The Republic of Letters

Edith Wharton at the Start of Her Career

Hermione Lee

The House of Mirth made Edith Wharton, at the age of forty-three, a best-selling author and a household name. Serialized in Scribners magazine from January to November 1905 and published in October 1905, it sold 30,000 copies in its first three weeks of publication (the most rapid sales of any Scribner novel up till then) and 140,000 copies in its first year. Alongside macho realist epics like Frank Norris’s The Pit or Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, it was one of the biggest “serious” best-sellers of the turn of the century. By the time it was published it seemed there was nothing Wharton could not do. Novels, novellas, stories, plays, poems, books on Italy and on house decoration: by 1905 it is hard to believe that she had ever had an uncertain or unproductive phase. In the six years between publishing her first book of stories, The Greater Inclination (1899), and The House of Mirth, she had, as she put it so dramatically in her 1934 autobiography A Backward Glance, “broke[n] through the chains which had held me so long in a kind of torpor.” A language of rebirth and excitement “the incredible had happened!”—“my recognition as a writer had transformed my life”) fills this part of her autobiography: “At last I had groped my way through to my vocation. . . . The Land of Letters was henceforth to be my country, and I gloried in my new citizenship.” A new land, a new century, a new life: she makes it sound like a sudden transformation. In fact (as she also says, in between these ecstatic bursts) this was a gradual process.

In A Backward Glance, she looked back with painful amusement on the tentative beginnings of her literary career. She describes herself as a naive, genteel New York lady. Wharton sent a few poems (on Italian and artistic themes) to Scribners magazine and to a few other reputable, family-table periodicals. They were “copied out . . . in my fairest hand and enclosed . . . in an envelope with my visiting card.” Faint traces of that amateurish approach remain in some of her early letters to William Crary Brownell, senior editor at Scribner’s: “I am new at proofs”; “Pray make allowances for my inexperience and tell me what to do.”

Mrs. Edward Wharton’s first acceptance letters arrived in the winter of 1888, followed by her first cheque in July 1889 (twenty dollars for her poem “The Last Giustiniani”). She remembered rushing up and down the stairs of her Madison Avenue rented house, not knowing how else to work off her excitement, and setting off, keen and hopeful, to Scribner’s publishing house at 743—45 Broadway, to make friends with Brownell and with Edward Burlingame, the editor of Scribners magazine. (Scribner’s stayed on Broadway until 1894, when it moved to 153—57 Fifth Avenue, in a fine building designed by Ernest Flagg. In 1913 it moved much higher up Fifth Avenue, to 597—99, a building which is now a cosmetics chain but still has the legend “Charles Scribner’s Sons” on the side.) Burlingame started to publish her stories as well as her poems: the first, in July 1891, was “Mrs. Manstey’s View,” which in 1893 appeared in Scribner’s Stories of New York, bound in very dark red cloth with a gilt-edged title: stories by Anne Eliot, Bliss Perry, George Hibbard, John Wood, and (last) Edith Wharton, with a few delicate black-and-white illustrations and a note saying that this was supposed to be “an example of book-making as dainty and perfect as possible.” This was her first book publication—and the bleakness of the story belied its ladylike setting.

Through the 1890s there were a few more sightings of Wharton in Scribners and Century—nine poems (mainly inspired by Italy), six more stories, an essay on Tuscan shrines. Because of their interest in her, Scribner’s rather reluctantly took over her first book, The Decoration of Houses, from Macmillan. The Greater Inclination, her first book of stories, was published in 1899. And then she was off. With astounding speed, there followed a novella, The Touchstone (1900), a second volume of stories, Crucial Instances (1901), the two-volume Valley of Decision (1902), a translation of a German play, a short novel, Sanctuary (1903), another book of stories, The Descent of Man (1904), two books on Italy, and The House of Mirth. (All were published by Scribner’s except Italian Villas, which Century had serialized and so published in book form; from The Descent of Man onward, until the mid-1920s, all her English editions were published by Macmillan.) Yet for all this activity, there were also doubts and hesitations.

The first five stories she published in periodicals in the 1890s were not included in The Greater Inclination. These were “Mrs. Manstey’s View,” a story of sad urban confinement and poverty; “The Fullness of Life,” a painful, revealing fable of a woman on her deathbed who has to choose, for the afterlife, between her husband’s “creaking boots” and her high-minded soul-partner (she is doomed to choose the boots); “That Good May Come,” about a New York poet who sells his talent and loses his “moral footing” for the sake of his poor little sister; “The Lamp of Psyche,” the marital disillusionment of a woman who finds that her Parisianized husband did not fight in the Civil War; and “The Valley of Childish Things,” her group of ironical fables about American infantilism and wastefulness.

Burlingame sent a good many polite rejection letters in the early days. He thought “The Valley of Childish Things” too esoteric (it was published in Century magazine), and “Twilight of the God,” a disillusioning Newport re-encounter between ex-lovers, too obscure. His most mistaken rejection was of her long, grim story “Bunner Sisters.” Wharton tried this on him twice, in 1892 and 1893: “Though I am not a good judge of what I write, it seems to me, after several careful readings, up to the average of my writings.” But “Bunner Sisters” would not be published until 1916, in her wartime volume Xingu. Even then Charles Scribner did not want to publish it as a separate novella because it was “just a little small for the best results in separate form.” So this subdued, realist masterpiece of thwarted lives never gained the status it would have had if it had come out as a separate novella, like Ethan Frome.

Some early stories were left out of The Greater Inclination because of her anxieties about self-exposure. “The Fullness of Life” (published in Scribners magazine in 1893) gave too much away about her isolation and frustration, even if couched in metaphorical terms, like her much-quoted comparison of a woman’s life to “a great house full of rooms”:

“There is the hall, through which everyone passes in going in and out; the drawing room, where one received formal visits; the sitting-room, where the members of the family come and go as they list; but beyond that, far beyond, are other rooms, the handles of whose doors perhaps are never turned; no one knows the way to them, no one knows whither they lead; and in the innermost room, the holy of holies, the soul sits alone and waits for a footstep that never comes.”

“And your husband . . . never got beyond the family sitting-room?”

“Never,” she returned impatiently; “and the worst of it was that he was quite content to remain there.”

Burlingame kept asking her to revise this story, but she set it aside. Within a few years of these early stories’ magazine publications, she looked back on them as “the excesses of youth.” “They were all written ‘at the top of my voice,’” she said in 1898, “& ‘The Fullness of Life’ is one long shriek.”

Anxieties, illness, and distractions held up that first volume for a long time. The letter she wrote to Burlingame after he suggested publishing it, in 1894, is poignant and revealing: “I seem to have fallen into a period of groping, & perhaps, after publishing the volume, I might see better what direction I ought to take and acquire more assurance (the quality I feel I most lack). . . . I am very ambitious to do better. . . . I have lost confidence in myself at present.”

She already had a strong enough sense of herself as a hot property to threaten to leave.

There are many other such moments in the early letters. “I have no confidence in my powers of self-criticism so soon after finishing a story,” she wrote in February 1898. In the end, only two of the stories in The Greater Inclination (“The Pelican” and “The Muse’s Tragedy”) had come out already in magazines; the others in the volume were written in a concentrated burst, at her Newport estate, Land’s End, in the summer of 1898. When the book came out, she described them as child-patients she had been nursing: “The poor little stories have been reclaimed, as it were, inch by inch, from almost continuous ill-health & mental lassitude.”

Her friend and confidant Walter Berry encouraged her with examples of other great authors who had suffered from lack of confidence, like George Eliot feeling unsure about Middlemarch. When she burst out to him, in the throes of The Valley of Decision, that “with all my trying I can’t write yet . . . there isn’t a single sentence in the book with natural magic in it—not an inevitable phrase,” he quoted Flaubert on Madame Bovary to her: “Je ny vois rien que du noir . . . ça me semble petit. Rien qui enlève et brille de loin,” and added, “Ha, ha!” But it took a long time for her to gain assurance. “I am growing nervous about my book title,” she wrote to Brownell in December 1900 about her second book of stories, Crucial Instances: someone had told her it was “presumptuous.” Fears of writing too little were superseded by fears of writing too much and too quickly. Brownell replied reassuringly: “I wonder how you got the ‘feeling’ that I, for one, had begun to think you were writing too much. I have never noted the slightest empirical evidence of that. And as to ‘publishing too hurriedly,’ I thought the lapse of a year between books long enough.” Even after The House of Mirth, she told Burlingame that “I am always afraid of over-psychologizing, & this [in The Fruit of the Tree] has perhaps led me to the opposite extreme.” It took time for her confidence and authority as a novelist to assert itself.

But from the moment she started to publish, the idea of a life without writing became horrifying to her. A poem called “Finis,” scribbled on the back of one of her 1890s Italian poems, is ostensibly a fantasy of a life without reading; but the word “writing” lurks before the word “books” in the last line.

