Edith Wharton and the problem of sympathy

The older I get, the more I’m convinced that a fiction writer’s oeuvre is a mirror of the writer’s character. It may well be a defect of my own character that my literary tastes are so deeply intertwined with my responses, as a person, to the person of the author—that I persist in disliking the posturing young Steinbeck who wrote “Tortilla Flat” while loving the later Steinbeck who fought back personal and career entropy and produced “East of Eden,” and that I draw what amounts to a moral distinction between the two—but I suspect that sympathy, or its absence, is involved in almost every reader’s literary judgments. Without sympathy, whether for the writer or for the fictional characters, a work of fiction has a very hard time mattering.

So what to make of Edith Wharton, on her hundred-and-fiftieth birthday? There are many good reasons to wish Wharton’s work read, or read afresh, at this late literary date. You may be dismayed by the ongoing underrepresentation of women in the American canon, or by the academy’s valorization of overt formal experimentation at the expense of more naturalistic fiction. You may lament that Wharton’s work is still commonly assumed to be as dated as the hats she wore, or that several generations of high-school graduates know her chiefly through her frosty minor novel “Ethan Frome.” You may feel that, alongside the more familiar genealogies of American fiction (Henry James and the modernists, Mark Twain and the vernacularists, Herman Melville and the postmoderns), there is a less noticed line connecting William Dean Howells to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis and thence to Jay McInerney and Jane Smiley, and that Wharton is the vital link in it. You may want, as I do, to recelebrate “The House of Mirth,” call much merited attention to “The Custom of the Country,” and reëvaluate “The Age of Innocence”—her three great like-titled novels. But to consider Wharton and her work is to confront the problem of sympathy.

No major American novelist has led a more privileged life than Wharton did. Although she was seldom entirely free of money worries, she always lived as if she were: pouring her inherited income into houses in rich-person precincts, indulging her passion for gardens and interior decoration, touring Europe endlessly in hired yachts or chauffeured cars, hobnobbing with the powerful and the famous, despising inferior hotels. To be rich like Wharton may be what all of us secretly or not so secretly want, but privilege like hers isn’t easy to like; it puts her at a moral disadvantage. And she wasn’t privileged like Tolstoy, with his social-reform schemes and his idealization of peasants. She was deeply conservative, opposed to socialism, unions, and woman suffrage, intellectually attracted to the relentless world view of Darwinism, hostile to the rawness and noise and vulgarity of America (by 1914, she had settled permanently in France, and she visited the United States only once after that, for twelve days), and unwilling to support her friend Teddy Roosevelt when his politics became more populist. She was the kind of lady who fired off a high-toned letter of complaint to the owner of a shop where a clerk had refused to lend her an umbrella. Her biographers, including the estimable R. W. B. Lewis, supply this signal image of the artist at work: writing in bed after breakfast and tossing the completed pages on the floor, to be sorted and typed up by her secretary.

Edith Newbold Jones did have one potentially redeeming disadvantage: she wasn’t pretty. The man she would have most liked to marry, her friend Walter Berry, a noted connoisseur of female beauty, wasn’t the marrying type. After two failed youthful courtships, she settled for an affable dud of modest means, Teddy Wharton. That their ensuing twenty-eight years of marriage were almost entirely sexless was perhaps less a function of her looks than of her sexual ignorance, the blame for which she laid squarely on her mother. As far as anyone knows, Wharton died having had only one other sexual relationship, an affair with an evasive bisexual journalist and serial two-timer, Morton Fullerton. She by then was in her late forties, and the beginner-like idealism and blatancy of her ardor—detailed in a secret diary and in letters preserved by Fullerton—are at once poignant and somewhat embarrassing, as they seem later to have been to Wharton herself.

Her father, a benign but recessive figure, died when she was twenty, after suffering from the financial stresses of providing a luxurious life style for his wife. Wharton, all her life, had only bad things to say about her mother; she also became estranged from both her brothers. She had relatively few friendships with women and none with female writers of her calibre—more strikes against her, in terms of sympathy—but she forged close and lasting friendships with an extraordinary number of successful men, including Henry James, Bernard Berenson, and André Gide. Many were gay or otherwise confirmed in bachelorhood. In the instances where her male friends were married, Wharton seems mostly to have treated the wives with indifference or outright jealousy.

