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At Her Epistolary Best


ISSUE:  Summer 1989
The Letters of Edith Wharton. Edited by R. B. W. Lewis and Nancy Lewis. Scribner’s. $29.95.

I hate excessively to be forty,” wrote Edith Wharton to her friend, Sara Norton, a response to the latter’s 1902 birthday greeting. “Not that I think it a bad thing to be—only I’m not ready yet!”

Behind Edith Wharton at this point were years of privilege and achievement: her comfortable “old New York” girlhood, marriage to the affable if uninspiring Teddy Wharton, an inheritance that helped to support multiple grand homes— Park Avenue and Newport—as well as frequent excursions to Europe, and the foundations of a successful literary career with publications dating from her late 20’s of poems and stories. Behind her, too, were telling conflicts and depressions: the relationship with a difficult mother, sexual disappointment in the marriage, and stretches as her letters looked back to them of “neurasthenia [that] consumed the best years of my youth.” It was an existence that would loom in retrospect as that of “my numb dumb former self,” of “wearing a mask,” but that evidently, on the threshold of 40, she had no confidence age would improve.

The Letters of Edith Wharton, edited by Wharton biographer, R.W.B. Lewis, in collaboration with his wife, Nancy Lewis, stands as a heartening counterassertion to the writer’s 40th birthday apprehension. First of all, it is the second half of her life—life after 40—that is the volume’s focus and emphasis. One reason the birthday pronouncement commands our attention is how soon we come upon it in our reading. Twenty pages bring Edith Wharton to her 40th birthday; the subsequent 550 pages deal with the 35 years that came after. If this seems an odd apportionment, in part it can be explained by the availability of material. Edith Wharton was in her late 30’s, say the editors, before anyone other than her publishers at Scribner’s considered her letters worth saving. More significant, however, is the weight of interest. It was in her 40’s that Edith Wharton achieved the stature of a major novelist with the 1905 publication of The House of Mirth, that she came to know Henry James whose friendship decades later upon his death she would describe as “the pride and honor of my life,” and that she experienced the sexual awakening of her life in a turbulent affair with W. Morton Fullerton, Paris-based correspondent for the London Times, her letters to whom provide much of the fascination of this volume. And indeed, this was only the beginning. The impression that builds from the letters as they move the subject at a fairly even pace through her 40’s, and then her 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s—400 letters have been selected from an available 4,000 with the intention “to show Edith Wharton at her epistolary best and most characteristic”—is of her extended and unabating expression of verve and energy—in writing, in reading, in one, perhaps two grand passions, in the creation of several splendid homes, in philanthropic work during the war (she opened an ouvroir for unemployed seamstresses and hostels for civilian refugees in Paris), in avid travel, and many friendships.

The editors have grouped the letters into phases of Wharton’s life, each succeeding phase no less replete with interest than the foregoing. There is the 1902—07 period of “Withdrawal from America,” time and allegiance divided between Europe and not so much America as Wharton’s last gracious American house, the Mount in Lenox, Massachusetts; the Paris-based 1907—10 years of the affair with Fullerton; the prewar 1911—14 years, dubbed “Separations and Sojourns,” a period in which Wharton’s social and literary connections expanded (Bernard Berenson became a major correspondent), and driven to action by her husband’s mental deterioration and embezzlement of her money, she sought and obtained a divorce. Following is the experience of “The Writer in Wartime,” the years of Wharton’s indefatigable war work, relieved by motor car tours to the front described in letters to “Dearest cher maître,” Henry James, that he deemed “inexpressibly splendid bounties.” And finally, we have two postwar stretches, 1919—27 and 1928—37, years of continued literary productivity and fame, of motor touring in Europe and Africa, of residence divided between two well-maintained estates, Pavilion Colombe outside of Paris and Sainte-Claire, Hyeres in the south of France—the topics of Edith Wharton’s letters include her servants and her gardens—and years, too, despite bouts of ill health and grief at the death of friends (“Why do our friends die one after the other?” she lamented to her long-time friend and ultimate executor, Gaillard Lapsley), of perhaps her greatest serenity. In a letter to Mary Berenson, written, as it turned out, in Wharton’s last year, she expressed her incomprehension of other people’s failure to engage wholeheartedly in life:

I wish I knew what people mean when they say they find “emptiness” in this wonderful adventure of living, which seems to me to pile up its glories like a horizon-wide sunset as the light declines. I’m afraid I’m an incorrigible life-lover & life-wonderer and adventurer.