The postman’s ring, the doctor’s call,
The damage done by the plumbers’ men,
The rise in wages, the mercury‘s fall,
Knitting-needles and crochet-hooks,
An afternoon nap in a nice warm shawl,
And now and then, as a special treat,
A funeral passing down the street.
That’s the way the future looks
When I’ve grown tired of books.

The Greater Inclination was a success. It sold about three thousand by the end of the year (very good for a volume of stories, Brownell told her) at $1.50, of which Wharton took 10 percent. The contract was witnessed (as many of her contracts would be) by Walter Berry. The largely respectful reviews, in America and England (where Scribner’s had sent five hundred copies to John Lane), established two standard responses to her work, both of which would come to irritate her. One was to call her a female Henry James, the other was to accuse her of being a cold fish—of “lack of sympathy” and “cool detachment.” Still, “I don't mind being called ‘cynical’ & ‘depressing’ by the sentimentalists,” she wrote—coolly—to her friend Barrett Wendell. In spite of such reservations, her success seemed miraculous to her. Were there really people going into shops and asking for a book by Edith Wharton?—and “the clerk, without bursting into incredulous laughter, would produce it, and be paid for it, and the purchaser would walk home with it and read it, and talk of it, and pass it on to other people to read!”

With the same formidable drive that fuelled her Italian researches and her house-making, she now hurled herself into her life as a professional author. She had already been extremely assertive about The Decoration of Houses, negotiating strenuously between her co-author, Ogden Codman, Scribner’s, and the designer she insisted on having, Coddy’s friend Daniel Berkeley Updike, who owned the Boston Merrymount Press.
At every stage, she took control. The decorations were too small, she told Brownell, and furthermore there should be fifty-six, not thirty-two, plates. The title page was no good: “I daresay I have already gone beyond the limits prescribed to a new author in the expression of opinion; but, since you send me the title page, I shall consider myself justified in criticizing it. To anyone who cares for old Italics, such lettering seems very inadequate.” The right reviewers had to be lined up (these included Berry, who fulsomely praised the book he had helped to write, in the pages of the Bookman). She would smooth the book’s path in England by sending it to all the right architects and critics.

She was determined and choosy, and she had a high-handed manner—not unlike her mother’s—when she felt she was not being treated properly. “Gentlemen, Am I not to receive any copies of my book?” she wrote in March 1899 to Scribner’s, a week after The Greater Inclination had come out. A stinging letter went out in April about their promotion—the sort of letter Scribner’s was always getting from its authors. (“You can almost hear the sigh with which Charles Scribner took up his pen to reply,” wrote the firm’s historian, Roger Burlingame.) “I don’t think I have been fairly treated as regards the advertising of The Greater Inclination,” she wrote: “Certainly in these days of energetic & emphatic advertising, Mr. Scribner’s methods do not tempt one to offer him one’s wares a second time.”

“Energetic & emphatic” could be a self-description. And she already had a strong enough sense of herself as a hot property to threaten to leave. With every book that followed there would be the same exacting forthrightness. Did she like the cover for The Valley of Decision? “Words fail to express how completely I dont like it.” Her fierce negotiations with Richard Gilder over Italian Villas and Their Gardens were typical. She had long-running arguments about whether her books should be illustrated, which came to a head with The House of Mirth, where she lamented that she “sank to the depth of letting the illustrations be put in the book—& oh, I wish I hadn’t now!” (In her own copy, she ran a line through the list of the illustrations and cut them all out of the book.) She had no timidity, from the start, about criticizing books sent to her by more established writers. A firm letter to Robert Grant in 1904 told him exactly what she disliked about his novel The Undercurrent, criticizing the loss of “forward movement” toward the end and the over-prominence of a minor character, which she said made her “rather cross.”

It’s something like this—Every piece of fiction is an anecdote that exemplifies something, an instance. The lives of your characters are bound to touch at all points other lives irrelevant to the special anecdote you are telling about them, & part of the process of art is to discard these irrelevances, however interesting they are in themselves.

She always hated the business of author photographs: “The last ‘impression’ I saw looked like a combination of a South Dakota divorcée & a magnetic healer.” She found choosing titles for her story collections difficult, and usually wanted something the publishers found too obscure. Trying out alternatives for The Greater Inclination she noted: “I fear that ‘Middle Clay’ would be classified as a manual of geology by the librarian who put Mill on Liberty & Mill on the Floss in the same category.” She hoped (she told Burlingame in 1898) that she was not “uncertain, coy & hard to please.” Still: “I always like to make my business arrangements as definite as possible” and “I always care very much for the make-up of my books.” After one of her moments of anxiety, Brownell wrote to her with feeling: “We have no idea of vagueness & vacillation in connection with you.” “When are you going to ‘sag’ just a little, I wonder,” he wrote with awe and affection in 1901. “You seem to tauten up every time. I hope the strings won’t snap. They won’t in my day, anyhow, probably.”

William Crary Brownell was a literary editor of immense dedication. His “Letter Book,” covering many years, contained copies of hundreds of long, handwritten, meticulous letters to his authors. This gentlemanly politesse sums up the generation of high-minded bookmen who started Wharton’s career and adjudicated on her early work. Their paternalistic assumptions about her as a “lady” writer, expected to “defer to their expertise” and to reach only a small, elite audience, were energetically challenged by Wharton from the start, in her determined arguments with them over every aspect of book publishing. She would leave them, outlive them, and eclipse them. By the time she stopped writing—that is, when she died—that 1890s world of letters had the look of a faded daguerreotype. The genteel censoriousness of Charles Scribner, known in the trade as an “old Dodo “ who would not publish George Moore’s Esther Waters in 1894 because of its “plainspokenness,” or of Richard Gilder at the Century, who refused to put the thrilling but dangerous Whitman in his family magazine, or of Frederick Macmillan, her English publisher, who turned down H. G. Wells’s “new woman” novel, Ann Veronica, in 1909 on grounds of indecency, took Wharton back to the attitudes of her parents’ generation. From the old New York institutions like the Century Club, these gentlemen “continued” (as she put it, severely, in her memoir) “to turn a contemptuous shoulder on society.” They would come under threat from new methods in publishing and new readers of fiction, in just the way that Old New York was threatened by new money and social changes. The sort of courteous, unassertive, elegantly handwritten letter Frederick Macmillan would write to Mrs. Wharton about Madame de Treymes was, by 1907, beginning to look very old-fashioned:

I find it a charming little story which certainly ought not to remain buried in the back numbers of a magazine. I fear that we shall not be able to do very much with it, but if you agree, we shall be happy to bring it out immediately as a little half crown volume. . . . Even if it does not bring you in a great deal in royalties, it will serve to keep your name as a novelist before the English public. I am very grateful to you for refusing to listen to the offers of other publishers. It will be our aim to see that you do not lose anything by remaining in our hands.

And the determined Mrs. Wharton made sure that she did not. Once Macmillan started to publish her in England (after a false start with John Murray and A Gift from the Grave, his poor title for The Touchstone), the firm received streams of letters from her about the need for extensive advertising and larger advances; fierce complaints about misprints and punctuation, paper quality and late royalties; and rueful acceptance that her readership in England would never be as large as in America. (She pitched The Custom of the Country to them, in the hopes of attracting more attention, as the story of a young woman who “has her eyes on London when the story ends.”) She never relaxed her vigilance with them, for instance, about their bindings of her books, which she always found too elaborate: “May I ask you for The Reef to go back to a simpler binding style without the florid blind tooling & in fact as little as decoration as possible & a cloth of a good dark red or blue? . . . I don’t see why fiction should necessarily be more decorated than other forms of literature.”

She asserted her authorial convictions from very early on. But when she began, these gentlemen of the publishing trade were her mentors. William Cary Brownell stood (as she told Daisy Chanler when he died in 1928) for everything that was in opposition to “Main Street”: “And Main Street remained to the end utterly unaware of him.” She wrote a tribute comparing him to Matthew Arnold for his firm sense of a cultural “centre,” his impartiality and discernment, and “the eagerest open-mindedness . . . combined with an unwavering perception of final values.” His passion for French culture greatly influenced the way she approached France. And she liked his moral, high-toned critical writing—as in this piece on George Eliot, published in the same 1900 volume of Scribners magazine as her story “The Duchess at Prayer”: “Her philosophy is of an ethical cogency and stimulant veracity that makes her fiction one of the notablest contributions ever made to the criticism of life. . . . No other novelist gives one such a poignant . . . sense that life is immensely serious.” Personally, she found him “shy and crepuscular.” The fastidious tone of his letters reflects that character. It would be better, he thought, not to republish “The Line of Least Resistance” if it had caused personal offense. The Decoration of Houses would hardly make “a popular success. . . . Its effect is distinctly, we should say, to an intelligent and educated rather than to the most numerous public.” Anything that might please that fiction-reading public (which was getting more numerous by the minute) risked lowering standards. In September 1899 he remarked that if The Greater Inclination “had done very much better one might have wondered if it were really as good as it seemed.” Wharton sent him a clipping in 1901 (presumably about The Touchstone) meant to amuse him: “Though beautifully written, the book will not fail to please.” With the saIes of The House of Mirth, she could afford to tease the firm of Scribner’s about this attitude: “I am especially glad to find . . . that you think its large circulation is a sign of awakening taste in our fellow-countrymen—at least 100,000 of them.”

