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.
Nick 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….
Title: The Glimpses of the Moon
Author: Edith Wharton
Publisher: Scribner Paperback Fiction
Device: Trade paperback
Challenges: CCSpin #23, Classics Club