The New York Stories of Edith Wharton

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.

39 thoughts on “The New York Stories of Edith Wharton

  1. Tredynas Days

    I have this very edition on my shelf, along with the novellas in Old New York and a couple of novels; will return to your post when I’ve read them. Just finished A Son at the Front, maybe a lesser known novel of hers – effects of WWI on the home front

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      No worries, Simon. I hope you’re feeling better now after your recent bout of flu.

      Am I right in thinking that Wharton spent time in France during WW1, helping to support refugees and other charitable initiatives?

      Reply
          1. Tredynas Days

            Yes she did – though the emphasis in the story is on the difficult relationship between the titular son and his stepfather and biological mother. It’s an interestingly unromanticised situation. Will no doubt post about it when I’m feeling up to it; still not fully recovered and about to go away for a few days

            Reply
            1. JacquiWine Post author

              Sounds interesting. Sorry to hear you’re still feeling below par (although hopefully better than last week). Enjoy your break – take it easy while you’re away.

              Reply
    2. Brian Joseph

      I love Wharton’s novels. The plot description of these stories make them sound so interesting. Wharton had a way of describing people on interesting situations. There is also something about Wharton’s characters. I get the impression that I actually know them after reading about them.

      Reply
      1. JacquiWine Post author

        Yes, I think there is something unusual or distinctive about several of the scenarios Wharton describes here. A Journey, for example – while the train setting itself is relatively commonplace, the woman’s circumstances are not, adding a sense of tension to the situation.

        I think you’d like these stories very much. As you say, Wharton has a real gift for characterisation. It’s all in the detail, I think, the little gestures and observations that make them easy to visualise or ‘fix’ in the mind.

        Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Susan. Yes, I think her incisive style does suit the short form…and yet, it also works well within the context of a novel where there’s more space available for character development. One of those rare writers who seems equally at home with both!

      Reply
  2. Emma

    This sounds like an outstanding collection of short stories. I loved the Whartons I’ve read, I’ll keep this one in mind. Thanks

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s very good indeed. I’d read some of her ghost stories before (one of which is included here), but I think these are even better. There’s more of a range of different scenarios and tones here, plus her observations on the duplicities within *polite* society are always fascinating to see.

      Reply
  3. realthog

    Yet another author I really must get around to exploring. I have one of the novels on the shelves somewhere, I think, but you know how it is . . .

    Many thanks for such an entertaining account of this collection. As an aside, these NYRB editions really are yummy, aren’t they?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, absolutely gorgeous! NYRB usually do a great job with their covers, but they’ve really excelled themselves with this. It matches the content of the collection perfectly.

      Funnily enough, I first came to Wharton via the film adaptations — Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence is a particular favourite — but now I think the books are even better. More subtle and nuanced, I guess.

      Reply
  4. heavenali

    What a gorgeous edition. I absolutely adore Edith Wharton and it’s too long since I read her. I have read the Roman Fever collection of stories, which contains Roman Fever and Autres Temp. The trouble with short stories is that the same stories appear in different collections, I might still put this collection on my wishlist though.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It really is a thing of beauty, so gorgeous to hold and read. I suspect you’re right about there being a degree of overlap between various collections of Wharton’s stories — at least one of the pieces here also appears in a collection of her ghost stories I bought last year. That said, you can never have enough books in your life, especially when they’re as covetable as this! :)

      Reply
  5. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review Jacqui. I’ve read some Wharton shorts and also novels, and I agree that her writing is excellent and very nuanced. She seems equally at home with long pieces or short stories, which is sometimes unusual. As for her ghosts stories, as I’ve mentioned somewhere before, I read the first in the collection and then never manages to get any further I was so spooked… ;D

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah yes, the ghost stories – I remember you mentioning that! Was it the one about the bell? I don’t have the collection to hand right now, but I do recall the opening tale being very eerie indeed. One of her ghost stories is included here, but the vast majority are in a different vein. They’re more focused on the foibles of American society, complete with all its deceptions and hypocrisies – shocks of a different nature, if that makes sense. :)

      Reply
  6. Radz Pandit

    Great review, Jacqui! This collection sounds really really enticing. Luckily I have this edition, so it is just a matter of pulling it off the shelf and plunging in! The only Wharton I have read is The Age of Innocence some years ago, which I absolutely loved!

    It’s also great to see positive reviews of books I already have – to some extent, a good excuse to not buy more books :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, yes – I know that feeling! In some ways, it’s a relief to know you have something stellar to look forward to, just ready and waiting on the shelves. I think you’ll have a ball with these stories. They’re very much in line with Wharton’s society novels, so The Age of Innocence would be a great reference point.

      Reply
  7. Izzy

    So far, I’ve bought only the second volume of Wharton’s short stories (in the Library of America), the one which spans the period from 1911 to 1937 (it was a bargain !) so I can’t read the first three stories you reviewed for now. Is A bottle of Perrier included in your edition ?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, hopefully you’ll still have plenty to go on with your collection! Yes, I think A Bottle of Perrier is included here. I don’t have my copy to hand right now but will check later this week. Her stories are exquisite, little masterpieces in miniature.

      Reply
    2. JacquiWine Post author

      Just checked my edition of the New York stories. A Bottle of Perrier isn’t included here, but it does appear in another collection lurking on my shelves: a Wordsworth edition of Wharton’s ghost stories. I knew I recognised the title from somewhere!

      Reply
  8. Scott W.

    This one’s been on my list for awhile, and has now, thanks to your post, moved up in the pile. What a great selection of passages! I love the “Little Miss Sunshine” concept in A Journey!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, excellent! A Journey is quite stunning, one of those stories you’re unlikely to forget in a hurry – not only for the premise but for the claustrophobic atmosphere too. I’m sure you’ll find much to enjoy here, Scott.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I’ve read a few of her novels, including two of her ‘society’ big-hitters: The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence (both superb). For you, I would suggest Ethan Frome as the best starting point. It’s bleak, brutal and brilliantly observed – something of a masterpiece, in fact!

      Reply
  9. Caroline

    This sounds marvelous. I have one or two collections of her stories, hopefully some of these are among them. I particularly like the sound of the first and the last you mention.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m sure Roman Fever appears in some her other collections – in fact, there may well be one which takes its title from that very story. Either way, it’s definitely one of the best pieces here, and the ending is particularly memorable given the killer final line.

      The first story is more straightforward than many of the others; but even so, it’s interesting to see where she started from all those years ago.

      Reply
  10. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

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