Brownell was not completely unworldly: when Wharton was becoming a name to reckon with, after The Valley, he suggested she write a regular monthly article in the magazine about “books and general impressions. . . . People would look forward to what ‘Edith Wharton’s Department’ might contain. The rate of honorarium (delicious phrase—‘rate of honorarium!’) for it would be, say, 2 ½ cents per word.” Though he knew he needed to reach big audiences and could do so through Wharton, his tone about them is always disdainful. “As for ‘popularity’ of the grosser kind . . . you don’t seriously mean that you want that.” “How can characters seem ‘real’ to people who never ‘moved’ in the circles to which they belong.”

Edward Burlingame, who edited the magazine, was a more forthcoming and sociable fellow than Brownell; she remembered him as “a man of real cultivation” and “a good linguist.” It was he who moved her career along in its early stages, bearing with the slow evolution of the first collection of stories, helping her with the next two, Crucial Instances and The Descent of Man (which she dedicated to him), and bumping up her pace on The House of Mirth by starting serialization (in January 1905) before she had finished the novel. His cultural attitudes were similar to Brownell’s; she never forgot his warning to her not to become a “magazine bore.”

Richard Gilder, her editor at the Century, a handsome upper-class Philadelphian, a poet, and an artist, had, like Brownell, “an infinite capacity for taking pains.” He dealt personally with an impressive stable of authors, including Robert Louis Stevenson and Mark Twain, and he moved in all the same circles as Wharton. In the stormy 1890s literary debates, in which “naturalism” and “realism” came to blows with “romance,” and authors and critics made rival claims to the truest kind of American literature (Jamesian Europeanized refinement or everyday provincial American life; epic, determinist fictions of railroads and meat factories or domestic psychological dramas of the ordinary man), Gilder made a plea for the “ideal,” as opposed to “reality.” He knew that his magazine needed to “buttonhole a couple of million readers,” but he felt intensely that “the vulgarization of everything in life and letters and politics and religion, all this sickens the soul.” Whether it was the sight of a millionaire’s enormous, flashy steam yacht (the Hermione) berthed at Newport, or an author who felt it necessary to “stir up a violent stench in the language,” all coarse effects dismayed him.

Of the gentlemen of letters who played such an influential role in her early professional life, the most original and idiosyncratic was the printer Daniel Berkeley Updike. Berkeley (as he was known) was a close friend of Codman’s (and of another mutual acquaintance, the clever socialite Eliot Gregory, who wrote gossip columns called “The Idler” and seemed, true to his pen-name, to do absolutely nothing all his life except be charming and clubbable). For a short time, Pussy (Wharton’s nickname from childhood), Coddy, and Upsy made the kind of triangle she always enjoyed with her sexually ambivalent or homosexual friends. He could be on call as an escort (as when she asked the grand old Boston literary lady Annie Fields, in the summer of 1902, if she could bring Berkeley Updike as a substitute for her husband, Teddy). And he was the recipient of all Codman’s bitchy complaints about working for the Whartons. Bradley is going to Lenox, Codman wrote to his mother in July 1901, and “he will have some amusing tales of the W’s.” Berkeley was always trying to keep the peace between Codman and “the W’s,” reminding him (at the height of the rows over her estate in the Berkshires, the Mount) that “at heart you like them.”

As with Codman, her friendship with Berkeley Updike was rooted in a practical working relationship and admiration for his talents. A Rhode Islander with impeccable pedigree and connections, Updike was a printer and book designer of genius, “America’s scholar-printer.” At the Merrymount Press, which he founded in 1893, he worked for many years in a rewarding partnership with an Italian immigrant printer, John Bianchi. Influenced, but not confined by, the Arts and Crafts movement, Updike’s aim was “to make work better than was currently thought worthwhile.” His products (which covered a huge range of items, from bookplates and diplomas to fine editions and musical scores) were scrupulously and imaginatively done; the work was always delicate and unostentatious. A religious man (his greatest work was the Merrymount Press Book of Common Prayer of 1928), he viewed his work much as Gilder or Brownell did: “Today’s restless and complex life may be reflected in our work. . . . Tasteless exaggeration . . . may be traced to certain evil qualities in American life.” “Tradition is not a formula. It is the tribute which every true artist pays to the great men who have gone before him. . . . Adequate craftsmanship—like great art—should convey a sense of order, security, and peace, not of restless excitement.”

As if a curtain were about to go up on a play in an elegant theater, Wharton came before the public in high-toned fashion, every inch the lady.

Wharton, who knew him socially, demanded that Scribner’s use him for The Decoration of Houses (he had worked for them before), and he produced a grand, elegant, and beautiful book. After that he designed six more of her covers (The Greater Inclination, The Touchstone, Crucial Instances, The Valley of Decision, Sanctuary, Madame de Treymes) and, much later, The Book of the Homeless. Updike was a melancholy, perfectionist character, whose dedication to his work did not bring him great happiness: “I have not seen life in the round,” he wrote sadly to Wharton a little before her death in 1937. But he was a good friend, writing with warm sympathy and understanding when she was divorced. She used his work as her symbol for good looks and high standards: “I feel like a new edition, revised & corrected, in Berkeley’s best type.”

Dressed up by Berkeley in gilt-edged, olive-green or reddish-brown covers, decorated with delicate curlicues and Italianate arabesques, the design framed in a box, as if a curtain were about to go up on a play in an elegant theater, Wharton came before the public in high-toned fashion, every inch the lady. And in the magazines in which she made her name, with poems, stories, travel articles and serializations, she stepped on stage in a middle-brow, decorous context. Her bitter, ruthless stories of the 1890s and early 1900s, of marital unhappiness and emotional betrayal, jump out from this setting with extraordinary force and freshness. Wharton’s fiction kept company with some of the big names of the time—Robert Louis Stevenson, George Meredith, J. M. Barrie, Harold Frederic, William Dean Howells, Theodore Roosevelt, and Rudyard Kipling (whose story “Wireless” appeared in the same edition as “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell”), and with hundreds of now-forgotten names, too. Men wrote on “American Big-Game Hunting,” “Personal Recollections of Gettysburg,” ocean steamers, the Canadian Mounties, “Torpedo Boats in the War with Spain,” and the New York Rapid Transit System. Women (like Josephine Preston Peabody, Martha Gilbert Dickinson, and Theodosia Pickering Garrison) wrote love poems and nature poems, touching domestic stories, and essays on “Collecting Old China in New England” or “The Woman’s Paris.” “A Little Brother of the Books,” by Josephine Dodge Daskam, in the same issue as “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell,” told of the death by typhoid of a little crippled boy who loved reading. A poem on motherhood by E. C. Martin (“If mothers by their failings were condemned/Oh what an orphaned planet this would be!”), with tear-jerking illustrations, came out in the same issue as Wharton’s cynical satire on an exploitative and superficial mother, “The Last Asset.” In the same issue as “The Lamp of Psyche,” Wharton’s early story of marital disillusion, there was a polemical piece by Robert Grant (whose fiction Wharton admired) on the position of women: “It seems to me imperative to go back to the original poetic conception of woman as the wife and mother, the . . . self-abnegating companion of man. . . . The eternal feminine is what we prize in woman, and wherever she deflects from this there does her power wane and her usefulness become impaired.”

Gender roles were a burning topic when Wharton began to publish; so were the changing conditions of the literary marketplace. William Dean Howells wrote in 1893 on “The Man of Letters as a Man of Business,” commenting on how easy it was nowadays to make a living from serial publication in magazines, which meant that “in the US the fate of a book is in the hands of the women.” The “Points of View” column in Scribners for 1900 lamented the use of an author’s name for product promotions (“He beheld his name attached to the Cigar That Made Milwaukee Famous”), or the proliferation of books: “When ‘An Empty Life,’ by Sagamore Mullins, sells 150,000, he groans, because he knows there is nothing between the covers of that book that is really worth attention, and he wishes that the 150,000 buyers were getting something better worth their money and their time.”

Wharton’s self-creation through the 1890s and 1900s as a woman writer who could not be categorized under “feminine” or “sentimental,” and a highly cultured author who could also appeal to a big audience, was a remarkable one. The toughness of her stories was at odds with the context she published in, and with her illustrators, who softened and prettified her sharp edges. Maxfield Parrish’s gorgeous Italian Renaissance illustrations for “The Duchess at Prayer” (which led to his work for Italian Villas) glamorized its chilling story of murderous domestic tyranny. The romantic pictures by Walter Appleton Clark for Sanctuary (fashion-plate ladies in attitudes of tortured anxiety) made it look more like a society drama than a claustrophobic study in maternal possessiveness.

