Apr 18, 2007

A New Edith Wharton Biography

There was a time -- though few can recall it -- when Yvor Winters stood almost alone in his exceedingly high admiration for the fiction and prose of Edith Wharton. In his once well-known, and oft-derided, essay on Henry James, “Maule’s Well or Henry James and the Relation of Morals to Manners” (reprinted in In Defense of Reason, 1947), Winters declared, somewhat notoriously, that Wharton’s Age of Innocence was the single fullest flowering of the Jamesian art:

It is likely that one can find an isolated novel here and there to surpass any by James; one might argue with considerable reason that The Age of Innocence, partly because it corrects, as I have shown, a serious defect in the Jamesian conception of the novel, partly because of its finer prose, is the finest single flower of the Jamesian art; one which James fertilized but would have been unable to bring to maturity.

Winters once received plenty of scorn, even some critical abuse, for that judgment in the 1940s and 50s, but the critical winds took a turn in about the 1980s, when critics started reading Wharton with greater appreciation and started writing many more scholarly monographs on her work, and publishing houses began issuing her novels in new editions with scholarly and appreciative prefaces. (I should offer a note of clarification that Winters might have considered Henry James the greatest novelist in English when considering his entire oeuvre, but that Wharton wrote a few novels that are better executed than any single novel James wrote. Exactly how Winters judged James against Wharton is a minor matter that could use some study.) Winters’s various brief comments about Wharton’s art (I deeply wish he had written on her more) -- contained in the James essay, the essay on Melville (in which he compares her style to the prose of Moby Dick), and the essay on Fenimore Cooper (as part of Winters’s discussion of the social novel) -- are fascinating reading that I hope we find occasion to discuss in detail some time.

I’ve tracked the changing winds on Wharton, because, on Winters’s recommendation, I took up Wharton and read many of her novels and short stories back in the 1970s, when few critics paid her any attention as one of the great fictionists. It’s hard to say how highly she is judged in the Standard Canon, but she is certainly very popular among Mid-Cult, educated readers who still fancy reading novels of great intelligence and superior narrative craft. One indication of the commercial favor her work has discovered might be the number of movies adapted from her books. Though far behind James and Austen in this regard, filmmakers have recently made up for some of the lost time of Wharton’s long obscurity, which appears somewhat similar to that of Herman Melville (it’s hard to remember nowadays that Melville ever rested in obscurity).

A major biography and several intensive studies were published a couple decades ago about Wharton’s life and work, but a new set of life studies has come into view. A couple months ago, Elaine Showalter reviewed Hermione Lee's new biography in the Guardian (U.K.). The biography is entitled Edith Wharton and Showalter’s review can be found at:


Lee’s book is important, I think, because of the attention she pays to Custom of the Country, which Lee opines as Wharton’s best novel. I tend to agree that Custom, which Yvor Winters also judged as one of Wharton’s best, might indeed be the finest in Wharton and one of the greatest novels in the English language. I’ll come back to this matter in a moment.

Another review of Lee’s new biography came out a short time later in the Times Literary Supplement (U.K.), “Edith Wharton's Passionate Realism,” by Michael Gorra, which can be found at:


Finally, among those reviews I think deserve mention, Louis Auchincloss put out a review of Lee’s biography in the New York Sun, which can be found at:


All these short reviews are worth reading. They concentrate on the life, of course, but the message seems clear that Lee’s biography achieves quite a bit as a work of criticism.

I would like to come back briefly to Custom of the Country, defended by Lee as Wharton’s best work of fiction. As I say, Winters almost agreed, rating this novel, it appears, second only to The Age of Innocence. Though Innocence is certainly one of the greatest novels of all time, I tend to consider Custom the greater novel because of its treatment of the theme of evil. The novel concerns a woman named Undine Sprague, whose story begins when she has newly arrived in New York in the late 19th century. Upon her family’s coming into money through great business success in the Midwest, Undine becomes ambitious for status and tries to use her riches to buy social position in the tightly controlled society of the Eastern upper crust. She decides to further her cause through a socially advantageous marriage and chooses a young man named Ralph Marvell, who has splendid social connections but little money. Undine gets a measure of status from the marriage to Marvell, but after time passes and she makes a visit to Europe, she realizes that there are still more highly prized social positions to which she may aspire. Despite having a child by him, she divorces Ralph, with tragic results, to marry a Frenchman with a title of “true” nobility.

