Madame de Treymes, Edith Wharton (1907)

And Madame de Treymes has left her husband?
Ah, no, poor creature: they don’t leave their husbands—they can’t.

 

treymesMadame de Treymes, published in 1907, is Wharton’s first work after The House of Mirth. As one of the themes in most of her fiction, this novella is very much concerned with the male/female dynamic around marriage. In this short work Wharton’s prose weaves a consummate tale of cunning and deceit, good intentions, hope and promise and the final let down.

The story revolves around the American Fanny de Malrive (née Frisbee) and her wish to divorce her husband. At this time in France, the husband must initiate the proceedings and though he granted a separation six years ago, he has not allowed for this greater termination of their union. As John Durham has proposed the need for a divorce is pressing and they hope the influence of Christiane de Treymes, her husband’s sister, can convince him. One of the issues holding back her consent to marry Durham is the requirement in the separation that she remain in France where her husband’s family has full access to their young son, which she believes will also be part of any divorce settlement. It is this control she fears and something she knows Durham cannot understand:


The moment he passes out of my influence, he passes under that other—the influence I have been fighting against every hour since he was born!—There is nothing in your experience—in any American experience—to correspond with that far-reaching family organization, which is itself a part of the larger system, and which encloses a young man of my son’s position in a network of accepted prejudices and opinions. Everything is prepared in advance—his political and religious convictions, his judgments of people, his sense of honour, his ideas of women, his whole view of life…Already he is only half mine, because the Church has the other half.

Gallantly, John responds, “If you’ll marry me, I’ll agree to live out here as long as you want, and we’ll be two instead of one to keep hold of your half of him.” And so, they are resolved.

We are never certain about the crimes Fanny’s husband committed, be they against her and their marriage or something else, but his family willingly supported the separation. Divorce is another matter entirely, though. Christiane is the most important member of his family and she has always been sympathetic to Fanny, so it is to her she and John turn. However, when John asks for her support, she asks him for help with her own serious matter: she is in debt after having taken her husband’s and family’s money and now has no means to pay it back. The debtor turns out to be her lover and she wants John to bail him out. Blackmail? He hesitates with his answer as such a despicable request sinks in. She responds:

Do you mean to give me nothing—not even your sympathy—in return? Is it because you have heard horrors of me? When are they not said of a woman who is married unhappily? Perhaps not in your fortunate country, where she may seek liberation without dishonor., But here–! You who have seen the consequences of our disastrous marriages—you who may yet be the victim of our cruel and abominable system; have you no pity for one who has suffered  in the same way, and without the possibility of release?…I don’t pretend to deny that I know I am asking you a trifle. You Americans, when you want a thing always pay ten times what it is worth.

He won’t do it. He won’t help her in this way. But in the end, Christiane still presses her brother for a divorce.

Months pass as the proceedings and court papers are worked out and prepared. John has gone abroad with his mother and sisters to wait out the decision. Days before the divorce is finalized, John pays Christiane a visit. When Christiane tells him the particulars of the settlement, which Fanny does not know yet, he is shocked to realize Christiane’s “payback.” It slowly dawns on him this means Fanny may not be able to proceed with the divorce, which of course means their marriage is in jeopardy. The full weight of the deceit contained in the divorce decree will come after the marriage and the only moral thing to do is to tell Fanny the truth now.

Wharton’s long residence in France gives her intimate access to the contrasts between American and French culture and views of American individualism vs French ties to family, church and society, which are of major importance in this novella. The story and characters are just as vivid as if this was one of Wharton’s longer works. And the ending is just as shocking! (A major spoiler, but since this is a novella it won’t take you long to know)!

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My Edition
Title: Madame de Treymes and Three Novellas
Author: Edith Wharton
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 1907
Pages: 70

Challenges: Back to the Classics

The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton (1920)

It was not the custom in New York drawing rooms for a lady to get up and walk away from one gentleman in order to seek the company of another. Etiquette required that she should wait, immovable as an idol, while the men who wished to converse with her succeeded each other at her side. But the Countess was apparently unaware of having broken any rule, she sat at perfect ease in a corner of the sofa beside Archer, and looked at him with the kindest eyes.

 

AgeinnocenceThis the fourth book I’ve read by Edith Wharton after Ethan Frome, Summer and The House of Mirth. I see similar patterns in all of them, but each one is from a fresh perspective, from the particular protagonist.

