Ferdinand Mount

Intolerable, unstoppable, indispensable

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Edith Wharton

Hermione Lee

Chatto, pp. 854, £

There is no getting away from it, Edith Wharton was grand. It never occurred to her to spare expense. On her honeymoon cruise, she and her feckless husband Teddy chartered a 333-ton steam yacht with a crew of 16. When they settled down at 884 Park Avenue, they bought the house next door to accommodate their staff. The famous house she and Teddy built at Lenox, Massachusetts, The Mount — ‘a delicate French château mirrored in a Massachusetts pond’, as Henry James called it — had 100 windows and 35 rooms, looked after by a dozen servants, some of whom never dared to use the front stairs. By the end of her life after she had settled in France, she had a total of 22 staff at her two establishments, the Pavillon Colombe outside Paris and her neo-gothic fortress outside Hyères in the south.

She fretted about money, as the rich do. But she never had much cause to. When her father George Frederic Jones died in 1882, he left her $600,000 in real estate. Six years later, her cousin Joshua topped this up with a legacy of $120,000. The Joneses were big in real estate and in the Chemical Bank of New York which they owned. Edith’s great-aunts shocked the family by building two huge blocks at 57th Street, which was then way uptown, almost in the country (above 40th Street, the lots were not built on but already marked out by boulders of the living rock). This, Hermione Lee tells us in her great boulder of a biography, was the origin of the phrase ‘keeping up with the Joneses’. Certainly the phrase started in America and before 1914, but surely it meant then as it does now, an orthodox, even banal strategy for upward mobility, like replacing a Mondeo with a Mercedes, not audacious behaviour like building a couple of skyscrapers in the middle of nowhere.

The Joneses were at the heart of the Old New York which Mrs Wharton satirised with such relentless bite, yapping at its heels like one of those pooches of hers that she idolised, preferring them to most human beings (in Lee’s index, there are 18 references to dogs, three to children). The Joneses were as extravagant with their cash as they were parsimonious with their emotions, uptight everywhere except in their wallets. None of them pursued any trade, except family quarrels which they pursued to the grave. They quarrelled with New York too, Edith’s parents traipsing round Europe with their family for years on end, and in adult life Edith and her brothers all settled in Paris, though for much of the time not on speaking terms with each other. Lee does not think this quite as odd as I do.

Edith claimed that, from the moment she was brought back to New York after six years in Europe, she felt like an exile in America. ‘One’s friends are delightful; but we are none of us Americans, we don’t think or feel as the Americans do, we are the wretched exotics produced in a European glasshouse, the most déplacé and useless class on earth!’ Compared with Italy and France, ‘the landscape and the life lack juice’. Edith, in short, like Nancy Mitford contracted an incurable variety of French ’flu. Apart from her friends — Mr James and the gratin of New England, the Winthrops, the Lodges and the Chanlers — America was ‘a whole nation developing without the sense of beauty and eating bananas for breakfast’. Each morning as I scatter the shards of banana over my cereal (another American innovation Edith detested), I offer up a tiny prayer of expiation.

She declared that ‘the most earnest self-searching will not discover in me the least regret for having left America’. Whenever she returned to France, she experienced ‘the usual demoralising happiness’. She never made many French friends, even from her heroic charity work in the first world war, and in the Dreyfus case one of the few French friends she had, the novelist Paul Bourget, took stances that she found repellent, yet she continued to believe that the French as a nation had ‘a moral taste’ that was denied to Americans. French civilisation was ‘so much older, richer, more elaborate and firmly crystallised’.

Which left her in something of a moral bind, one that she never quite admitted to herself. Not merely was her unearned income sweated from the brows of her uncivilised countrymen, her earned income came out of their pockets. From her first great success, The House of Mirth, published in 1905 when she was in her early forties, to her late sixties, she never ceased to be a bestseller and most of her readers were in America. In 1928 alone, her total earnings from serialisation, advances, royalties and film rights were over $95,000. And she was happily complicit with the whole machinery of publicity that helped to deliver these enormous dividends. Lee reproduces a marvellous ad for The Age of Innocence with a picture of a distraught society girl next to the headline ‘Was She Justified In Seeking A Divorce?’ The book was serialised in Pictorial Review, sandwiched between ads for Rust-Resistant Corsets and Odorono (‘She Had Overlooked One Weakness: Perspiration’). Even the lofty house of Scribner had been happy to put on the wrapper of The House of Mirth ‘For the first time the veil has been lifted from New York Society’— and the book sold 140,000 copies in its first year.

Now the book is not so very shocking. As Lee points out, its doomed heroine Lily Bart never has sex, she does not blackmail anyone and the overdose she takes is probably an accident. Yet the author hunts her down with unforgiving brutality. This was the age of the novel about ‘the woman who pays’, and Edith was a keen admirer of Flaubert and Hardy. But compared with Emma Bovary, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, H. G. Wells’s Ann Veronica or Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, let alone Anna Karenina, Lily Bart like Undine Spragg in The Custom of the Country is a bit of a clockwork plaything. Edith Wharton does not give her characters much room to breathe — which perhaps is why, as with many novels not quite of the top class, they do so well on stage or screen, where there is a flesh-and-blood bosom to heave with emotion.