What a contrast this presents with the writer of the 40th birthday letter who certainly had a better understanding of “emptiness”:

Don’t I know that feeling you describe, when one longs to go to a hospital & have something cut out, & come out minus an organ, but alive & active & like other people, instead of dragging on with this bloodless existence.

Of course, these are moods, and as soon as expressed, they shift. Concluding her self-portrayal as a life-lover, Wharton remembered “how bodily suffering strikes at the root of these joys.” The earlier letter’s reference to “this bloodless existence” is followed by a sprightly ensuing paragraph, talk of seeing Mrs. Pat Campbell in a play. Wharton knew well the art of modulation. Nonetheless, the volume’s cumulative impression—the sense of a life that builds from the compilation and juxtaposition of letters—is that of a figure who began really only in her 40’s to achieve her own resonant and authoritative voice and whose letters, as she aged, gained rather than diminished in exuberance and vitality.

In a recent essay on “Woman Writers: Coming of Age at 50” (New York Times Book Review, Sept. 4, 1988), Carolyn Heilbrun discusses the triumphant release that women, and women writers in particular, can experience once they stop, as she puts it, being “female impersonators.” There is something depressingly conventional about Edith Wharton’s worry at turning 40—it’s the kind of worry women are acculturated to feel and from which Wharton, whatever her talent and privilege, was not immune. Or along the same lines, an even more striking instance of “female impersonation” is her expression of dread, aged 45, to the slightly younger Morton Fullerton that she “might be to [him] even for an instant, the “donna non più giovane” who clings & encumbers.” Maturity, however, comes to be defined in the letters in positive, not negative terms. Empowered by her talent, her success, her intellectual curiosity, her unflagging spirit of adventure, Edith Wharton lived out an existence that, notwithstanding moments of acute depression, of recurrent feeling that “the best is over,” moved unequivocably beyond any “numb dumb former self” to the expression of a very ample identity.

The ampleness of the identity lies in its exuberance and also in its multi-facetedness. Edith Wharton had many interests: her own novels, her culture, her times, travel, gardens, the lives of her friends; and we watch her in the letters engage in many roles. She was the hard-headed professional, negotiating with editors and publishers, proposing deals, complaining of neglect, tipping her price. She was the voracious reader of literary, artistic, scientific, philosophical, and religious texts, who typically would be “deep in my novel, & . . . reading, as a diversion between times, “Jenseits von Gut und Böse,”” or again, “. . .prélassing myself in the vol. of Mâle, the first really clear business-like statement I’ve seen of the theory of Graeco-Syrian origins for French-Romanesque sculpture.” She was the gracious but assiduous proprietress, creator of homes and gardens—the Mount, Sainte Claire, Pavilion Colombe; or in a counter-role, setting off from these enclosures, the ecstatic traveler, ever “made over new” by “a breath of a different air.” Then, too, she was the impassioned lover, finding words for feelings, whether of fulfillment—”I have found in Emerson (from Euripides I suppose) just the phrase for you . . .& me. “The moment my eyes fell on him I was content.”“— or of disillusionment— “My life was better before I knew you. That is, for me, the sad conclusion of this sad year.” And finally, she was the solicitous, loyal, and engaging friend who, for example, in the midst of her greatest anguish in the affair with Fullerton could nonetheless find the time and serenity to write a charming, sensitive letter to Charles Eliot Norton on the death of his dog, Taffy:

His artless but engaging ways, his candid enjoyment of his dinner, his judicious habit of exercising by means of those daily rushes up and down the road, had for so many years interested and attracted us that he occupies a very special place in our crowded dog memories.

It is a question one tends to pose about professional women and that Edith Wharton certainly invited in her own self-presentation whether her many roles cohered or whether they remained for her separate and opposed. Wharton frequently expressed a sense of their conflict, particularly when one role was that of the writer. “Zwei Seelen wohnen, ach, in meine[r] Brust, & the Compleat Housekeeper has had the upper hand for the last weeks,” she wrote to Sara Norton, an apology for not having answered a letter. Or opposing her serious imaginative work to the claims of her collapsing husband, she complained to Morton Fullerton:

If I didn’t feel the irresistible “call” to write, I should give up the last struggle for an individual existence, & turn into a nurse and dame de compagnie for Teddy. . . . The present makeshift existence is utterly destructive to any sustained imaginative work. . . .