The fine quip of one of Wharton’s contemporary reviewers—that she wrote like a masculine Henry James—could also be applied to her social pursuits: she wanted to be with the men and to talk about the things men talked about. The half-affectionate, half-terrified nicknames that James and his circle gave her—the Eagle, the Angel of Devastation—are of a piece with their reports on her. She wasn’t charming or easy to be with, but she was immensely energetic, always curious, always interesting, always formidable. She was a doer, an explorer, a bestower, a thinker. When, in her forties, she finally battled free of the deadness of her marriage and became a best-selling author, Teddy responded by spiralling into mental illness and embezzling a good part of her inheritance. She was distraught about this, as anyone would have been, but not so distraught that she didn’t force Teddy to pay up; three years later, with firm resolve, she divorced him. Lacking good looks and the feminine charms that might have accompanied them, she eventually became, in every sense but one, the man of her house.

An odd thing about beauty, however, is that its absence tends not to arouse our sympathy as much as other forms of privation do. To the contrary, Edith Wharton might well be more congenial to us now if, alongside her other advantages, she’d looked like Grace Kelly or Jacqueline Kennedy; and nobody was more conscious of this capacity of beauty to override our resentment of privilege than Wharton herself. At the center of each of her three finest novels is a female character of exceptional beauty, chosen deliberately to complicate the problem of sympathy.

The reader of “The House of Mirth” (1905) is introduced to its heroine, Lily Bart, through the gaze of an admiring man, Lawrence Selden, who runs into her by chance at Grand Central station. Selden immediately wonders what Lily is doing there, and he reflects that “it was characteristic of her that she always roused speculation, that her simplest acts seemed the result of far-reaching intentions.” To Selden, it’s inconceivable that a woman in possession of as much beauty as Lily would not be forever calculating how to use it. And Selden is right about this—Lily, strapped financially, is constantly forced to draw upon her one sure resource—but he is no less wrong. Lily’s predicament is that she is never quite able to square those far-reaching intentions with her momentary desires and her tentative moral sensibilities.

On the surface, there would seem to be no reason for a reader to sympathize with Lily. The social height that she’s bent on securing is one that she herself acknowledges is dull and sterile, she’s profoundly self-involved and incapable of true charity, she pridefully contrasts other women’s looks with her own, she has no intellectual life to speak of, she’s put off from pursuing her one kindred spirit (Selden) by the modesty of his income, and she’s in no danger of ever starving. She is, basically, the worst sort of party girl, and Wharton, in much the same way that she didn’t even try to be soft or charming in her personal life, eschews the standard novelistic tricks for warming or softening Lily’s image—the book is devoid of pet-the-dog moments. So why is it so hard to stop reading Lily’s story?

One big reason is that she doesn’t have “enough” money. The particulars of her shortfall may not be sympathetic—she needs to dress well and gamble at bridge tables in order to catch a man who can enable her to dress well and gamble for the rest of her life—but one of the mysterious strengths of the novel as an art form, from Balzac forward, is how readily readers connect with the financial anxieties of fictional characters. When Lily, by taking a long romantic walk with Selden, is ruining her chance to marry the extremely wealthy but comically boring and prudish Percy Gryce, with whom she would have had the bleakest of relationships, you may find yourself wanting to shout at her, “You idiot! Don’t do it! Get back to the house and seal the deal with Gryce!” Money, in novels, is such a potent reality principle that the need for it can override even our wish for a character to live happily ever after, and Wharton, throughout the book, applies the principle with characteristic relentlessness, tightening the financial screws on Lily as if the author were in league with nature at its most unforgiving.

What finally undoes Lily, though, isn’t the unforgiving world but her own bad decisions, her failures to foresee the seemingly obvious social consequences of her actions. Her propensity for error is a second engine of sympathy. We all know how it feels to be making a mistake, and the deliciousness of watching other people make one—particularly the mistake of marrying the wrong person—is a core appeal of narratives from “Oedipus” to “Middlemarch.” Wharton compounds the deliciousness in “The House of Mirth” by creating an eminently marriageable heroine whose mistake is to be too afraid of making the mistake of marrying wrong. Again and again, at the crucial moment, Lily blows up her opportunities to trade her beauty for financial security, or at least for a chance at happiness.

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