January 2005

James Morrison

Small, but Perfectly Formed

Edith Wharton

Rather than continuing last month’s scatter-gun approach to a range of novelists, this time I’ll focus on one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers, both of novellas and in general. First, though, it’s worth saying a few words about a couple of recent publishing ventures.

Melville House, an independent American publisher, has recently launched the first series of books in their "Art of the Novella" range. The books they have chosen, by Tolstoy, Conan Doyle, Henry James, James Joyce, Flaubert and others, are a great introduction for anyone whose interest has been piqued by the philosophy behind this column. In the near future I will examine their range in greater depth.

Another publisher to explore if you want to experience more of the joy of short books is Hesperus Press, a British/European publisher who has devoted itself to bringing back into print, or translating into English for the first time, a great number of shorter classics -- novellas, biographies, short story or poetry collections and the like -- which average around 100 pages. Though there are the occasional titles, like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or Kafka’s Metamorphosis, that are readily available from other publishers, most of their output is not in print from anyone else.

The books produced by both of these publishers are elegant and attractive. Both ranges also feature Edith Wharton’s The Touchstone, and with that cunning segue, we’ll take a closer look at one of America’s greatest writers.

The first woman to win the Pulitzer prize, Edith Wharton is best known for the string of novels she produced at the height of her powers: House of Mirth, The Reef, The Custom of the Country, and The Age of Innocence. Those who have not read her might imagine, perhaps from the films of her books, or from her close and well-known friendship with Henry James, that her writing would be stately, stale and suffocating. This is completely wrong.

Wharton’s fiction is perceptive, black, funny and sometimes deliciously catty. Her neglected but excellent short stories are populated by adulterers, mistresses on the run, murderers, artists (some genuine and great, some pretentious and hilarious), embezzlers and the occasional ghost. A typical opening to one of these gems is that of "The Day of the Funeral": “His wife had said: ‘If you don’t give her up I’ll throw myself from the roof.’ He had not given her up, and his wife had thrown herself from the roof.”

Among the many short stories are also a number of excellent short novels, only a couple of them as well known as they deserve to be.

The Touchstone (1900): Stephen Glennard’s career is falling apart, and he desperately needs money in order to marry his beautiful fiance. A chance sighting of an advertisement in a London magazine, though, brings the prospect of financial gain; he was once pursued by Margaret Aubyn, a famous and now dead author, and he still has her passionate love letters to him. He sells them, ensuring that his own name is removed before publication, and makes his fortune. But a marriage built on the betrayal of another, even after their death, is not guaranteed success. Wharton’s first published novella is a witty exploration of the writing life, fame and fidelity.

Madame de Treymes (1907): A book that combines two of Wharton’s great interests -- the clash between American and European cultures, and the personal and social ramifications of divorce -- Madame de Treymes follows the attempts of a young American to convince his childhood love to divorce her dissolute French husband and marry him instead. The resulting battle between innocence and pragmatism is complicated by an aristocratic beauty who becomes more than just the go-between she first appears to be.

Ethan Frome (1911): Probably the best known of Wharton’s novellas, this is also, at least in its characters, one of the least representative. Its intense focus on a New England farmer and his unhappy marriage is quite compelling, particularly when the wife’s cousin enters the picture as a “hired girl” for the failing household. The love triangle which ensues, driven by Ethan’s desire for a little happiness, hurls the plot towards a bitterly ironic conclusion worthy of Thomas Hardy.

Summer (1917): Described by the author herself as a “hot Ethan,” Summer parallels many of the themes in the other novel, while also adding a number of surprising and complicating elements, as well as switching the focus to the woman’s point of view. The result is a book with a palpable sexual charge, reminiscent of, without being derivative of, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.

The Old Maid (The ’50s) (1924): This excellent novella, which examines the results of a woman adopting her best friend’s illegitimate baby, is available as a separate book. It was originally part of a larger work, however, called Old New York, a collection of four novellas, all fascinating, each of which cover a different decade of nineteenth-century New York life. The others are False Dawn (The ’40s), The Spark (The ’60s), and New Year’s Day (The ’70s). The Old Maid stands alone without difficulty, but as a collection of great short novels Old New York is highly recommended.

If your interest has been piqued by this, then the best place to start is with either of the editions of The Touchstone mentioned above, and then perhaps try the Penguin Classics Portable Edith Wharton, which contains a representative selection of short stories and Summer in its entirety.