The modernity and ruthlessness of The House of Mirth is astounding, in the context of its first magazine appearance. It came out in monthly parts, from January to October 1905 (and like a Victorian novelist such as Charles Dickens or William Makepeace Thackeray, she had not finished writing the novel when serialization began). It sat next to items like “The Dogs of War,” by Lieutenant Charles Norton Barney; “Flowers of May,” colour drawings by Sarah Stilwell; “Herculaneum and Its Treasures of Art,” by Russell Sturgis; “Italian Recollections: More Letters of a Diplomat’s Wife,” by Mary King Waddington; and poems (“Amid the Orchards,” “The Awakening”) by Mary Findlater, Hildegarde Hawthorne, and Lucy Leffingwell Cable. The full-page illustrations she so hated (by A. B. Wenzell), tied to dramatic moments in the text, show elongated, glamorous figures, mostly in evening dress, frozen in stiff dramatic poses, like the cast of a conventional Edwardian play.

BUT TIMES WERE CHANGING. The 1890s saw the start not only of Wharton’s publishing career but of dramatic shifts in the literary marketplace. Book-selling was now big business, and by the early 1900s the “Commercialization of Literature” had become a major item of controversy. There was an increasing emphasis on the author and book as product, an exploitation of personality to sell books, and an insistence that the writer should be accessible and provide entertainment, often with film rights in mind. By the 1910s and 1920s, with a huge fiction boom before the war and a “tidal wave” of book publishing after it, books were being promoted to bigger and bigger audiences, via billboards, streetcars, sandwich men, newspapers’ book pages, electric signs, advertising campaigns on radio, book sections in department stores, jacket covers, blurbs, and personal testimonials. By the 1930s, the ways of selling books to the public which we take for granted—including agents, bidding wars, author interviews, and book tours—were in place.

For some literary writers, this increasingly commercialized marketplace provoked a fearful resistance or disdainfully elitist withdrawal. But Edith Wharton’s reaction was tougher and more complicated. Like many writers of her generation, she had mixed feelings about her own exposure. By upbringing, class, and temperament she was a cultural elitist who believed in keeping up the highest standards. In the 1900s, her letters are full of attacks on American culture and literary standards. With Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy in mind, she told Bliss Perry, the editor of the Atlantic Monthly, in 1905 that she admired him for “maintaining the tradition of what a good magazine should be, in the face of our howling mob of critics & readers; & I hope the Atlantic will long continue to nurse its little flame of sweetness & light in the chaotic darkness of American ‘literary’ conditions.” Come and visit her, she urged, “& let us despair together of The Republic of Letters.” Writing to her friend Sally Norton, she repeatedly returned to her theme of American vulgarity and bad taste: “Did you see . . . that the heirs of some recently deceased ‘multi’ were building a memorial to him, in the shape of a sky-scraper office building?—Truth is still far ahead of fiction!” The introduction of business courses at Harvard plunged her into “such a depth of pessimism” that she wanted to break into “Biblical curses ... Alas, alas!” Many of her stories of the 1890s and 1900s dealt with the conflict for the artist or author between privacy and publicity, high standards and popularity. This was a subject of profound anxiety for many other writers of the time, in England as well as America, among them Henry James, Willa Cather, and May Sinclair.

The discussion about the writer’s role always had to do with maintaining integrity, and that involved questions of privacy. From early on, Wharton was as concerned with decorum in her professional life as she was with good taste in house decoration. When her own biography was attached to her books, either in advertising copy or in reviews, she got very jumpy. Berry wrote to her at the end of 1899, evidently in response to a letter she had sent him about the publicity for The Greater Inclination: “Tell me, did Scrib really get off that thing in the clipping about your position being ‘fully as good as,’ etc. C’est pantagruelique! Oh, why couldn’t I be there to see the reporters waiting on the midnight doorstep.” Scribner’s asked for her agreement to use some personal copy in the advertising for The Valley, and she returned a list of (very discreet) facts “likely to appeal to Wanamaker’s clientèle.” (Wanamaker’s was Philadelphia’s biggest department store.) “You notice that I have not struck out the Times’s flattering allusions to my wealth & my first hand intercourse with fashion!” She joked to Sally Norton about “that undefinable Wanamaker Touch that seems essential to the booming of fiction nowadays.” She was pleased to hear from her friend Minnie Bourget, in July 1902, that in Florence people were talking of nothing but The Valley of Decision; but, she added hastily, she did not want this quoted in advertising: “I have never used a private letter in this way, & I think I’d rather not.” When James wrote a long letter to her about the novel, she forwarded it to Brownell, but warned him: “You will see there is a personal note in it, so don’t circulate it please, beyond Mr. Scribner & Mr. Burlingame.” Her position was complicated. She was elitist and fastidious, but she was not a genteel, highbrow novelist. She told Norton in 1902 that she did not want a novelist to be “intellectual,” but “vivid, simple, dramatic, & the rest.” She was not reduced (like some of the highbrows of her time) to inertia and reclusiveness by the standards of American culture. And she was eager for money and fame.

She was delighted to receive from Norton a copy of a “flaming advertisement” for The Valley of Decision, and to hear that “the Department Stores say they cannot keep up with the demand for the book.” Berry’s letters reflected similar mixed feelings. On the one hand he derided crude advertising or advised her not to write “down” to her audience “so as to crowd into the Six Best Selling Books.” On the other hand, sending her praise of The Touchstone, he told her that “if this sort of thing keeps up, you’ll never be able to inscribe ‘To the Happy Few’” at the front of the novels. He was always encouraging her to ask for more from her publishers. In January 1900: “Don’t forget to strike for more each time.” By way of encouragement for her negotiations on her first book of stories, he sent her an apt quotation from Kipling:

There once was a writer who wrote:
  Dear Sir: In reply to your note
       Of yesterday’s date
       I am sorry to state
It’s no good at the prices you quote.

High standards could go with high sales and big rewards, he believed. So did she. The proof came in 1905. She wrote to Charles Scribner on 11 November: “It is a very beautiful thought that 80,000 people should want to read ‘The House of Mirth’ & if the number should ascend to 100,000 I fear my pleasure would exceed the bounds of decency.”

Could you be very good and very popular? And if you were popular, rich, and famous, would that inevitably corrupt you and spoil your talent? Wharton started an autobiographical novel in 1913 or 1914 called “Literature,” which she worked on intermittently for many years, but never finished. It was interrupted by the war, and then hung fire. Eventually, it became Hudson River Bracketed (1929). Like that late novel and its sequel, The Gods Arrive (1932), “Literature” is about the making of a (male) American writer, whose childhood feelings about books are very close to her own. (It is also, painfully, about marriage.)

The ghosts of undated and abandoned projects lie thick in her archives.

A sort of Pilgrims Progress of the literary world, it was meant to deal with all the possible routes for a young writer entering the marketplace—abortive attempts at play writing, opposition from jealous critics, deviations into reviewing and magazine editing, writer’s block, the aftermath of success, posthumous glory. It would have a poet enthusiastically reviewing a rival’s book and citing all the weakest things (purposely) as an example of the poet “at his best.” There would be spoof advertisements for fiction: “This novel plumbs the depth of human emotions.” There was to be a popular novelist whose “art consisted in making the easy passages of his work so conspicuous that the hard ones—the ones he couldn’t do—were overlooked.” A Jewish critic, Levick (“a genius without creative faculty”) would give worldly, dry Flaubertian advice (not unlike Walter Berry’s) on what it took to be a good novelist: “It’s no use to ‘get up’ experience. . . . If it’s in your nature to go about the streets with a monkey and a hand organ . . . or to live with the cannibals, go and do it—but if what you really crave is house-life in a sanitary suburb, do that—a good novel’s just as likely to come out of one as the other.”

The notes for “Literature” show the same mixed feelings about the marketplace as her letters. At one point she uses the French word cabotin to describe “the author who works incessantly to create his own popularity . . . & is then, quite sincerely, the dupe of the illusion of celebrity he has himself created.” The word cabotin would come back in a 1932 story called “A Glimpse,” in which two artists, glimpsed by the narrator, may, he fears, turn out to be “mere tawdry cabotins.” Cabotin originally meant traveling actor or hack performer; cabotinage (in use in America from 1894) was “playing to the gallery,” or “showing off.” Wharton is attracted by the romance of the traveling actor, as in The Valley of Decision, but she is also horrified by the idea of self-promotion. Early in 1908, she turned down a suggestion that an essay she was writing on the poetry of Whitman and Anna de Noailles should be read out loud at the Théâtre des Arts in Paris: “It savoured a little of self-advertising.” Cabotins sell themselves: self-advertisement is, literally, to “sell the self.”

“Literature” was to be about a writer whose career was littered with false starts and mistakes. Wharton’s own writing life was, after 1899, so high voltage, so prolific and efficient, that it is startling to find it crowded, too, with unfinished novels, plans for unpublished stories, poems that stayed in manuscript form, and abandoned sequels to several of her novels. She often worked on two books at once, one of which would succeed and the other not, and she had several long-running projects which eventually turned into something different, or were given up. In the early days, she would switch unpredictably between different projects. “I never do write what I say I am going to,” she wrote only half-apologetically to Scribner in 1905. She did not always know whether what she was doing was any good, especially with her poetry. “There are degrees in prose & in poetry—below a certain point—well, it simply isn’t poetry; & I am not sure I’ve ever reached the poetry line.”

