The Glimpses of the Moon, Edith Wharton (1922)

He knew on how frail a thread the popularity of the penniless hangs, and how miserable a girl like Susy was the sport of other people’s moods and whims. It was a part of his difficulty and of hers that to get what they liked they so often had to do what they disliked.

 

glimpsesNick Lansing and Susy Branch of The Glimpses of the Moon are the answer key to Lawrence Selden and Lily Bart in The House of Mirth, whose motivations and actions often confused me. Where the problems exist in Edith Wharton’s, The House of Mirth, The Glimpses of the Moon is its “redo.”

Wharton, who was born in New York City to a wealthy and prominent family, writes realistically of upper class society in the early 20th century piercing its contradictions and exposing its hypocrisy. She is also masterful at portraying another part of this society: the dependents, the bright, pretty things of wit and intelligence hoping to break into the community of the wealthy and achieve some level of stability and status.

When Nick and Susy meet they recognize kindred spirits. Both are charming, beautiful and likeable; the kind the wealthy enjoy having around to enliven parties and animate conversations. They live off the good graces of their rich friends and all expenses are paid whether for a weekend in the country or a 3-month tour of Europe. They first see each other at their mutual friends, the Fulmer’s, where Susy is staying. Nick has come to visit and after several days of conversation they realize they are in the same position in society, but might do much better as a couple. “I don’t know how you feel; a man’s popularity is so much less precarious than a girl’s–but I know it would furbish me up tremendously to reappear as a married woman.” They both know the ropes, can spot opportunities and will be a novelty as a married couple. “We’re both rather unusually popular–why not be frank?–and it’s such a blessing for dinner-givers to be able to count on a couple of whom neither one is a blank.” So they make a bargain that they will marry with the understanding that if either finds a better situation the other will release them.

And it works. Due to Susy’s calculations she has figured out they could honeymoon for a year all over Europe on the invitations of friends for whom lending their homes to the newlyweds is a happy prospect. And so their life together begins with their first stay in a villa in Italy owned by a close friend of Susy’s, Charlie Strefford. They entertain the wealthy of their set who pop by in their boats or buggies to spend afternoons at home or evenings out.

Next, they move on to the home of Nelson and Ellie Vanderlyn where on the first night Susy finds an unexpected complication to their stay. Not expecting either to be home, she assumed their daughter would be with them. But in a letter left by Ellie to Susy she apologizes for leaving their 8 year-old daughter Clarissa and hopes Susy will be a good friend and care for her. Then Ellie asks for another favor. There are several letters to her husband she would like to have mailed, one each week. The post-mark is from the house, which Susy realizes means Ellie and Nelson are not together and Nelson thinks Ellie is home…Susy is sick with worry, disgust and fear all night going back and forth as to what to do. Should she participate in this deception against Nelson, should she aid in Ellie’s adultery, should she tell Nick even though Ellie begs her not to?

In the morning, she is resigned to play the game: in order for her and Nick to live this luxurious life as guests of other people they will always have to do something distasteful in return and this won’t be the last time. She and Nick, as a matter of course, will always have to do the dirty work of others.

However, this is a revelation to Nick who is stunned when by accident he finds out about Susy’s part in Ellie Vanderlyn’s affair.

Well–doesn’t our being together depend on what we can get out of people? And hasn’t there always got to be some give-and-take?…You’ve lived among these people as long as I have; I suppose it’s not the first time–”

By God, but it is….I have never in my life done people’s dirty work for them–least of all for favours in return. I suppose you guessed it, or you wouldn’t have hidden this beastly business from me.”

And Nick’s final blow against Susy:

“You knew I wouldn’t have stayed here another day if I’d known.”

“Yes: and then where in the world should we have gone?”

“You mean that–in one way or another–what you call give-and-take is the price of our remaining together?

As if Nick had forgotten their bargain and the compromises and concessions they’d have to make, he tells her they must part.

The two separate and continue to live at their various friends’ homes continuing to miss each other yet too proud to confess. It is many months since they have seen each other and Nick has taken a position as a secretary to their mutual friends, the Hicks’ aboard their yacht and cruises the Mediterranean. It is assumed he will marry their daughter, Coral.  Susy finds herself receiving attention from her old friend Strefford whose wealthy relatives have died leaving him a wealthier man than when she stayed at his villa. It is assumed she will marry him.

