First published in 1928, The Children is one of Edith Wharton’s later novels, published when the author was in her mid-sixties. Like much of Wharton’s fiction, it explores the moral complexities of socially unacceptable relationship – in this instance, one between a middle-aged man and a teenage girl. Wharton herself cited the novel as one of her favourites, as Marilyn French notes in her introduction to the Virago edition – my copy is a beautiful ‘green spine’ from the mid-1980s.
As the novel opens, Martin Boyne, an unmarried consultant engineer in his mid-forties, is travelling by ship from Algiers to Venice. From there, Martin will journey to Cortina in the Dolomites to join Rose Sellars, the recently widowed woman whom he hopes to marry, even though they haven’t seen one another for five years. The best-laid plans, however, rarely come to pass…
During the passage, Martin encounters fifteen-year-old Judith Wheater, the surrogate mother to her six siblings, three of whom are ‘steps’ or half-siblings. The children – who range in age from two or three to fifteen – are a lively, outspoken bunch, largely kept in line by the delightful Judith and her former governess, Miss Scope. Judith’s parents, Cliffe and Joyce Wheater, are living it up in Venice, caring little for the welfare of their children and assorted ‘steps’, preferring instead to give themselves over to the demands of the ongoing social whirl. Over the past two or three years, Judith has successfully protected the children from the fallout of various Wheater marriages, divorces, liaisons and remarriages, fighting hard to keep the brood together despite her parents’ whims and desires.
Martin is captivated by the children’s happiness and spontaneity, so much so that he agrees to remain in Venice for a few days to assist Judith in discussions with the Wheaters, whose latest attempt at remarriage is in danger of floundering. Judith is fearful that another rift between Cliffe and Joyce will result in children being split up – with the steps going back to their own equally self-absorbed parents, and the toddler, Chip, being separated from Judith and the twins, Terry and Blanca.
In particular, Martin is drawn to Judith with her blend of childlike innocence and impressive maturity. At fifteen, she is on the cusp of adulthood and everything that represents. All too soon, Martin’s feelings for Judith begin to tip over into a kind of infatuation – a fascination he finds hard to fully admit, even to himself.
“Woman—but she’s not a woman! She’s a child.” His thinking of her as anything else was the crowning absurdity of the whole business. Obscurely irritated with himself and her, he stood up, turning his back impatiently on the golden abyss of the apse. “Come along; it’s chilly here after our sun-bath. Gardens are best, after all.”
But outside in the sunlight, with the children leaping about her, and guiding her with joyful cries toward the outspread tea-things, she was instantly woman again—gay, competent, composed, and wholly mistress of the situation… (pp. 35-36)
As Martin becomes further entangled with the Wheaters, his relationship with Rose Sellars begins to be impacted. With her quiet, orderly approach, Rose is a beacon of stability and respectability, very much in line with the Old New York society Wharton knew so well.
Yes; if Mrs Sellars excelled in one special art it was undoubtedly that of preparation. She led up to things—the simplest things—with the skill of a clever rider putting a horse at a five-barred gate. All her life had been a series of adaptations, arrangements, shifting of lights, lowering of veils, pulling about of screens and curtains. No one could arrange a room half so well; and she had arranged herself and her life just as skilfully. (p. 38)
Martin becomes so wedded to Judith’s desire for the children to remain together that he agrees to act their trial guardian, at least for the duration of the summer. By now, the children have joined him in the Dolomites, installing themselves in a local guest house to be close at hand. However, it is this commitment to the children that proves to be the sticking point between Martin and Rose. While Rose likes the young Wheaters and can sympathise with their predicament, she is also keen to formalise her new life with Martin, potentially moving to Paris with the aim of settling there. In effect, Martin must choose between two conflicting desires: Rose, the woman he has loved from afar for many years, and Judith, whose spontaneity and freedom from conventional norms have opened his eyes to new possibilities.
In a world grown clockless and conscienceless, Boyne was still punctual and conscientious; and in this case he had schooled himself to think that what he most wanted was to see Rose Sellars again. Deep within him he knew it was not so; at least, not certainly so. Life had since given him hints of other things he might want equally, want even more; his reluctance to leave Venice and his newly-acquired friends showed that his inclinations were divided. But he belonged to a generation which could not bear to admit that naught may abide but mutability. He wanted the moral support of believing that the woman who had once seemed to fill his needs could do so still. She belonged to a world so much nearer to his than the Wheaters and their flock that he could not imagine how he could waver between the two. (pp. 81–82)
What Wharton does so well here is to illustrate the position in which Martin finds himself, caught as he is between two worlds, neither of which feels entirely comfortable. As a consequence of his experiences with Judith, Martin is reluctant to return to the moral world into which he was born, that of Old New York with its conventional principles and codes. And yet he cannot fully enter the children’s world either, characterised as it is by a lack of such constraints.
The degree to which Wharton enables the reader to sympathise with Martin is also very impressive. He feels a genuine sense of concern for the children’s welfare and emotional well-being, much more than their biological parents ever seem to demonstrate. The scenes where Martin is trying to negotiate with the Cliffe and Joyce Wheater are brilliantly observed, the couple proving to be virtually impossible to pin down for any length of time before the next social engagement beckons. The children too are beautifully portrayed in a way that is both entertaining and touching – at times their directness can be very comical.
In summary, this is a fascinating novel. Not quite as morally complex or intricate as The Age of Innocence or The House of Mirth, but absolutely worth reading if you’re a fan of Wharton’s work – there are elements here that will resonate, for sure.