Or again, opposing literature to gardens, she declared (a jest in earnest?), “Decidedly I am a better landscape gardener than novelist, & this place [the Mount], every line of which is my own work, far surpasses The House of Mirth.”

Another opposition, recurrent in the letters, is between the lover and the friend. “I have had many dear friends,” she wrote to Morton Fullerton, 20 years after the end of their affair, “—& only two in whose case I wanted the friendship to be total.” The two, Fullerton would have known, were himself and Walter Berry, Wharton’s lifelong friend who became her lover after Fullerton. At Walter Berry’s death in 1927 Edith Wharton went to his house in Paris, retrieving and destroying letters she had written him over 44 years. Berry looms in the published correspondence as a name, a friend mentioned from time to time in one situation or another, until the grief of his death prompted greater disclosure of feeling, as in a letter to John Hugh Smith:

The sense of desolation (though of thankfulness, too, of course) is unspeakably increased by those last days together when he wanted me so close, & held me so fast, that all the old flame and glory came back, in the cold shadow of death and parting. Oh my dear, I sometimes feel too old to live through such hours, & take up the daily round again.

But I remember what you say, & I am proud of having kept such a perfect friendship after the great days were over and always to have felt through all the coming & going of things in his eager ambitious life, I was there, in the place he put me so many years ago, the place of perfect understanding.

Remembering love and its disquieting intensity, Wharton took pride—and also refuge—in the thought of the “perfect friendship” that ensued. Friendship could be more stable than passion, and this was important to her.

The love letters that we do have are those to Morton Fullerton, long considered lost but rediscovered in 1980. Through them we gain our sole insight into Edith Wharton’s capacity for romantic feeling, that is to say feeling not tempered by memory but experienced so sharply in the letter writer’s present moment that we feel all the excitement not just of her adventure but of her finding the unprecedented words to convey it. We follow the acquaintance from its innocent beginning, an October 1907 letter of invitation to Fullerton, friend of Henry James, to visit her and Teddy at the Mount, hoping he can stay over to be shown “some of our mountain landscapes & have time for some good talks too.” Six months later she was writing:

As I’m so afraid that the treasures I long to unpack for you, that have come to me in magic ships from enchanted islands, are only, to you, the old familiar red calico & beads of the clever trader. . . . I’m so afraid of this, that often & often I stuff my shining treasures back into their box, lest I should see you smiling at them.

Well! And if you do? It’s your loss, after all! And if you can’t come into the room without my feeling all over me a ripple of flame, & if, wherever you touch me, a heart beats under your touch, & if, when you hold me, & I don’t speak, it’s because all the words in me seem to have become throbbing pulses, & all my thoughts are a great golden blur—why should I be afraid of your smiling at me, when I can turn the beads of calico back into such beauty.

Even here, at the height of the pleasure of the affair, we can sense Wharton’s underlying anxiety, which she played with words to dispel. Soon Fullerton, a man of many romantic entanglements and essentially a cad, began to torture her with his inconsistency. As fascinating as the record of the affair’s pleasure is the recounting of its pain. Wharton started to feel “like a course—served and cleared away.” She begged and apologized: “It would be a great joy if you could send me a line once a week—only never, never under compulsion. Like James’ Isabel Archer, she pretended to be smaller than she was: “Hold me long & close in your thoughts. I shall take up so little room & it’s only there that I’m happy.” She severely reproached him:

What you wish, apparently, is to take of my life the inmost & uttermost that a woman—a woman like me can give for an hour, now & then, when it suits you; & when the hour is over, to leave me out of your mind & out of your life as a man leaves the companion who has accorded him a transient distraction. I think I am worth more than that, or worth, perhaps, I had better say, something quite different.

And finally she offered him an alternative, at first just suggested, then urged more insistently: the transition back to “amitié,” “to be again the good comrade you once found me,” to be called “simply “mon ami” instead of “mon amie.”” Wharton’s strongest expression of bitterness to-Fullerton was not that he no longer loved her “d’amour” but that such love waning, he had “lacked the sincere feeling” for her to see her need for “an equitable friendship . . .the kind of tried tenderness that old friends seek in each other in difficult moments of life.” One reason, perhaps, that Wharton’s outlook, as expressed in her letters, became more serene with age is that she left “total” relationships behind her and settled into a wealth of “equitable friendships”—Berry and even Fullerton among them.

