Friday, June 16, 2023

Trespassing on Edith Wharton

 From The Paris Review:

 I fell in love with Wharton during those lonesome months; I found fragments of myself in The Custom of the Country’s Undine Spragg, in The House of Mirth’s Lily Bart, in Summer’s Charity Royall, each one of them unable to foresee that folly follows when we expect too much. It wasn’t until many years later that I learned that the author who wrote with such precision about what transpires inside the unhappiest of homes had herself lived in a succession of them. Raised by a rigid society mother who was by turns remote and overbearing, Edith Newbold Jones was twenty-three when she married Teddy Wharton. The union helped her escape the control of a family that found her literary aspirations inconveniently vulgar, but so ill-matched were Teddy and Edith that Henry James once said that the marriage was, in retrospect, “an almost—or rather an utterly—inconceivable thing.” The young Mrs. Wharton soon realized that her new husband was a professional vacationer plagued by alcoholism and manic depression, a man who found his equilibrium indulging in the communal “watering hole amusements” that she went on to pillory with brutal accuracy in her novels and short stories. It was at Land’s End, the couple’s cliffside Rhode Island home, that Edith understood that she’d consigned herself to a new kind of domestic subjugation: a sexually and intellectually dissatisfying quasi-union that withered incrementally under the pall of Newport’s convivial excesses. “There are certain things one must possess in order not to be awed by them,” she wrote in 1900’s “The Line of Least Resistance,” a story, set in Newport, about a dissatisfied wife and her rich but gormless husband. One is left to wonder whether the line refers to objects or to women.

Wharton’s writing frequently draws parallels between the claustrophobia of an overstuffed parlor and that of marital suffering, and it is often through a rejection of architectural convention that her heroines express their hunger for freedom. (Think of would-be divorcée Ellen Olenska setting up house in her bohemian West Twenty-Third Street apartment.) In the late 1890s, Wharton, fatigued by the disorganized ostentation that she felt was transforming Newport into a “Thermopylae of bad taste,” began examining the relationship between architecture and psychology, ultimately developing a philosophy that called for the union of symmetry, classical proportions, and elegant utility. She outlined this trifecta of principles in her 1897 book, The Decoration of Houses, and later realized them in the construction of the Mount, the Lenox, Massachusetts, compound she codesigned following the sale of Land’s End in 1901.

Lenox, which lies in the shadow of the Berkshire Mountains, had already established itself as a summer enclave for wealthy New Yorkers by the time the Whartons purchased their 113 acres of lakeside farmland, but for Wharton the area retained a vestige of “hideous, howling wilderness,” as one unnamed traveler had described it two centuries prior. The outskirts of the land were still populated, albeit sparsely, by insular pockets of the “Swamp Yankees”—local vernacular for New England mountain people—that haunt the pages of Summer and Ethan Frome.

Wharton found in the countryside a respite from New York’s surveillance, relief from Newport’s extravagance, the freedom to choose her own company, and material. It was on Hawthorne Street that Wharton’s friend Ethel Cram was fatally injured by a horse kick to the skull, an event that served as the impetus for her 1907 novel, The Fruit of the Tree. One can drive past the train station where Wharton received out-of-town visitors like Henry James and English novelist Howard Sturgis. The steep decline from the town square was the site of the deadly 1904 sledding accident that inspired Ethan Frome. Kate Spencer, an assistant librarian at the Lenox’s public library, was injured in the accident; visiting the library this past fall, I found myself imagining the hours Wharton must have spent quietly studying her young friend’s scarred face and limping gait, searching her for evidence of the distance between public and private pain.

“It was only at The Mount,” Wharton recalled in her 1934 memoir, A Backward Glance, “that I was really happy.” The two primary—and parallel—themes that run through its pages are the histories of her writing and of her homes, mutually informative and enmeshed passions that surface even in her earliest recollections. The Mount is presented as the site that allowed Wharton to consolidate her power as a novelist, a house on a hill from which she could regard, from a slight distance, the life she was born into yet was savagely critical of.

In 1980, nearly a half century after the memoir’s publication, a cache of three hundred letters written by Wharton to a protégé of Henry James’s named Morton Fullerton was brought to market by a Dutch bookseller. Dated between 1907 and 1915, the letters—long thought to have been destroyed—offer proof of an extramarital affair with Fullerton that began at the Mount when Wharton was forty-five. Though the painful longing and ecstatic satisfaction that ricochet through these private missives is predictably missing from the memoir, the experience clearly inflected her recollections of the house and shaped the novels she wrote there. “You told me once,” she wrote to Morton in 1908, “I should write better for this experience of loving.”

Regardless of the revelations borne out by the affair, it was only after discovering that Teddy had embezzled nearly fifty thousand dollars from her trust to fund a Boston apartment for his mistress and the pleasure of several chorus girls that Wharton brokered a deal for her escape. She let go of the Mount to let go of the marriage, leaving in 1911, after handing the deed to Teddy in exchange for her freedom. By the time her boat arrived in France, the house had been sold. (Read more.)


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