For seventeen years, the three of them coexisted in separate corners of the Western world. Edith Wharton, the oldest, died in 1937, having come to prominence as a writer late in life. The House of Mirth, her first major novel, was published in 1905, when she was forty-three, almost twice the age of Clarice Lispector when, over nine cramped, feverishly productive months in 1942, she wrote the book that would become her debut novel, Near to the Wild Heart. At the time, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette—by then known exclusively by her last name—was living in occupied Paris and churning out fiction with metronomic frequency. She was on her third marriage. Lispector was about to enter her first, but she had already written the first batch of the short stories that would become a major pillar of her literary legacy, many of which dealt prophetically with young women struggling to escape their uncomprehending husbands.
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A few days before her wedding, Wharton mustered the courage to ask her mother “what married life was like.” The ghastly answer she received echoes throughout much of her fiction. “You’ve seen enough pictures and statues in your life,” the steely lady told her daughter. “Haven’t you noticed that men are—made differently from women?” The fact “that babies were not found in flowers but in people” was, Wharton claimed, all she knew of the “process of generation” until weeks into her marriage. “And all the while,”
Life, real Life, was ringing in my ears, humming in my blood, flushing my cheeks & waving in my hair—sending me messages & signals from every beautiful face & musical voice, & running over me in vague tremors when I rode my pony, or swam through the short bright ripples of the bay, or raced & danced & tumbled with “the boys.”
What, aside from the obvious sexual intimations, does Wharton mean by “real Life”? Jarringly, the passage implies that life is not what happens when a person’s blood hums or when her cheeks flush; it is a thing, intimate but foreign, whose humming she perceives within herself—a thing to be noticed, detected, and encountered. In that respect, Wharton’s definition of “life” wasn’t far from the one on which George Eliot relied at a certain moment in Middlemarch, which Wharton studied enthusiastically for, among other things, its depiction of a horribly ill-advised marriage. The tears Dorothea Brooke sheds as she feels her “wifely relation” to her older scholar-husband darken, Eliot’s narrator insists, needn’t trouble us much. For after all, “if we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.”
The House of Mirth is thus the story of a young woman who tries her best not to walk about “wadded with stupidity,” who strains to hear all the “messages and signals” Life might send her. Lily Bart is beautiful, cunning, socially dexterous, and constantly, fatally alert to the pretensions of her peers. Attracted to wealth—“the glow of the stones,” Wharton writes of her encounter with a display of wedding jewelry, “warmed [her] veins like wine”—and appalled by the thought of poverty, she nonetheless refuses to marry into a life she knows will leave her deaf to the humming of the world. When she agrees to a solitary walk with Lawrence Selden, who she imagines could induct her, if he chose, into his “republic” of the witty, sensual and free, she finds herself split into “two beings,” one “gasping for air in a little black prison-house of fears,” the other “drawing deep breaths of freedom and exhilaration”—a “free spirit” that “quivered for flight.”
Wharton’s marriage to an older man of leisure was a creative incubator; it gave her space to patiently develop her craft. Colette’s thirteen-year entanglement with the philandering, flamboyant music critic and literary charlatan Henry Gauthier-Villars, who signed her first novels under his pseudonym Willy, was closer to a pressure cooker. Colette would later say that, as Gauthier-Villars’ young country wife, she’d been locked in her study and coerced into writing the massively successful Claudine novels. Subsequent critics, including Judith Thurman and Terry Castle, have put that claim to doubt. (“It seems unlikely,” Thurman concludes in her definitive Colette biography, although her evidence is inconclusive: “there were servants in the house, and a telephone.”) Regardless, Willy and Colette’s was certainly a marriage of unequal exploitation. Gauthier-Villars’s many connections in fin-de-siècleParis helped guarantee the series a wide readership. (Eventually, you could find its heroine emblazoned on sweets, perfumes, and cigarette cases.) But it’s striking to imaginethis forty-year-old male libertine, whom even more sympathetic critics like Thurman ultimately depict as something of a cad, putting his name to books at once so reckless, tender, effusive, nostalgic, savage and clear-eyed about a young woman’s sexual education. It was thosequalities, after all, which made the books the succès de scandale they were.
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