Hermione Lee does her best to rescue Edith’s reputation as a writer, deploring ‘the version of Wharton — which has proved extremely hard to shift — as a female Henry James, a more superficial and middlebrow imitator of the Master, using the same kind of plots, characters and society but with less depth and subtlety’. Well, perhaps she isn’t as deep and subtle as Henry James — but then nor is Henry James. He just hides it better. As often as not, the Master’s beguiling coulis conceals a rather crudely drawn bunch of characters locked into a melodramatic plot, involving stolen fortunes, secret illegitimacies and ripe old incest — though I doubt whether James ever committed anything like Edith’s unpublished (and then unpublishable) pornographic fragment ‘Beatrice Palmato’ — which she proudly describes as ‘an incest donnée up my sleeve that would make them all look like nursery-rhymes’. Donnée! Nice to see James’s favourite fancy term applied to the grossest confection of swelling member and moisture pearling.

For this new-found freedom she had to thank the love of her life, Morton Fullerton, who liberated her from her frozen existence with a torrential effect scarcely rivalled until the advent of global warming. Fullerton was assistant to the famous Henri Blowitz in the Paris office of the Times, though a Harvard man. He had affairs with everyone, English lords, American poets, Blanche Roosevelt, the Ranee of Sarawak. Henry James wrote to him, ‘You are dazzling, you are beautiful, you are more than tactful, you’re tenderly, magically tactile. But you’re not kind’ — which about summed it up. As with many Don Juans, there was or seemed to be something inscrutable about him. As James warned Edith, ‘He will never pose long enough for the Camera of Identification.’

There were blissful hours in Paris under the chestnut trees, intense hours of communion in cool cathedral naves and there was, above all, the night of the Fourth of June in Suite 92 in the Charing Cross Hotel. They had crossed over to London to see Henry James. The three of them dined together under the dim red lamps of the hotel dining-room, then James went back to the Athenaeum, returning again in the morning to say goodbye to Fullerton who was leaving for France. As Lee remarks, ‘Really he might have spent the night with them!’ One cannot help thinking of Max Beerbohm’s cartoon entitled ‘A Rage of Wonderment’, which shows the ancient Henry James kneeling rather arthritically outside the door of a hotel bedroom and glaring at a pair of men’s shoes and lady’s high heels ranged neatly side by side for the boots to shine up. Nor was this the end of one of the great nights of literary passion, for as Fullerton left the room in the morning he saw Edith propped up in bed with her writing board across her knees, already scribbling the first words of the poem she later sent to him, ‘The Terminus’:

Here, in this self-same glass, while you helped

  me to loosen my dress,
And the shadow-mouths melted to one, like
  sea-birds that meet in a wave —
Such smiles, yes, such smiles the mirror
  perhaps has reflected;
And the low wide bed, as rutted and worn as a
The bed with its soot-sodden chintz, the grime
  of its brasses,
That has born the weight of fagged bodies,
  dust-stained, averted in sleep,
The hurried, the restless, the aimless —   perchance it has also thrilled
With the pressure of bodies ecstatic, bodies
  like ours,
Seeking each other’s souls in the depths of
  unfathomed caresses …’

The Whitmanesque sprawl of this extraordinary poem is testimony to Morton’s capacities, if not to the amenities of the Charing Cross Hotel. In old age, Fullerton implored someone who was proposing to write a life of Edith Wharton, ‘Please seize the event, however delicate the problem, to dispel the myth of your heroine’s frigidity.’

Why did she have to wait until she was 47 years old for all this? After all Teddy, was charming, gentle, as fond of animals as she was, and the best-looking man in the Harvard class of ’73. When young, he was said to be ‘like sunshine in the house’. But from the start something was wrong sexually between him and Edith, or ‘Puss’ as she was known to her family, though Teddy, significantly perhaps, also liked to call her ‘John’. Hermione Lee has no clearer answer than her predecessors as to what that something was. Does ‘Beatrice Palmato’ offer a clue that she had been abused as a child? Was Teddy bisexual? Certainly not to judge by the mistresses he took later on: ‘I find that Teddy has registered all his various temporary brides as “Mrs Wharton” in the hotels they frequented — rather a gratuitous last touch of ill-breeding,’ Edith remarked, with a characteristic combination of stoicism and snobbery.

For much of the prewar years, like the rich at Hilaire Belloc’s garden party, they led ‘independent lives of infinite variety’, though Teddy, a fanatical motorist, was more likely to arrive in a Pope Toledo than a Rolls-Royce. But gradually the shadow of his father’s mental illness overwhelmed Teddy too, periods of manic elation, wild restlessness and high spending (mostly of Edith’s money) alternating with periods sunk in depression when all he wanted to do was sit with Edith and weep the whole day long.