It was Fullerton, the affair ended, who came to be addressed in subsequent letters as “cher ami.” We do, however, come upon one instance of revenge, perhaps the only kind of revenge that Wharton would allow herself to take: an “outspoken criticism” of the style of Fullerton’s 1911 book:

Do, cher ami, in your own words “adopt a franker idiom”. . . . You’ve read too much French & too much Times. I can’t too strongly urge you to drop both tongues . . .& go back to English—to what Arnold called “prose of the center.”

A subsequent letter then reinforced this urging in terms of place as well as language. “Go to England. You need it, & you need it now.”

One wonders what effect Edith Wharton’s own expatriation had on her style and sensibility. Certainly hers was never the “language of fatigue” for which she criticized Fullerton. Nonetheless, her multi-lingual, multi-cultural perspective encouraged a style that was highly mannered and in which emotion, often through shifts into other languages, was expressed, more often than not, in either actual or implicit quotation marks. Wharton was “sunk into the state of “abrutissement”” that always overcame her upon her return to America. Or, as already quoted, she dreaded to be even for an instant “the “donna non più giovane” who clings and encumbers.” Or again to Fullerton: “Je suis triste à mourir. I wish I had known you when I was twenty five.” Or upon the anticipated death of Henry James: “His friendship has been the pride and honor of my life. Plus ne m’est rien after such a gift—except the memory of it.” In each instance the emotion seems sincere, yet the shift between languages introduces a shade of verbal irony. The emotion is made self-conscious and set off as a literary attitude.

Throughout her letters, Edith Wharton seems highly conscious of the roles, the poses that language could create: the ecstatic or tortured lover, the solicitous friend, the enthusiastic traveler. These are literary selves, the dramatis personae of a letter writer who was willing to reveal herself but whose presentation of self was dramatic rather than introspective. Overall, the impression is of a series of not insincere but nonetheless artfully-wrought roles, all part, perhaps, of the effort of the “life-lover” not to falter.

One looks to the letters of a writer for their contribution to the understanding of that writer’s art. Certainly among the personae of her letters, Edith Wharton was “the writer.” As such she was a professional, an advice-giver on style, unhesitating in her judgments of other writers (the preface to The Portrait of a Lady was “the best definition of the novelist’s art ever written”; Ulysses was “a turgid welter of pornography . . .& uninformed and unimportant drivel”). Nonetheless, she did not make her own creative processes a central focus of her letters. Aside from a frequently quoted pronouncement of 1907 that “I conceive my subjects like a man—that is, rather more architectonically & dramatically than most women—& then execute them like a woman,” the letters have little to say about either the process of writing or the issues and problems posed by particular books. For all her somewhat grand manner, Edith Wharton was in fact the least boastful of novelists, and among the less self-revealing. The creative process remains singularly private.

What we do see in the letters are many expressions of Edith Wharton’s clear-sighted, incisive, unsentimental intelligence that call to mind the voice and vision of any one of many of her novels. For example, on the subject of intimacy: “The basest thing about the state of “caring” is the tendency to bargain and calculate, as if it were a game of skill played between antagonists.” Or on the subject of marriage, as literary theme par excellence:

And I wonder, among all the tangles of this mortal coil, which one contains tighter knots to undo, & consequently suggests more tugging, & pain & diversified elements of misery than the marriage tie—& which, consequently, is more “made to the hand” of the psychologist & the dramatist.

What we see, too, which not only reminds us of the novelist, but helps us to understand her, is her energy, her engagement in the world around her, her disciplined ability to keep going. She may, for example, have declared herself “incurably lonely inside” since Walter Berry’s death. Yet a visit to Wales a few weeks later had her in raptures of delight and writing with all her verve to describe the trip to Bernard Berenson.

And finally, what we see is Wharton’s essential literariness, perhaps the unifying element, the integrative force joining her different selves. The Letters of Edith Wharton are the production of a language-lover as well as a life-lover. They reflect a love affair more abiding than any of her sexual liaisons—her love affair with language, which perhaps was what gave her the stamina and the renewal to keep on loving life—the unfailing interest of the effort to describe it.

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