When Wharton talked in old age about her writing methods, she said (as many novelists do), that her characters “arrived,” “coming seemingly from nowhere,” complete with their names. They “then began to speak within me with their own voices.” It sounds from this as though she subscribes to the idea of the writer as a kind of unconscious medium, through which the narrative flows through onto the page. But she also says, firmly, that her characters never “walk away with the subject”: she knows “from the first exactly what is going to happen to every one of them.” So she describes a double operation (which parallels the mixture of cool analysis and deep emotion in her fiction). The process of writing “takes place in some secret region on the sheer edge of consciousness” but “is always illuminated by the full light of my critical attention.”

That double process can be traced in her archives. Most of her novels and stories, whether finished or unfinished, can be tracked from first thoughts to reviews. First there are the notebooks and “Donnée Books,” with plot suggestions, character lists, story outlines, and single aphorisms and epigrams waiting to find a good home. Then there are the résumés or “scenarios” of the plots sent to the publishers, usually much as in the final version. Often the manuscripts of the novels are prefaced by chapter summaries in the present tense. The manuscripts have all gone through a similar process of evolution. Before the typing stage, they are written in black ink on blue paper, with many crossings-out and corrections. Where these are so numerous as to have become illegible, strips of paper are pasted over the original sheet of paper with the new versions (themselves, often, corrected). Some sheets will have three or four strips laid over them, and sometimes the original page has been cut up and stuck on again at the bottom, so that bits of the original text show through the strips or continue below them. What can read as a smooth, easy passage of prose, with a feeling of complete inevitability and confidence in the phrasing, has often gone through several such scissor-and-paste jobs. Once the typing stage was reached, Jeanne Fridérich, Wharton’s last secretary, said that she sometimes had to retype the same pages more than ten times. (Wharton once said of her revision processes that she was “engaged in the wholesale slaughter of adjectives.”) But, Fridérich added, these were not fundamental alterations (corrections de fond): elle avait ses livres même avant de les écrire.

In the conversation between Ellen Olenska and Newland Archer in the carriage in The Age of Innocence, for instance, the manuscript develops like this:

1. “Is it your idea, then, that I should be your”
2. “Is it your idea, then, that we should go off together”
3. “Is it your idea, then, that I should be your mistress”
4. “Is it your idea, then, that I should live with you as your mistress since I can’t be your wife?” she asked abruptly.

(This, but without “abruptly,” was the final printed version.)

In the scene at the end of The House of Mirth when Lily slips out of consciousness, imagining that she is holding Nettie Struther’s baby, the manuscript changes read:

1. She settled herself into a position
2. She settled herself into an easier position, pressing the little
3. into an easier position, hollowing her arm to receive the little head, and holding her breath lest a sound should disturb the child’s sleep
4. should disturb the sleeping child

The final version is: “She settled herself into an easier position, hollowing her arm to pillow the round downy head, and holding her breath lest a sound should disturb the sleeping child.”

In The Reef, Anna’s desire to say goodbye to Darrow at Givré in the place where they were first reunited, is rewritten thus:

1. Anna wanted, before he left, to return to the place where they had sat on their first afternoon together. She was deeply sensitive to the appeal of inanimate things, the look of rooms and of landscapes, the color and texture of whatever, in emotional moments, wove itself into her dreams, and she wanted to hear Darrow’s voice, and to feel his eyes on her, in the spot where, for the first time, bliss had flowed into her heart.
2. Her sensitiveness to the appeal of inanimate things, to the color and texture of whatever wove itself into her emotion, made her wish to hear Darrow’s voice, and to feel his eyes on her, in the spot where bliss had first flowed into her heart.

(The printed version is slightly changed again.)

In all such key scenes, Wharton knew exactly what she wanted the scene to do and what the atmosphere should be like, but the detail is fine-tuned. Even the unfinished fragments that fill her archive (like the “Beatrice Palmato” draft, written in pencil) are heavily corrected. And even after the success of The House of Mirth (which had been taking tentative shape in her notebooks since 1900 under the title “A Moment’s Ornament”), there were still plenty of such false starts. The ghosts of undated and abandoned projects lie thick in her archives, including “Beatrice Palmato,” “The Associates,” an unfinished novel of Franco-American marital relations, and two historical novels, one set in Morocco (“The Sapphire Way”), and one in eighteenth-century Hyères, “The Happy Isles.” Some false starts (like “Logic” or “Literature”) were abandoned because too self-exposing. Some were saved up. A discarded title for The Age of Innocence, “Old New York,” would be used four years later for a collection of novellas. An unfinished murder-mystery play, “Kate Spain,” based on the Lizzie Borden case, was turned into a story called “Confession.” An aborted wartime novel called “Efficiency” eventually became The Marne. But some promising stories were simply abandoned, testimony to her superabundance of energy, but also to self-doubt.

Wharton’s salon des refusés is full of tantalizingly interesting characters and situations: the missionary’s discontented daughter in Morocco who hates her new stepmother (“The Desert’s Edge”); the old English woman with a shocking secret past, giving German lessons in a dull New England town (“Finishing Governess”); the shy married professor falling in love with a perfectly sympathetic friend, who gives him “mental elbow room” (“Latmus”); the quietly snobbish Mr. Grayson (in “Tradition”) keeping his family in “self-complacent” seclusion in a small French town: “Father doesn’t much like America, does he? Or Americans either. I mean new Americans, the kind that didn’t arrive in time to sign the Declaration.” One promising undeveloped story was “The Great Miss Netherby,” in which a sophisticated, expatriate house decorator with a magical Mediterranean garden full of irises (and more than a touch of Edith Wharton about her) ironically inducts her American niece from Organ City (not as naive as she looks) into European worldliness—here, the pleasures of a comfortable bedroom:

Miss Netherby smiled. “You expected the usual sleeping-car shelf—the kind of thing that house-decorators consider jeune fille? I always thought Carpaccio’s St. Ursula must have inspired the first wagon-lits designer. But why shouldn’t a virgin want to stretch and turn over now and then? I like a bed like a swimming-pool myself.”

“I’m sure I shall too— . . .” her guest acquiesced.

“Do you [ever] read in bed?” Miss Netherby pursued. “Because here’s the switch. But no, of course you don’t.”

“Well, I hadn’t thought of it,” Penelope confessed brightly.

“You just sleep and sleep, you fortunate child?”

“Well, what’s a bed for?”

“Ah—what indeed,” murmured her aunt.

One early casualty was a scandalous novel of contemporary American manners, to be called “Disintegration.” (The title sounds gloomily fin de siècle.) She told Norton in May 1902 that she had “planned” it before she began The Valley, and that spring Berry was urging her not to do an Italian sequel: “That N.Y. novel ought to come next.” (So when James wrote in August advising her to “DO NEW YORK,” she was already at it.) She seems to have worked on it for several months in 1902, and then set it aside for “A Moment’s Ornament,” which developed by fits and starts through 1903 and 1904 (alongside stories and Italian articles) into The House of Mirth. But a sizable chunk of “Disintegration” got written. It was the story of a neglected young New York girl, Valeria Clephane, whose glamorous, “improper” mother has run away with another man, leaving her to be looked after by her Irish nurse (clearly based on Wharton’s nurse, Hannah Doyle) and her self-disgusted, ineffectual father, Henry Clephane. Val—like Henry James’s Maisie, but in what promises to be a very un-Jamesian novel—knows everything that is going on but cannot talk about it. The story of the Clephanes’ divorce, and the errant wife’s re-entry into New York and Long Island society as Mrs. Tillotson Wing, is seen through the eyes of a cynical family friend, George Severance. A chorus of New York gossips have their say: “One can’t stay shocked for ever—it’s such a strain on the moral muscles . . . besides, next to cutting a divorced woman there’s nothing so interesting as taking her up again.” The tone is harsh, funny, and dark. Henry Clephane is thinking of writing a novel, and has a big speech about it:

It’s to be a study of the new privileged class—a study of the effects of wealth without responsibility. Talk of the socialist peril! That’s not where the danger lies. The inherent vice of democracy is the creation of a powerful class of which it can make no use—a kind of Frankenstein monster, an engine of social disintegration. Taine saw it long ago—I’m only preaching from his text. But he merely pointed out the danger: he didn’t study its results. The place to study them is here and now—here in this huge breeding-place of inequalities that we call a republic, where class-distinctions, instead of growing out of the inherent needs of the social organism, are arbitrarily established by a force that works against it! Think of the mass of evidence our society supplies! No laborious researches—no years wasted on the trail of a connecting link. All the species are here, spread out under the immense lens of our social publicity. Why, I’m the finest kind of an example myself: I can take down my own symptoms and note the progress of the disease in my own case.

This is a blueprint for The House of Mirth, though the plot of “Disintegration” is not very like. Its names and subject matter would be used, as was her habit, in a much later book, The Mothers Recompense (1925).