Promptly, however, Undine finds the eminence she achieves as the wife of a European nobleman less rewarding than she had presumed. For Undine the grass is always greener. With consummate skill in prose style and narrative structure, Wharton tells the story of this beautiful young woman who always wants something she believes is better than she already possesses and who uses her charms and various morally questionable means to get what she wants regardless of whom she hurts. It is a chilling and powerful cautionary tale of deep themes that reach far beyond the narrow confines of the upper-crust societies that it takes place within.

Rather than offer one of the brilliant and powerfully conclusive passages at the close of Custom of the Country, I want to give you one longer passage from this great novel to draw your attention to the achievement of Wharton’s fiction and to interest you in her work. Let’s consider a seemingly minor passage that feels representative to me of the excellence of Wharton’s prose and the skillfulness of her narrative control. This passage comes at about mid-novel, a point in the story when Undine is beginning to have her doubts about what her first marriage to Ralph Marvell can accomplish for her:

For a long time now feminine nearness had come to mean to him [Ralph], not this relief from tension, but the ever-renewed dread of small daily deceptions, evasions, subterfuges. The change had come gradually, marked by one disillusionment after another; but there had been one moment that formed the point beyond which there was no returning. It was the moment, a month or two before his boy's birth, when, glancing over a batch of belated Paris bills, he had come on one from the jeweller he had once found in private conference with Undine. The bill was not large, but two of its items stood out sharply. "Resetting pearl and diamond pendant. Resetting sapphire and diamond ring." The pearl and diamond pendant was his mother's wedding present; the ring was the one he had given Undine on their engagement. That they were both family relics, kept unchanged through several generations, scarcely mattered to him at the time: he felt only the stab of his wife's deception. She had assured him in Paris that she had not had her jewels reset. He had noticed, soon after their return to New York, that she had left off her engagement-ring; but the others were soon discarded also, and in answer to his question she had told him that, in her ailing state, rings "worried" her. Now he saw she had deceived him, and, forgetting everything else, he went to her, bill in hand. Her tears and distress filled him with immediate contrition. Was this a time to torment her about trifles? His anger seemed to cause her actual physical fear, and at the sight he abased himself in entreaties for forgiveness. When the scene ended she had pardoned him, and the reset ring was on her finger...

Soon afterward, the birth of the boy seemed to wipe out these humiliating memories; yet Marvell found in time that they were not effaced, but only momentarily crowded out of sight. In reality, the incident had a meaning out of proportion to its apparent seriousness, for it put in his hand a clue to a new side of his wife's character. He no longer minded her having lied about the jeweller; what pained him was that she had been unconscious of the wound she inflicted in destroying the identity of the jewels. He saw that, even after their explanation, she still supposed he was angry only because she had deceived him; and the discovery that she was completely unconscious of states of feeling on which so much of his inner life depended marked a new stage in their relation. He was not thinking of all this as he sat beside Clare Van Degen; but it was part of the chronic disquietude which made him more alive to his cousin's sympathy, her shy unspoken understanding. After all, he and she were of the same blood and had the same traditions. She was light and frivolous, without strength of will or depth of purpose; but she had the frankness of her foibles, and she would never have lied to him or traded on his tenderness.

Now, this novel is a beautifully managed affair. These paragraphs come after chapters of careful and expert preparation, but the clarity of the prose and the skillfulness of the writing here brings out the central themes to sharp, telling effect. This is a style that can carry a great weight of intelligence and insight. Winters, I believe, saw in Wharton’s narrative style the sort of expository adroitness that he thought was increasingly lacking in so much modern fiction, but which had been a central literary tool in fiction from its beginnings, such as we find, for example, in the work of two of its early masters, Cervantes and Fielding. Wharton shows supreme skill in illuminating out her deep themes and the profound implications of what is being told to us at this point in the narrative. To my mind, this sort of approach is what makes for total and complete excellence in fiction. It is a style that novelists should be imitating and then building out from to make true and strong progress in the development of the novel in our time. The extreme emphasis upon showing over telling -- that hackneyed proverb of our literary era -- has done much to damage and weaken the novels written in recent decades. It is time to get back to employing telling and showing together, with what a writer tells holding sway, directing and deepening the thematic energies of what a writer shows.

A full Wintersian reassessment of the art of Edith Wharton is long overdue. No Wintersian I know of has bothered to study Winters’s judgment of her work or to study her work more deeply from a Wintersian perspective -- that is, using the general literary principles Winters defended. Further, no critic or writer I know of has even been brave enough to side in print with Winters in his evaluation of Wharton as one of the greatest fictionists, as I do. The only general reconsideration of the book of essays that contains Winters’s evaluation of Wharton, an essay by historian David Levin entitled “A Historical Reconsideration of Maule’s Curse” (Southern Review, 1981), does not even mention Wharton. Strange, very strange.

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