Wharton seems to be interested in the struggle between a person’s freedom versus society’s demands; between the ability to dream a new reality for yourself and what your class says you can and cannot do. In each of the aforementioned books the main character is caught in what they want for their life and their inability to get it. There is always interference and it is then that their conscience kicks in or their chance to choose is lost. And then they resign themselves to their fate. This is my perspective, anyway.

The Age of Innocence tackles marriage and after only a few pages in it is obvious that this particular courtship is not going to go well.

It is an opera night in 1870s New York City and the well-known Swedish opera singer Christine Nilsson is performing. Newland Archer is scanning the audience and rests his eyes on the box across from him where May Welland, his soon to be announced fianceé is sitting with her mother and aunt. He has the vantage to observe her unnoticed.

His thoughts at first are to his love and what he will make of her and how she has been raised to be molded by her husband. “…he contemplated her absorbed young face with a thrill of possessorship in which pride in his own masculine initiation was mingled with a tender reverence for her abysmal purity.” He is interrupted when a friend points out a young woman who has just entered the Welland box and whose foreign dress is causing a stir. She is Madame Ellen Olenska, May’s cousin, who has come from Europe having run away from her husband and has come home to get a divorce.

At first, Ellen is shunned by many of her American relations who fear the disgrace divorce would cast on their reputation. When Newland’s law firm takes on the handling of the divorce, he is asked by the family to intercede with Ellen and encourage her not to file. Later he is asked to dam this breach between Ellen and the family due to his marriage to May, which leads to a disaster as the two fall in love.

As Newland navigates the thorny rules and rituals of courtship and marriage, he exposes the faults and farce of the new state he is entering into. He catches himself musing on what he expects his wife to be; while not quite equals, he wants something that is more free than what he sees in his circle. But the way women are raised, how can this be?

He reviewed his friends’ marriages—the supposed happy ones—and saw none that answered, even remotely, to the passionate and tender comradeship which he pictured as his permanent relation with May Welland. He perceived that such a picture presupposed, on her part, the experience, the versatility, the freedom of judgment, which she had been carefully trained not to possess; and with a shiver of foreboding he saw his marriage becoming what most of the other marriages about him were: a dull association of material and social interests held together by ignorance on the one side and hypocrisy on the other.

Would his marriage become like so many others where the husband “had formed a wife so completely to his own convenience that, in the most conspicuous moments of his frequent love-affairs with other men’s wives, she went about in smiling unconsciousness…”

Newland reasoned that the things he loved about May–her frankness, her grace and loyalty were an artificial construct.

He felt himself oppressed by this creation of factitious purity, so cunningly manufactured by a conspiracy of mothers and aunts and grandmothers and long dead ancestresses, because it was supposed to be what he wanted, what he had a right to, in order that he might exercise his lordly pleasure in smashing it like an image made of snow.

Wharton pulls no punches here.

Ellen, through her life experiences, possesses the sexual and intellectual freedom that Newland desires in a woman, a wife. And yet she is not free. Even if Newland wanted to leave May, the lack of a divorce would stand in the way of their marriage. Ellen sees the futility of living in limbo and announces she is going back to Paris, presumably to her husband. And what Newland and men like him don’t understand, is that women like May see through the bars of their gilded cage; they understand what marriage really is and only pretend to ‘smile in unconsciousness.’ Sick at Ellen’s departure, Newland tells May he wants to take a trip. Without missing a beat she tells him she is pregnant and that she told Ellen so a few weeks ago.

“You know I told you we had a long talk one afternoon—and how dear she was to me.”

“But that was a fortnight ago, wasn’t it? I thought you said you weren’t sure till today.”

“No; I wasn’t sure then—but I told her I was. And you see I was right! she exclaimed, her blue eyes wet with victory.

In the final chapter decades have passed. May has born three children and after 26 years of marriage has died. Newland thinks of his life with her as deep and real. Ellen, though, lives only in the past. And at the very end of the novel when circumstances take the turn that both had wished for long ago, Newland makes a remarkable decision.

It would be easy to dislike a character like Newland Archer, but Wharton makes it impossible. He is honestly trying to assess the promise of his life against the social conventions of his time; exposing the hypocrisy of  the status quo and the values they hold dear.