The manner in which the newly married, now separated Lansings are treated among their friends is almost matter of fact. At this period, divorce is not the stain on a woman’s reputation as it was only a decade or so earlier. Both are free to marry when the divorce is final. Some of the characters, though, are very puzzled by the decision to divorce, and in a not so very subtle way tell Susy she can stay married and find love elsewhere.

Because everyone is doing it….having affairs, that is. For their upper class friends cheating on your spouse is practically an obligation or at least usual. Nelson Vanderlyn eventually finds out about Ellie and though devastated, it is short-lasting. At one point, Susy hears that Nelson, Ellie and her new man are all dining “cheerfully together.” In this world of wealth, position and family ties marriage is to secure riches and status, not because of love. And to be married for many decades to someone you may not particularly like is a tedious prospect. So spouses cheat, and if discovered let it go, because they are doing it themselves.

When Nick and Susy reunite, it is not to live as their friends do. The parting has forced them to give up their pride and say they love each other. They will not cheat as their friends do to keep the family fortune, as they know they will have no fortune. The difference between Nick and Susy and their friends is that they married for love. If only Lawrence and Lily could have said it….

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Title: The Glimpses of the Moon
Author: Edith Wharton
Publisher: Scribner Paperback Fiction
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 1922
Pages: 297

Challenges: CCSpin #23, Classics Club

Ruth, Elizabeth Gaskell (1853)

The daily life into which people are born, and into which they are absorbed before they are well aware, forms chains which only one in a hundred has moral strength enough to despise, and to break when the right time comes–when an inward necessity for independent individual action arises, which is superior to all outward conventionalities.

 

RuthI’ve spent the last two months reading Elizabeth Gaskell and Charles Dickens. I am about one half the way through David Copperfield, but I put it on hold to read Gaskell’s, Ruth.

I picked up Wives and Daughters several weeks after my last post and it was the perfect book to read at a “snail’s pace.” Have you ever loved the experience of reading a book as much as you loved the book itself? As I spent long leisurely evenings on the couch or afternoons on the patio rocking chair, Molly Gibson stayed front and center in my thoughts. Molly really got to me and each morning I awoke wondering how her story would unfold. The richness of the narrative, the variety of characters and the complexity of their intertwined lives forced me to read slowly. When I finished I wanted more Gaskell and so I picked Ruth off my shelf and this did not disappoint.

Ruth Hilton is 15 years old when we first meet her in this seminal year of life-changing events. Her parents are dead and without anyone to care for her a guardian is appointed who sends her off as an apprentice to Mrs. Mason, a dressmaker. One evening she is sent to a ball to do repair work for ladies’ gowns and meets wealthy Henry Bellingham. In the succeeding days, playing on her loneliness and naivete, he gets her banned from the dressmaker when she discovers them in an illicit, but innocent outing. Without a place to go Bellingham takes Ruth with him on his travels where they end up in Wales. Bellingham becomes very ill and his mother, who has been alerted to his grave illness, comes to take him home. She forces Ruth away from his bedside and removes him in the middle of the night. The next morning Ruth is beside herself with worry and she becomes ill. When she is examined it is discovered she is pregnant. While in Wales she has befriended Thurstan Benson to whom she was kind when the neighborhood children teased him about his dwarfism and he takes her back home where he lives with his sister, Faith and their long-time housekeeper, Sally.

Soon Ruth is delivered of a son, Leonard, and though Faith and Sally are made aware of the circumstances of his birth and have wrestled with the morality of Ruth’s situation, both are struck by Ruth’s piety in wanting to protect her son at any cost and her pliancy and lack of willfulness in her behavior. They have devised a new identity for Ruth as the Widow Denbigh.

goodshep2

The Good Shepherd and the lost lamb.

Ruth’s penance would last all her life for the “crime” she committed as a young girl by a man who took advantage of her. The morality of the world that tells her she is an evil sinner and her desire to mitigate her immorality in the eyes of God and man with the desire to keep Leonard safe fills her every waking moment.

