held resentment, Mrs Slade confronts her friend in a bid to establish her superiority, dredging up old secrets and acts of duplicity in the process.
To reveal much more might spoil the effect; suffice it to say that this story comes with a killer ending, one of the best last lines I can recall in any story, not just those by this author.
This is a sparkling collection of stories with much to recommend it. Wharton’s prose is precise and incisive, frequently shedding light on the complexities of our motivations and behaviours.
The New York Stories of Edith Wharton is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.