Clephane’s big speech perfectly illustrates one side of Wharton’s writing in the work of her early forties which made her name: disillusioned, caustic, unflinching, philosophical, worldly-wise. (The other side, entering deeply and subtly into passionate anguish and heartbreak, is glimpsed in the characters of Val and her mother.) The draft of “Disintegration” is full of the sharp one-liners which were her hallmark: “She wore the most expensive gowns with a penitential air, as though she were under a vow of wealth.” Wharton’s “Donnée Book” for 1900 (one of a lifelong, intermittent series of writer’s notebooks) had page after page of these brittle, wicked, stagy epigrams. (Donnée, meaning germ or idea or situation for a story, was a term regularly used by Berry and Wharton in their letters, long before she came to know James, who had made the word very much his own.) Some of these phrases were saved up for future use: “Gryce was good-looking in a didactic way” eventually went into The House of Mirth; “Mrs Plinth’s opinions were as hard to move as her drawing-room furniture” would be kept, slightly rearranged, for “Xingu”; “She’s the kind of woman who runs cheap excursions to celebrities” came in handy in “The Muse’s Tragedy.” This was practice, like playing scales. “Mr. Roby had so evidently been a mere parenthesis in his wife’s existence. . . . They were as inseparable as those bores of one’s childhood, the Picts and Scots. . . . They would have been happily divorced years ago if it hadn't been for the poodle.” Some of these epigrams have a personal ring to them: “Her manner is cold—at first. She doesn’t light the fire till after the visitor has been shown in.” “She had harvested that crop of middle joy that is rooted in young despair.” “I foresee the day when I shall be as lonely as an Etruscan museum” (reused in “Copy”). After “A dim woman cloistered in ill-health,” Wharton wrote: “(Myself! E.W.).”

As she did in “Copy,” a story written as dialogue, she liked to turn these epigrams to theatrical use. One of the stories in The Greater Inclination, “The Twilight of the God,” took the form of a play—a Wildean, nineties drawing-room comedy of disillusion, in which the characters say things like: “I hope you like being surprised. To my mind it’s an overrated pleasure.” Some distaste for this manner is built into the story: the lover reproaches his ex-mistress for being “too pat” with her epigrams: “How much I preferred your hesitations.” In another story in The Greater Inclination, “The Portrait,” a painter, famous for the unforgiving realism of his portraits, says of a crooked financier: “His sentiments, good or bad, were as detachable as his cuffs.”

Detachable epigrams are the material for theatre as much as for fiction. Like Dick Thaxter in “Literature,” Wharton was experimenting as a dramatist as well as a novelist in the early 1900s. Her fascination with the theatre would stay with her, and profoundly affected the way she wrote fiction. It was the theatricality of Italy she wanted for The Valley of Decision; it was New York society as an illusory stage show, with Lily Bart performing, watched, framed, at the center, which structured The House of Mirth. She would work closely with the playwright Clyde Fitch on his adaptation of the novel for the stage in 1906 (which, as she expected, was a flop: too tragic for an American audience), and kept an interested eye on later dramatizations of her work, especially Ethan Frome.

Her fascination with the stage went back to her childhood, and there are traces in her archive of youthful verse dramas on high themes (Esther, Lucrezia Borgia, a Christian prince and a pagan Sybil, “The Banished God,” set on the slopes of Helicon). But when she started thinking about writing for the contemporary stage, she planned witty prose comedies of manners, not verse epics. She and Berry shared an interest in the theatre; he told her what he had been seeing, and liked the idea of her making her name as a dramatist and going to lots of plays with him. “Wouldn’t it be fun knocking about the theatres together!” (The romance of the theatre would play more of a part in her affair with Morton Fullerton.) Berry gave her his opinions on a Barrie play—“can’t be anything but rotten” —or on some “mawkish, treacly, pure-heart-interest” play he had just sat through. What would please an “average audience” was the big question. She was trying to write a play called “The Tightrope" early in 1900, and he thought she should call it “a comedy of Distemperament.” Would it have a big enough “situation,” he wondered. She should “work up some good society gags to put in here and there.” Or what about an eighteenth-century drama? “People love the costume of 100 years or so ago.” The following year, 1901, she was writing “The Man of Genius,” a Shavian comedy set in Hampstead, about a novelist whose secretary understands him better than his wife. “Believe me,” he writes to a fan who wants to meet him, “if a man’s books are worth anything it is because he has put the best of himself into them. What’s left is only good for the waste-paper basket.”

“The Man of Genius” was not produced, though there had been a private performance, Lenox Life reported in July 1901, of “two little plays” by Mrs. Wharton (whose stories “are very popular especially among society people”), at the home of George Gould, in Lakewood, New Jersey. Another, very different kind of theatrical experiment was her version of the abbé Prévost’s novel Manon Lescaut. The love story of the doomed, faithless society girl and the weak, childishly romantic Chevalier des Grieux appealed to her: she owned two copies of the novel, and her version of it was intense, clearly structured, and carefully historical. Berry thought it “simple” and good. In England in the spring of 1900, she tried to get it put on professionally through the theatrical agent Elizabeth Marbury; Berry hoped that “muffins and tarts” would be the celebratory outcome.

The language she favored was the very best and purest English—against which she played, brilliantly, the slang and colloquialisms of her talkative characters.

Again, in February 1901, it looked as if a production might happen in New York. Elizabeth Marbury was acting as agent, Charles Frohmann was the producer, and Julia Marlowe was supposed to play Manon (though in A Backward Glance Wharton said that she originally adapted it for Marie Tempest). One of Berry’s letters suggests that Marlowe left the production because Manon drowned at the end, and she “made objection to jumping in a tub of cold water.” Marbury’s friend, the actress and house decorator Elsie de Wolfe (never a favorite of Wharton’s), was to take over the lead: but this too went badly, and the production was canceled. “Now’s the time to drop the stage,” Berry wrote consolingly, “and go at it [fiction writing] hard.”

But her theatrical interest continued. In May 1902 she wrote an enthusiastic review of the American actress Minnie Fiske’s performance as Tess in an adaptation of Hardy’s novel at the Manhattan Theater (she also saw her as Nora in A Dolls House): she said it was unconventional and unsentimental, and brought “an unwonted thrill of reality” to the American theatre. And she had her own small theatrical success in 1902, with a translation (done with the help of Anna Bahlmann) of a popular nineteenth-century German play by Hermann Sudermann. This seems an unlikely enterprise for her, though she had done a little translating for Scribner (three Italian stories, by Gabriele D’Annunzio, among others, for a Scribner volume of 1898, Stories by Foreign Authors). It was not her idea, but came out of an approach from Mrs. Patrick Campbell, in America with her company. Edith disliked her English acting, “like an elephant walking on the keyboard of a piano”—she preferred the French style. But she agreed to do the job, perhaps flattered by the approach—she was not, after all, a big name yet—and the play was put on in New York in October 1902, before touring, and playing in London in 1903. Wharton remembered the production as a flop, but the translation sold extremely well for many years, always “an unintelligible phenomenon” to her. She is caustic in her memoir about Mrs. Campbell’s demands, and about the mistranslation that was forced upon her of the German title, Es Lebe das Leben, as “The Joy of Living”—she wanted the “bitterly ironic” “Long Live Life.” It is hard to see what appealed to her in “a tragedy based on the German ‘point of honour’ in dueling,” full of “long German speeches” likely to be “a severe strain” on English and American audiences—apart from the chance of launching herself into the theatre. Perhaps the play’s ironic treatment of German divorce laws had some interest for her, in this story about a middle-aged politician’s wife with a weak heart, whose past (in the shape of her husband’s political rival) catches up with her and leads to a dread of exposure and scandal. But the real fascination evidently lay in the character of Berta, the “woman who pays,” whose speeches about her past love affair leap out of the rest of the translation. She becomes an Edith Wharton character:

“I never gave you up. I never ceased to long for you, passionately, feverishly, day and night . . . all the while I was playing the cool, quiet friend.”

“We’ve grown old, you and I. There’s a layer of ashes on our hearts . . . who knows what we were like before the fire went out. Not a trace is left to tell. . . . The words are forgotten, the letters are destroyed, the emotions have faded. Here we sit like two ghosts on our own graves.”

For a moment, a powerful voice cuts through the ridiculous plot and the theatrical conventions, and Berta matters to us. “I am not conscious of sinning,” she says in her own defense. “I did the best that was in me to do. I simply refused to be crushed by your social laws. I asserted my right to live; my right to self-preservation. Perhaps it was another way of suicide.”