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My Edition
Title: The Age of Innocence
Author: Edith Wharton
Publisher: Barnes and Noble Classics
Device: Paperback
Year: 1920
Pages: 307
Full plot summary

Challenges: Classics Club

 

The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton (1905)

housemirth

 

You asked me just now for the truth—well, the truth about any girl is that once she’s talked about she’s done for; and the more she explains her case the worse it looks. 

 

Though Lily Bart didn’t grow up rich, she was born into a comfortable and respectable home with relatives high on the social scale. Like most girls in this class her only purpose in life is to find a wealthy, respected husband. Lily doesn’t just have hopes this will happen, she is very good at making it happen.

But it all comes crashing down when her father makes a series of bad business deals leaving her at the mercy of relatives and friends. Her luck holds out longer than many in this situation, because her beauty and charm is sought after and admired in her ‘set’ who continue to include her in their social gatherings, weekend outings and trips abroad.

Because her future is dependent on whom she marries Lily, like all women of her class, must calculate and weigh every conversation, each action and event she makes. She becomes a keen observer of the most minute details of what is socially acceptable and there are so many! One wrong word or action, one misinterpreted conversation or negative comment against her or showing too much interest in a man or not enough, can have devastating consequences.

The Power of Gossip and Lies

When the gossip about Lily and the unfounded lies begin to run rampant, the same friends who welcomed her into their world at her father’s death, abandon her and are willing to watch her fall rather than come to her defense and risk damaging their own reputations. As Mr. Rosedale admits to her,

Mrs. Dorset…did you a beastly bad turn last spring. Everybody knows what Mrs. Dorset is, and her best friends wouldn’t believe her on oath where their own interests were concerned; but as long as they’re out of the row it’s much easier to follow her lead than to set themselves against it, and you’ve simply been sacrificed to their laziness and selfishness.

One misstep in judgment (going to the apartment of her close male friend alone) begins the downward spiral of gossip and innuendo Lily never recovers from. And her pride makes it impossible for her to fight back.

Not only has the gossip killed any prospect for marriage, the question of how can Lily then support herself must be considered. In this class system, women like Lily are born to be dependent. There is never a question about working or learning a trade. Though she tries her hand at various occupations, Wharton writes a remarkable passage of truth that Lily is conscious of:

She had learned by experience that she had neither the aptitude nor the moral constancy to remake her life on new lines to become a worker among workers, and let the world of luxury and pleasure seep by her unregarded…Inherited tendencies had combined with early training to make her the highly specialized product she was: She had been fashioned to adorn and delight; to what other end does nature round the rose-leaf and paint the hummingbirds’ breast?

 Wharton’s Unsentimental Pen

I have railed against Wharton for writing such depressing novels as Ethan Frome  and Summer. It isn’t that I expect a fantasy of happy endings, but Ethan Frome, Charity Royall and Lily Bart cannot catch a break from the rigid social norms they struggle against.

However, about half way through The House of Mirth I had a stop-me-in-my-tracks moment: Wharton doesn’t write depressing novels, she just writes with an unsentimental pen. She chooses to write stories about people’s fate or more precisely that they can’t escape it once an action or word sets them on that trajectory; that social norms are so rigid and a person’s duty to their class is so morally strong there is no wiggle room for escape or independence from it. For whatever reason, Wharton writes about the injustices of a system that kills passion, desire and freedom.

And was this personal? I have read many times Ethan Frome is the most autobiographical novel she has ever written. So perhaps all this thwarted desire is her personal biographical commentary.

Women as Instigators

It is horribly sad that women in the novel are the instigators of the lies and stories that bring Lily down and that her own aunt with whom she is living believes the gossip about Lily accepting unwanted attention from married men. She not only believes it, but instead of asking Lily outright if what people are saying is true, she is incensed that Lily has allowed herself to be talked about in the first place,

It was horrible of a young girl to let herself be talked about; however unfounded the charges against her, she must be to blame for their having been made.

When your own family members turn against you, what recourse do you have? And when you know fighting back is useless, how do you cope?

Bullying in The House of Mirth

While The House of Mirth is rooted in its time period, something struck me as very contemporary. Lily’s death is suspicious in terms of it being an accident or self-inflicted. But the stage was set because of the devastating effects of the bullying and meanness she was subjected to. This is the same behavior and sometimes the result many teenagers of today are forced to endure.

Lily Bart shows us the tragic outcome when this behavior is allowed to grow and fester unchecked. I think this puts to rest those critics who wonder if  classic literature should still be taught in schools.