Hermione Lee takes the no-nonsense view that Edith ‘could see grimly what she needed to do, but could only struggle towards it, like a person walking slowly through mud in a nightmare’ — which is why it took so long to get rid of a husband who was, in James’s words to her, ‘a personage so helplessly out of gear in your existence at all’.

Yet it is hard not to be sad about the eclipse of all Teddy’s bubbling gaiety and easy to think that his treatment by Edith and her friends might have hastened his decline. One visitor recalled the awkward, tight-lipped silence that would fall upon the company when Teddy smilingly joined them on the terrace at the Mount. R. W. B. Lewis in his 1975 biography, the first to spill the beans about Morton Fullerton and to reprint ‘The Terminus’ and ‘Beatrice Palmato’, speculates that ‘Teddy’s collapses were in part ways of drawing attention to himself in the midst of his wife’s widespread recognition and her achieved independence and well-being’.

Even in the version offered by Hermione Lee, who is much less interested in Teddy, a certain vitality goes out of the story after Edith divorces him and he is shuffled off to a succession of sanatoria. The reader, left with Edith Wharton on her own, is inclined to murmur with Henry James, ‘She uses up everything and everyone.’ We begin to weary of her amazing sales figures, her feisty quarrels with her publishers, the relentless decoration of her house. In the last 300 pages we begin to wish for a little winnowing, for example, of the pages Lee uses up describing houses that Edith might have bought or rented but did not and repeating the plot of a story she might have written but didn’t.

In her later years in France Mrs Wharton became a chilly, controlling chatelaine. Lee herself cannot resist comparing her to the stout and stately Margaret Dumont in the Marx Brothers films. She was as exhausting a guest as a host. Even her ‘male wives’, as her gossipy bachelor friends were dubbed by Beren- son’s companion Nicky Mariano, could only stand her in small doses. James reported of her last visit to Lamb House, Rye:

The Angel of Devastation has become a mere agitating memory, but nothing could have exceeded the commotion and exhaustion produced by her prolonged stay. Devoted as I am to her I feel even as one of those infants of literary allusion whom their mothers hush to terror by pronouncing the name of the great historical ravager of their country, Bonaparte, Attila or Tamerlane.

Edith’s volcanic bossiness was magnificently fruitful during the first world war. She visited the Western Front again and again and sent back poignant reports to prick American consciences. She founded hospitals for soldiers with TB, convalescent homes for women and children, workshops for Belgian refugees. She was a combination of Florence Nightingale and Martha Gellhorn, intolerable, unstoppable and indispensable.

But in peacetime her autocratic carry-on did not make her easy to love. She had been lonely all her life but kept up a proud Jonesian front. Only with her dogs and now with her friends’ children did she unbend and show how much her childless, unhappy marriage had cost her. She was out of tune with the Jazz Age and out of touch with her fellow countrymen. When asked how she could possibly write about Americans so far from America, it was only half a joke when she replied, ‘I stay four weeks every year at the Hôtel Crillon in Paris, and I always listen to every- thing my American fellow-passengers say when I go up and down in the lift.’ Note, not elevator.

But I think it was on her fiction rather than her friends that her bossiness had its worst effect. Her novels and stories become too cut-and-dried, satires against a brittle age which share its brittleness. They never lose their bright gloss, are never less than readable, their twists always manage a satisfactory snap. But compared to, say, Chekhov or Alice Munro or Raymond Carver, her people do not really have a life of their own. At her best she is better than Saki, at her worst she is as mechanical as Roald Dahl. ‘My last page is always latent in my first,’ she boasted once. Too much so, unfortunately. She is at her best when at her most restrained, which is, oddly enough, when she is writing about people not of her own class whom she cannot so easily put in their place. Henry James admired the ‘kept-downness’ of stories like ‘Bunner Sisters’ and Ethan Frome, set among poor farmers in the Massachusetts backwoods.

She always had a strong moral streak. Before she wrote fiction when she made her name as a writer on gardens and interior décor, she lapped up everything that Ruskin and American gardeners and landscape architects like Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park, had to say about the morality of taste. It was partly because her moral views were so hard and clear that her American readers never stopped adoring her, though she never pretended to love them. For she remained, au fond as she would have said, very American.

Since Percy Lubbock’s spiteful sketch, A Portrait of Edith Wharton, there have been two fine full-length lives of her. Lewis is better on her American background and her marriage, Lee on her European wanderings and her books. But both leave you fond of the dauntless old thing, with her large chin and her big hands and feet and her unruly stook of red hair and her love of books and beauty. An easy person to guy, and Henry James did it over and over again in his letters and stories, but he never got her down. In old age she warmed towards the Church she had always distrusted as the enemy of human love, and on her now neglected tombstone in the Protestant cemetery at Versailles she asked to have inscribed, ‘O Crux Ave Spes Unica’, but what it really ought to say is ‘She Gave As Good As She Got.’