: these tragic theatrical heroines point toward Lily Bart. Wharton’s writing—plays, poems, stories, novels—in the prolific years leading up to The House of Mirth is absorbed in issues of freedom and choice, as much for writers as for women. She had been reading and writing and thinking about fiction since she was a child. And she developed, very rapidly, a forceful and distinctive style for her subjects. She did not cut her teeth as a literary journalist (like Willa Cather or Virginia Woolf), and she was not a natural or especially confident literary critic. But she had clear views on “the writing of fiction,” formed through “pondering” deeply on the “principles of her craft.” These views were very like her views on house design. “Your seeing a certain amount of architecture in it rejoices me above everything,” she wrote to Brownell in response to his praise of The House of Mirth: she had thought it too “loosely built.” Novels, like houses, should have a firm outline, a sound structure, and a quality of inevitableness. Wharton insisted on this when she wrote about her own work: “My last page is always latent in my first.” A work of art must make you feel that “it could not have been otherwise.” These qualities had to be produced through “a perpetual process of rejection and elision.” No extraneous material and no redundant commentary; “the objective attitude” was what she believed in. Her models were “the greatest French fiction,” in which the design was “most organic, most inherent in the soul of the subject.” The language she favored was the very best and purest English—against which she played, brilliantly, the slang and colloquialisms of her talkative characters.

All this may sound clinical, but she wanted depth of feeling and spontaneity in fiction too, and believed there was something mysterious about artistic inspiration. Form alone was not enough. She wanted fiction to be robust, realist, and far-reaching, as well as perfectly formed. It should have a sane and experienced relationship to the world. A “novelist of manners,” she said in 1902, writing critically of George Eliot, “needs a clear eye and a normal range of vision to keep his picture in perspective.” Writing about The House of Mirth (admittedly to the rector of her old church in New York, which may have made her more solemn than usual), she thanked him for understanding her motives, unlike the critics who had called it “unpleasant”: “No novel worth anything can be anything but a novel ‘with a purpose,’ & if anyone who cared for the moral issue did not see in my work that I care for it, I should have no one to blame but myself.” Beyond that, there had to be something larger than a statement of social conditions or a view of manners, something that could not be defined—as in the work of Tolstoy, which she thought created a kind of “luminous zone” stretching out beyond its own borders.

Because her early publishing years before The House of Mirth were dominated by the historical drama of The Valley rather than the grim realities of “Bunner Sisters,” and because she made her name as an analyst of upper-class moneyed Americans in Newport and New York, Wharton’s strong strand of compassionate realism—more Theodore Dreiser than Henry James—has tended to be undervalued. “Mrs. Manstey’s View” (written in 1890, published in 1891) imagined the life of an impoverished widow, whose view from her boarding-house window—her only pleasure—is to be obstructed by her landlady’s new extension to the building. The tender attention Mrs. Manstey gives to the drab backyards—from the magnolia next door to the distant smoke of a factory chimney—is a fine example of, in Robert Frost’s words, “what to make of a diminished thing.” In “Friends” (written in 1894, published in 1900), a woman gives up her job as a teacher in an industrial New England town because she thinks she is going to be married. But, abandoned by her lover, she returns to find her post has been given to an even needier—but much less intelligent—friend. Her inner struggle between resentment and generosity is very well done. By the end she feels she is in touch “with the common troubles of her kind.”

People have to get up and go to work and struggle to make a living—a more frequent theme in Wharton than she is given credit for. In one of the stories in The Greater Inclination, “A Cup of Cold Water” (1899), a young man who has fallen into debt and swindled his firm in order to marry the girl he loves drops through the surface of society (as Lily Bart will) and spends a night in a grim New York hotel, listening to the wretched story of the woman next door—a small-town adulteress—whom he has stopped from killing herself. In the morning, as he goes to face up to his own situation, he sees the city going to work: “that obscure renewal of humble duties was more moving than the spectacle of an army with banners.” He quotes to himself one of Wharton’s favorite lines from Hamlet: “For every man hath business and desire.”

“Bunner Sisters” is the most poignant and cruel of these early stories of America’s underclass. It is a story of two sisters making ends meet with their shabby-genteel shop (rather like Hepzibah’s shop in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables) in a run-down corner of New York. They are a fretful and fussy pair, the older one, Ann Eliza, self-abnegating and anxious, the younger, Evelina, spoilt and dissatisfied. A German clock mender, Mr. Raby, a creepy sensualist, courts them both. When Ann Eliza, who has always indulged her younger sister’s discontent, begins to fall in love with Mr. Raby, the narrator tells us: “She had at last recognised her right to set up some lost opportunities of her own.” But he marries the younger, takes her away, turns out to be a drug addict, and abandons her. The older sister is bereft; the younger at last comes home to die, having lost her baby, and Ann Eliza is left on her own.

The escape that proves to be no escape at all is a favorite theme of Wharton’s, and it is usually the woman who suffers.

This awful story is told with painstaking, Balzacian exactness and a somber interest—at times faintly condescending, but always precise and scrupulous—in these compressed lives, whether it’s the district, the neighbours, the sisters’ habits, an outing to Central Park on a Sunday, or a ferry-crossing to Hoboken to visit Mr. Raby’s friend, the German washerwoman Mrs. Hochmüller. This is a haunting piece of American urban pastoral, unlike anything else in Wharton:

When dinner was over Mrs. Hochmüller invited her guests to step out of the kitchen-door, and they found themselves in a green enclosure, half garden, half orchard. Gray hens followed by golden broods clucked under the twisted apple-boughs, a cat dozed on the edge of an old well, and from tree to tree ran the network of clothes-line that denoted Mrs. Hochmüller’s calling. Beyond the apple trees stood a yellow summer-house festooned with scarlet runners; and below it, on the farther side of a rough fence, the land dipped down, holding a bit of woodland in its hollow. It was all strangely sweet and still on that hot Sunday afternoon.

But there is nothing sweet about the banal, realistic dialogue between the sisters.

“Don’t you talk like that, Evelina! I guess you’re on’y tired out—and disheartened.”

“Yes, I’m disheartened,” Evelina murmured.

A few months earlier Ann Eliza would have met the confession with a word of pious admonition; now she accepted it in silence.

“Maybe you’ll brighten up when your cough gets better,” she suggested.

“Yes—or my cough’ll get better when I brighten up,” Evelina retorted with a touch of her old tartness.

“Does your cough keep on hurting you jest as much?”

“I don’t see’s there’s much difference.”

No moralizing or sentiment is allowed for, and the obvious opportunity for softness—the love of the older for the younger sister—is implacably undermined. A sympathetic upper-class New York woman, who has troubles of her own, makes occasional visits to the Bunner sisters’ shop, but we never find out her story, or even her name. It may be a Hitchcockian appearance by the author, but she never speaks as herself. She often uses an observant, dispassionate man as her narrator. And there is no autobiographical “I” in any of her fiction—unlike her poems, where her emotions pour off the page.

Wharton established her tone rapidly in the short works of the 1890s and the 1900s that surround The Valley and “Disintegration” (“early” work seems a misnomer, for a writer in her middle years with such a long period of self-education and apprenticeship behind her). Powerful, deep feelings—like Ann Eliza’s sense of her “lost opportunities”—run through narrow, constricting channels, pinned down in an unflinching language. As she said to Burlingame in 1898 about The Greater Inclination, “each of the stories is really a study in motives.” She is interested in the negotiation between the desires of individuals and the pressures of conventions, and she is fascinated by equivocation. “Life is made up of compromises,” says an embittered mother to her son’s idealistic girlfriend in “The Quicksand” (1902). Ideals are not much use: “How little, as the years go on, theories, ideas, abstract conceptions of life, weigh against the actual, against the particular way in which life presents itself to us—to women especially.” Her stories are full of characters who have cut down on their aspirations. “If you make up your mind not to be happy, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have a fairly good time,” says an elderly philosophical character in “The Last Asset” (1904). That tone of desolating stoic realism is typical—not that her characters are necessarily stoical themselves. All kinds of anguish, shame, cruelty, self-deception, and ridiculous behavior are on show—nowhere more than in the stories of marriage.

Her husband’s personality seemed to be closing gradually in on her, obscuring the sky and cutting off the air, till she felt herself shut up among the decaying bodies of her starved hopes. A sense of having been decoyed by some world-old conspiracy into this bondage of body and soul filled her with despair. If marriage was the slow life-long acquittal of a debt contracted in ignorance, then marriage was a crime against human nature.

In this story, “The Reckoning” (1902), Julia has run away from her boring husband and agreed to set up a rational, modern relationship with her new lover, free to be broken at any moment. Her new partner gives public talks about his “creed“ of a “new morality” in fashionable New York studios. But when he decides to leave her for a younger devotee, Julia is thrown back, in agony and confusion, on the old “instinct of passionate dependency and possessorship.” The liberating theories have not worked, and her life seems strange and alien to her: “Her room? Her house? She could almost hear the walls laugh back at her.” She goes to ask her ex-husband’s forgiveness, and wanders out—a woman alone on the streets—“into the darkness.”

The escape that proves to be no escape at all is a favorite theme of Wharton’s (in 1905 she told Brownell that “The Reckoning” was the story “most widely known & identified with my name”), and it is usually the woman who suffers. “The woman who pays,” as familiar a figure in the plays and novels of the 1890s as “the new woman,” is often at the center of Wharton’s work. From Lily Bart to Halo Vance (with one outrageous exception), it is the women in Wharton who have to conceal their feelings, suffer betrayal and social punishment, compromise their lives, and lose what they love. The politics of sexual injustice and inequality are very strongly felt, though she would have been appalled to be called a feminist.