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My Edition:
Title: The House of Mirth
Author: Edith Wharton
Publisher: Bantam Classic
Device: Mass market paperback
Year: 1905
Pages: 317
Full plot summary

Challenges: Classics Club, Mount TBR

 

The Inability to Read

I have had such an unexpected reaction to my dad’s death: I could not, for weeks, sit down to read. I could not concentrate on more than a few sentences on a page. In fact, I began to hate it, loathe it, “having to do it.” Was this grief and why was it affecting me this way?

Reading has been effortless and one of my greatest loves since I was a kid. It has been my refuge, my savior, my “figure outer” of pain or confusion and my voyage, my journey to great adventures of the mind. I grew up in a reading household; and after he retired and to the end of his life my dad read every afternoon. My mom belongs to two book clubs and they shared books and thoughts about what and who they were reading.

I never expected, even thought about, how this might affect me, but every time I picked up a book after Dad died, my thoughts went to the table he read at every afternoon, shutting himself away upstairs for a few hours. I never thought about this image all the years of his life, but it was all I could see in my mind after he died.

I have been a little scared, wondering if I would ever pick up a book again. I know that sounds terribly dramatic, but the whole experience was so unforeseen….

But last Sunday as I was sitting in the living room my eyes moved to the biography of Edith Wharton I was thrilled to find several months ago and picked it up. In the quiet of the afternoon I fell into the great life and adventures of this writer whom I have wanted to know more about. What a relief to lose track of time in a book as I was used to!

Although not a very articulate description, grief is weird and awkward. And while I have had other family members and close friends die, this has been the hardest and has affected me differently.

Time. Yes. I know….But oh, it feels so good to be reading and writing again!

Have any of you ever had a situation where you couldn’t read?

Mount TBR Checkpoint #1

First Quarter Check-in with the Mount TBR Challenge

I feel so behind with everything lately! My only defense is that we had such a dreary, wet winter here in Southern California that when it was all over, I just wanted to be outside; the sun was too distracting! Fortunately, all that rain did wonders for the drought we have been in and hopefully we will continue to conserve and use water responsibly.

Though my posts are a little less, still I feel I have made progress on my TBR pile.

Bev, of My Reader’s Block and the host of the Mount TBR Challenge, has asked us to check in on our progress and has these questions for us:

1.  How many miles up your mountain/number of books have you read?
I chose the beginner’s mountain, Pike’s Peak and I am proud to say I am half way there with 6 books read, to date.

2. Complete ONE (or more if you like) of the following:
A. Post a picture of your favorite cover so far.
This is no contest. The cover art from The Bronze Bow is beautiful.

bronzebow

B. Who has been your favorite character so far? And tell us why, if you like.
Hands down it has to be Francie Nolan from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, because of her ability to see past the hardships of her reality into something better.

3. Have any of the books you read surprised you?
I had been wanting to read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and it didn’t disappoint. I loved the historical aspect of the story, a true American immigrant tale, as well as the impact the book had on the public, especially that of soldiers who carried it with them into the trenches of WWII.
And I have to say, as absolutely depressing as Ethan Frome is, I could not help but admire Edith Wharton as a writer.

This is what I have read so far:

  1. Ruth Hall (1855), Fanny Fern
  2. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943), Betty Smith
  3. The Bronze Bow (1961), Elizabeth George Speare
  4. Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905), E.M. Forster
  5. The Land of Little Rain (1903), Mary Austin
  6. Ethan Frome (1911), Edith Wharton

With a quarter of the way to go, I will not be surprised if I make up the next mountain. Unless, of course, we get more rain 🙂

When One Bookstore Door Closes, Another Doesn’t Usually Open

This is excruciating. I am sure many of you can relate.

An incredible used bookstore nearby is closing its doors. I have been buying books there since I moved to Huntington Beach in 2009, because they have a wide and deep classics section. I remember I was shocked to see a copy of The Blithedale Romance sitting on the shelf when I thought, ‘no one will actually have this sitting on their shelf.’ Or Sarah Orne Jewett’s, The Country of the Pointed Firs. I bought my first Virago there (The Matriarch) as well as many of the books for the Reading New England Challenge of last year. I imagined buying my books there forever.

This is the kind of place where, though the shelves are bulging and recently bought books are still in boxes on the floor, the owner knows her stock. When you request a title she goes immediately to the section or reaches inside one of the boxes and pulls out the book. Yes, it IS like magic!

