I've been reading the novels of Edith Wharton. It's been one heck of a thrilling experience. The Age of Innocence is a world-class masterpiece, as subtle a novel as any that I've read in years, and The Buccaneers, which Wharton left uncompleted at her death, is almost as good (fortunately, she left behind a plot summary so we know how it was to conclude. (Edith, couldn't you have hung on for just a few more weeks?! In addition, I was dazzled by The Reef and The Children. Also a couple of volumes of short stories. I'm now reading the very intriguing Glimpses of the Moon. And all the while, I'm wondering how I could have passed over all this great stuff in my first seventy years and still considered myself a serious reader. Wharton wrote forty books and I think that until this month I had only read The House of Mirth, which, it turns out, is her most notorious but not her finest work. But I'll give H of M another chance -- when I come to with new perspective.
Edith Wharton and her great contemporary Henry James are often bracketed -- both of them upper-class New Yorkers and writers of "psychological" fiction. I suppose there's some justice to the comparison, but I prefer to think of Wharton's works as a culmination and also a critique of the great Victorian novelistic tradition. One (of many reasons) is that nineteenth-century fictions often revolve around the keeping of secrets. In the archetype, Mr. A loves Miss B, and Miss B loves Mr. A, but some sort of social constraint forbids them to acknowledge or to speak their love until 450 pages have elapsed. Wharton repeatedly brings these conventions out into the open in order to rip them to shreds. She scrutinizes and satirizes the imprisoning systems of manners (as well as conventions of fiction) that the earlier era left unchallenged. She punctures taboos.
The secret that underlay all of those punishing proprieties was, in one form or another, sex: sexual needs, sexual passions, sexual gratification. The godawful messiness of it all.
When the twenty-three year old Edith Wharton was about to be married, she was ignorant and terrified of sex (and this despite the fact that she was then known, and I don't [and couldn't] make this up, as "Pussy" Jones ["Jones" as in 'keeping up with the Joneses', "Pussy" an affectionate diminutive certainly not employed in its modern street-corner signification]). Like many another young lady, she turned to her mother ( in her case, Lucretia Rhinelander Jones, the 'best-dressed woman in New York') for advice. The outcome was catastrophic. So here it comes, sex ed in Victorian America, recollected in anything but tranquility:
A few days before my marriage, I was seized with such a dread of the whole dark mystery, that I summoned up courage to appeal to my mother, & begged her, with a heart beating to suffocation, to tell me "what being married was like." Her handsome face at once took on the look of icy disapproval which I most dreaded. "I never heard such a ridiculous question!" she said impatiently; & I felt at once how vulgar she thought me.
But in my extremity of need I persisted. "I'm afraid, Mamma--- I want to know what will happen to me!"
The coldness of her expression deepened to disgust. She was silent for a dreadful moment, then she said with an effort: "You've seen enough pictures and statues in your life. Haven't you noticed that men are -- made differently from women?"
"Yes," I faltered blankly.
"Well, then ---?"
I was silent, from sheer inability to follow, & she brought out sharply: "Then for heaven's sake don't ask me any more silly questions. You can't be as stupid as you pretend."
The dreadful moment was over, & the only result was that I had been convicted of stupidity for not knowing what I had been expressly forbidden to ask about, or even to think of."
Poor dear Edith, our hearts go out to you and to all the maidens of the last era. Her "heart beating to suffocation," her pathetic ignorant (not stupid, but ignorant) inquiry, and the imperious mother hiding her embarrassment behind an affectation of anger. O my! Along with the ridiculous idea that furtive (I'm sure) glances at "pictures and statues" could convey any bird-and-bee information of value. Edith's derelict mom punted when she should have pulled her goalie. She missed the "teachable moment." But then again, how do we know what mamma Lucretia knew about sex. Perhaps she had nothing to offer. Perhaps she was one of those Victorian ladies who was taught to lie back and think of England (or, in her case, to think of Washington Square).
Pussy Jones's marriage to Teddy Wharton was a miserable failure. Some of Edith's friends suspected that it was what used to be called a "mariage blanc" -- a marriage without sex. After twenty-eight years and, I'm glad to report, a couple of fervent affairs, Edith divorced Teddy, by that time alcoholic, manic-depressive, and institutionalized. Among her manuscripts Edith left an unfinished pornographic fragment, Beatrice Palmato (which I have not yet read but which is supposed to involve, double-eek!!!, father-daughter incest).
Edith Wharton's passage from unnaturally prolonged innocence to sexual sophistication or perhaps even to sexual derangement summarizes, in little, a big hunk of American social history. In the course of her lifetime, she had to cope with revolutionary changes, and those changes provide the background for some extraordinary and sometimes painful works of fiction.
So I will read on.
[Biographical details are from Hermione Lee, Edith Wharton (New York: Knopf, 2007).