In “Souls Belated” (1899), Lydia, a woman who has left her husband and run away with her lover, wants, like Julia in “The Reckoning,” to establish new terms for a sexual relationship. A devastating satire on her husband’s conservative family, clearly drawn from the Joneses and the Whartons (“Mrs Tillotson senior dreaded ideas as much as a draught in her back”), fuels her desire for her new “voluntary fellowship” not “to be transformed into bondage.” But at their fashionable Italian hotel on the Lakes, she spends her whole time trying to keep up conventional appearances, and is aghast when her bluff is called by a vulgar adulteress who is also waiting for her divorce. Lydia and her lover, perpetually exposed to each other’s emotions, come to realize that the benefit of marriage is “to keep people away from each other.”

Some of these painful stories of relationships end in compromise and repetition; some in violence, torture, and death. Wharton uses high-colored, dramatic genres which would appeal to the magazine market (ghost stories, historical costume drama) to force these personal situations to horrifying extremes. In “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell” (1902), a magnificent New England ghost story, Hartley is hired to replace the dead maid (the last in a succession of maids) of Mrs. Brympton, an invalid living in a large house in New England, whose children have died, whose husband is often away, and whose only companion is her friend Mr. Ranford: “He would read aloud to Mrs. Brympton by the hour, in the big dark library where she sat in the winter afternoons.” The husband turns out, by contrast, to be a bullying, tyrannical, jealous boor, “coarse, loud, and pleasure-loving.” Hartley becomes aware, with nervous horror, of the presence in the house of the lady’s dead maid, who is warning her to protect her mistress: but she cannot prevent the sinister tragedy from running its course. The beauty of the story is in the unsettling detail of the ringing bell, the empty corridor where someone has just passed, the feeling of unutterable things having taken place in the cold silent house, and the stifled, evasive suggestion of the husband’s sexual brutality. We never quite know what “dreadful things” have happened here: but we see the conspiracy between the women—the mistress, the maid, the ghost—tragically defeated.

Wharton’s imagination (like that of many other American writers, from Edgar Allan Poe and Hawthorne to James) enjoys playing with images of the living dead or of being buried alive. She does it as Grand Guignol in an Italian story like “The House of the Dead Hand” (written 1898, published 1904), and as New England comedy in one of her best early stories, “The Angel at the Grave” (1901). Here, Pauline Anson has passed up all opportunities of a life of her own, in her dedication to the memory, and the house, of her literary grandfather, only to find that no one remembers or values him, and that the “Life” she has dedicated her own life to writing has no market:

“It has been a long time for the public to wait,” [Miss Anson] solemnly assented.

The publisher smiled. “They haven’t waited,” he said.

She looked at him strangely. “Haven’t waited?”

“No—they’ve gone off; taken another train. Literature’s like a big railway-station now, you know: there’s a train starting every minute. People are not going to hang round the waiting-room.”

Miss Anson is rescued from desolation by a bright young man who comes in quest of her grandfather’s one scientific discovery—he may have identified “the missing link”—which is going, after all, to make his name. Wharton, unusually, allows for a consolatory comic ending here, but it does not lessen the poignancy of Miss Anson’s immured life, her own personal evolution balked by patriarchal force.

In many of these stories, there is a feeling of being stuck inside a dilemma from which there is no exit. This is the mood of Sanctuary, serialized and published in 1903, the first short novel she wrote after The Valley, an odd, troubled, creaky piece of work (she called it “Sank”) about a possessive mother, Kate Peyton, whose marriage to a weak, corrupt husband is a self-sacrificing compromise. She is trying to save her son from the same moral degeneration as his father. As in a play by Henrik Ibsen or George Bernard Shaw, the mother battles to maintain integrity once she has realized that “the fair surface of life was honeycombed by a vast system of moral sewage.” Meanwhile her husband’s mother, as usual with Wharton’s mothers-in-law, is capable of enveloping any scandalous situation in “a mist of expediency.” The story’s energy comes from Kate’s neurotic inability—something like Wharton’s mother, Lucretia Jones, with her son Frederic—to let go of her son’s life: “Her soul rejected the thought that his future could ever escape from her.” She is his “sanctuary,” however much he might want to escape her: the benign-sounding title turns out to be darkly ironic.

Story after story at this time deals with professional integrity, the betrayal of the artist’s true self, or the loss of privacy in the literary marketplace, told in a quizzical, jaunty, cool tone. In “Copy: A Dialogue” (1900), two famous writers, once lovers, agree to burn each other’s letters rather than publish them, “to keep the excursionists out.” Literary fame has destroyed them. “I died years ago,” says the woman novelist, Mrs. Dale. “What you see before you is a figment of the reporter’s brain—a monster manufactured out of newspaper paragraphs, with ink in its veins. A keen sense of copyright is my nearest approach to an emotion.” In “The Descent of Man” (1904) , a science professor who sets out, as a joke, to write a popular book of “pseudo-science” hits the jackpot, is inundated with interviews, advertising, and product sponsorship, and never gets back to his real work. (She chose this as the title of her 1904 volume “because I like that story rather particularly.”) The best of these is a ridiculous but painful story called “The Pelican” (1898). The coolly observant narrator witnesses the career of a very pretty widow called Mrs. Amyot, who embarks on a career of public lecturing to look after her son. Her mother was “the female Milton of America,” Irene Astarte Pratt. He hears her lecturing on Greek art and on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, displaying “the art of transposing second-hand ideas into first-hand emotions”—ideal for her audience of ladies. She becomes a fashionable “lecturing-machine,” but ten years on is found working a dim southern circuit, to tiny audiences, still pathetically claiming that she has an infant son to support. The son turns out to be an embarrassed bearded adult, mortified by his mother’s continuing exposure of him. The dispassionate narrator and the outraged son both view the woman who began her public career out of need and has continued it out of addiction as a pathetic figure of fun.

These subjects—the woman who pays, the threat to privacy, the commercialization of literature—are masterfully handled in “The Muse’s Tragedy” (1899) and in her first published novella, The Touchstone. (This was serialized and published in 1900, in between The Greater Inclination and Crucial Instances.) The two belong together: they are both about a woman’s unrequited love, the publishing of private letters, and the cost of literary fame.

In “The Muse’s Tragedy,” a young writer, Lewis Danyers, who has been much influenced by the great American poet Vincent Rendle, hears the story of Rendle’s “muse,” Mrs. Anerton, the “Silvia” of Rendle’s Sonnets to Silvia and the “Mrs. A” of his Life and Letters. He becomes fascinated by the woman who inspired and edited the poet’s work, and who was “the custodian of Rendle’s inner self, the door, as it were, to the sanctuary.” But Mrs. Anerton tells Danyers, eventually, that she was Rendle’s friend and patron, but never his muse or his lover. As for the suggestive gaps in his published letters: “Those letters I myself prepared for publication; that is to say, I copied them out for the editor, and every now and then I put in a line of asterisks to make it appear that something had been left out. You understand? The asterisks were a sham—there was nothing to leave out.” She renounces Danyers because she is afraid that, deep down, he is only interested in her because he wants to write the biography, or to turn her, “after a decent interval, into a pretty little essay with a margin."

In The Touchstone, Stephen Glennard makes a great deal of money—enough to set up a dear little home with the new wife he adores—from the sale of letters written to him by Margaret Aubyn, a famous woman novelist, now dead, who had loved him unrequitedly years ago. (Her best-known novel is called Pomegranate Seed. Many years later, Wharton wrote her own story called “Pomegranate Seed,” in which, as in The Touchstone, a woman comes back from the dead to haunt the man she loved.) The letters are published and are displayed and discussed everywhere. (This massive publicity is described with a mixture of excitement and revulsion.) Glennard is full of self-disgust at what he has done, seeing the private letters in print like “wounded animals in the open.” But he is “saved” by the forgiveness of his long-suffering wife, who understands that, through his remorse, he has at last become the person worthy of the love of the dead novelist. As well as being a powerful story about exposure and commercialization, it is, like “The Muse’s Tragedy”—and many more of her fictions—a story of a man who has failed to love a remarkable woman:

To have been loved by the most brilliant woman of her day, and to have been incapable of loving her, seemed to him, in looking back, derisive evidence of his limitations; and his remorseful tenderness for her memory was complicated with a sense of irritation against her for having given him once for all the measure of his emotional capacity.

The woman who has not been loved enough, who cannot find an escape route from her emotional dilemma, who is enclosed in the social role that has been constructed for her: all this pointed toward Lily Bart. But unlike the woman novelist Margaret Aubyn—or Edith Wharton—Lily has no lasting fame, no power to be heard, and no one to read her right.

Hermione Lee is the author of critical and biographical books on Woolf, Edith Wharton, Penelope Fitzgerald, and Tom Stoppard. She is Emeritus Professor of English Literature at Oxford University and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Originally published:
April 1, 2007


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