I appeal to God against such a doom for my child. I appeal to God to help me. I am a mother, and as such I cry to God for help–for help to keep my boy in His pitying sight, and to bring him up in His holy fear. Let the shame fall on me! I have deserved it, but he–he is so innocent and good.

Ruth’s morality is based on her son’s purity regardless of the circumstances of his birth. Even when Bellingham appears in a coincidental situation years after disappearing and discovers the son they share; proposing marriage with threats of the power he holds over Leonard, she turns him down. A marriage would legitimize both her and Leonard, but she refuses him on the grounds that once leaving her he never sought to find her and that threatening to take Leonard make him a truly bad man, not fit to raise her son.

Ruth’s understanding of herself, that she may be doomed, but that her child should not have to suffer for it is at the very heart of what motivates her life. She is honest, simple and true in all her dealings and though the townspeople and the few friends she makes know nothing of the truth at first, she comes across as the most decent and trustworthy person they know. With the help of the Bensons she finds work as a governess to the two youngest girls in the prominent Bradshaw family. But her greatest achievement is in her selfless nursing of the townspeople when a terrible fever hits the village, so contagious that trained nurses refuse to see patients.

What is noteworthy in this story is not that once Mr. Bradshaw discovers Ruth’s true identity and fires her from his home or that once Leonard discovers his illegitimacy he is pushed into a tailspin. It is the way the townspeople come to an understanding of their own prejudices and religious training against a woman like Ruth who they are supposed to shun and how they come to treat her in the end.

Gaskell confronts the age-old question, how do we treat “fallen women” in society?, but instead of the typical reactions of hiding Ruth away or sending her into prostitution, she shows how such a woman can be returned to everyday life. This kind of portrayal of a woman bearing a child out of wedlock and her desire to become part of the community reminds me of Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s, The Scarlet Letter. Hester, though vilified at first, like Ruth, redeems herself through her good works and stays in the town and comes to be esteemed in the eyes of the people.

Mr. Bradshaw to Ruth: Do you suppose your child is to be exempt from the penalties of his birth? Do you suppose that he alone is to be saved from the upbraiding scoff? Do you suppose that he is ever to rank with other boys, who are not stained and marked with sin from their birth? Every creature in Eccleston may know what he is; do you think they will spare him their scorn?…you went into your sin, you should have thought whether you could bear the consequences or not–have had some idea how far your offspring would be degraded and scouted.

Mr. Benson to his sister Faith Benson: The world has, indeed, made such children miserable, innocent as they are; but I doubt if this be according to the will of God, unless it be His punishment for the parents’ guilt; and even then the world’s way of treatment is too apt to harden the mother’s natural love into something like hatred. Shame and the terror of friends’ displeasure, turn her mad–defile her holiest instincts; and, as for the fathers–God forgive them! I cannot–at least, not just now.

The Bensons are Dissenters, Mr. Benson being a minister in the church. As such, their practice of Christianity is in direct contrast to the legalistic framework to the Church of England that would condemn Ruth to a different kind of life. Yet, Sally is Church of England and though her first response after learning of Ruth’s circumstances is to leave the house, becomes one of Ruth’s fiercest defenders once she is confronted with Ruth’s humility and goodness.

The [Benson] household had many failings: they were but human, and, with all their loving desire to bring their lives into harmony with the will of God, they often erred and fell short; but, somehow, the very errors and faults of one individual served to call out higher excellencies in another, and so they re-acted upon each other, and the result of short discords was exceeding harmony and peace.

When Ruth was first published the reviews were surprisingly favorable toward the subject matter and how Gaskell chose to deal with it. George Eliot praised her style and skill with description; Charlotte Bronte said the book had a nobility and purpose, however she did not like the ending, “Why are we to shut up the book weeping?”

It would be trite to say this book is about redemption, but that is probably its central point. However, redemption or forgiveness, turning the other cheek, “there but for the grace of God’….is not only the journey of the one who ‘sinned,’ but the journey for any of us when our beliefs and morals are challenged, not by theory or what its, but when flesh and blood reality is standing right before us.

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Title: Ruth
Author: Elizabeth Gaskell
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Device: Paperback
Year: 1853
Pages: 375

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