Like so many businesses, the bookshop owners are powerless over rises in rent and though the store does a brisk business, the new rate is higher than what makes sense. This is such a loss for any community.

camelot3
Will I find out why you write such depressing books?

My last purchase included the 1940 second edition of the 1935 two-volume set of The Esoteric Tradition by de Purucker in pristine condition, which I am thrilled to have. I also found R.W.B. Lewis’ Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Edith Wharton and my first Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere. I was a bit overwhelmed as I walked through the familiar aisles…

 

 

 

 

 

My last book haul:

camelot

A non-science fiction H.G. Wells and a Medieval female coroner. How intriguing!

Bon voyage, Camelot Books. Like your namesake your story will remain forever in my heart!

Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton (1911)

efrome
This was a very depressing novel. Let’s just get that out of the way. Like another of Wharton’s New England novels Summer, which I read last year, she once again creates a character whose life has promise and potential, but bad choices made early on coupled with poverty and duty to family ruin any chance of freedom. Ethan Frome’s draining, joy-sucking life permeated every page.

Wharton creates a bit of mystery surrounding Ethan Frome in the opening pages. The unnamed narrator who arrives in town on business notes his somber countenance, “something bleak and unapproachable in his face, and he was so stiffened and grizzled that I took him for an old man,” yet he was only 52. The coach driver explained he has looked that way since ‘the smash-up.’ And with that, the strange, sad tale of Ethan Frome begins.

Frome is many years into a loveless marriage. He and his wife, Zeena, live in the Frome family home eking out a slim existence from soil that doesn’t yield much. He asked Zeena to marry him out of gratitude for helping him nurse his sick mother. Right after they marry her real or imagined ill health makes her unable to take care of the home, so she enlists the help of her young cousin, Mattie Silver, although it is soon clear she has no household skills.

Mattie’s youth and joy for life is Ethan’s one bright light and he begins to care for her deeply. When Zeena announces that her new doctor wants her to get a proper hired girl, because “I oughtn’t to have to do a single thing around the house,” Ethan is devastated. Mattie will have to leave because they can’t afford to pay for two girls, although she has no family to take her in. Ethan spends days frantically looking for a way to run off with Mattie, until he realizes its futility. The day he takes Mattie to the train station he stops to take her sledding. Both are distraught over their impending separation admitting they cannot live apart and make a pact to end their pain by sledding into a tree. They are severely injured, but both live. Ethan is left with a limp and a scarred forehead, but Mattie sustains a spinal injury that leaves her permanently disabled.

The action skips to the present when the narrator, who has only heard bits and pieces of this story is invited by Ethan to stay the night during a snow storm. When the front door is opened he hears more than one voice coming from the kitchen. He is shocked to walk in on both Zeena and Mattie sitting around the kitchen table.

When he goes back to his boarding house, run by a childhood friend of Ethan’s she explains that yes, after the accident, Zeena took Mattie back and nursed her as best she could and without any family to return to the three have lived together for 24 years. She tells him, “If she’d ha’ died, Ethan might ha’ lived; and the way they are now, I don’t see’s there’s much difference between the Fromes up at the farm and the Fromes down in the graveyard; ‘cept that down there they’re all quiet, and the women have got to hold their tongues.”

Though the story is terribly tragic I admire Wharton’s writing. She is not sentimental or overly emotional, but matter of fact. The event happens or the choice sets in motion tragic consequences, the character accepts his or her fate and makes new choices and with them we move on. As in real life we have to get on with whatever hand we are dealt and this is how Wharton writes.

Except that I found it hard to just let go of Ethan’s fate. Is it too much to ask to give him a little happiness after having to leave college to come back home to care for his father, then his mother, then his wife and finally both his wife and unrequited lover? Couldn’t Wharton give him a little better financial situation or let his wife die young or…something?

However, like Charity, the main character in Summer, who similarly had to pit personal fulfillment against duty, what the reader finds here is reality. Both Ethan and Charity made foolish choices the first time they fell in love, which left them with life-altering consequences they could never break away from. And maybe that is the moral or the cautionary tale here; what you do when young comes back to haunt you. The whole trajectory of your life can change in an instant, so make good choices!

Right.

Try telling that to any young person in love!
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My edition and plot summary.
Edith Wharton. Ethan Frome and Selected Stories. New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2004. Originally published in 1911.

Challenges: Classic Club List and Mount TBR