Edith Wharton's books tend to be dead serious and tragic, but she had a humorous, satirical side, too. These
stories are great examples of her typical social statements about the pretentiousness of uppity turn-of-the-century New York and other cities. And
they also express the changing sexuality and sexual mores of women from this period. Seven stories make up this collection, and in most of them, at least
one character is an author.
Expiation is a tongue-in-cheek story about a new authoress, Mrs. Fetherel, who has written a book called Fast and Loose. We meet her as she and her cousin are discussing the forthcoming reviews. Her cousin, Mrs. Clinch writes about birds and flowers, and doesn't worry about social issues. Mrs. Fetherel's greatest fear is that the critics will say nice things about it, then the book will never sell. Soon the Bishop arrives, the ladies' uncle, and he also has written a book about how a poor consumptive girl who has no money with two idiot sisters to support still manages to find a way to give to the Church to buy a new window. It is called Through a Glass Brightly, and the Bishop wrote it to inspire the poor people of the parish to give money to buy a window for his church. He hopes that the critics make a scandal out of it on moral grounds, then it will sell and fulfill its purpose.
But Mrs. Fetherel's greatest fears come true. Her husband happily arrives with the first review and it says:
"In this age of festering pessimism and decadent depravity, it is no surprise to the nauseated reviewer to open one more volume saturated with fetid emanations of the sewer—"
But then her husband continues:
"but his wonder is proportionately great when he lights on a novel as sweetly inoffensive as Paula Fetherel's Fast and Loose."
Ah, her worst fears have been realized!! And worse yet, the critics find it to be a "distinctly pretty story."
But help arrives, as her uncle, the Bishop, provides a much different opinion to such a book named Fast and Loose, making a scathing public attack upon it, despite the fact that it was written by his niece. Suddenly sales soar and Mrs. Fetherel's face is recognized everywhere.
And the Bishop gets his window. . .
In The Dilettante, Thursdale prides himself on his ability to manipulate women, and, as he approaches Mrs. Vervain's house, he credits his example for creating such a good model:
"He had taught a good many women not to betray their feelings, but he had never before had such fine material to work with. She had been surprisingly crude when he first knew her; capable of making the most awkward inferences, of plunging through thin ice, of recklessly undressing her emotions;, but she had acquired, under the discipline of her reticences and evasions, a skill almost equal to his own, and perhaps more remarkable in that it involved keeping time with any tune he played and reading at sight some uncommonly difficult passages."
And so, after seven years, he surprises her with a letter announcing his
engagement, then a visit which includes his new fiancée, Miss Gaynor. Now that Miss Gaynor is off to return to Buffalo, Thursdale is on his way to Mrs.
Vervain. However, things do not go as planned. This one is sharply ironic, with lots of leeway for interpretation as to the conclusion.
In The Muse's Tragedy, we meet Mrs. Anerton whose public life is portrayed quite differently than her reality.
She is idolized by a young man, Lewis Danyers, who has written about the poet Vincent Rendle. Rendle used Mrs. Anerton as his model for Silvia, and spent much of his life with the Anertons. However, over the years, Mrs. Anerton finds herself alienated from her friends. then her husband dies, and later, Rendle dies. All assume that the poet was in love with her, but in a chance meeting that turned into a close relationship, Danyers learns the sad truth about Rendle's affections for Mrs. Anerton. This is another story, as the one above, where a man and a woman have totally different expectations about their relationship.
The Pelican is humorous, pathetic and sad all at once. Mrs. Amyot's drunken husband has just died, leaving here with a young baby, so she must find a way to support herself. Her mother and aunts are all very intelligent and well-educated, but Mrs. Amyot's dimple seems to be one of her best qualities. However, she doesn't allow lack of intelligence to keep her from lecturing on subjects that interest her, such as Greek art, so she begins her drawing room talks which quickly blossom into larger public events. Of course, she always assures her audience that she does it "for the baby."
"Mrs. Amyot had two fatal gifts: a capacious but inaccurate memory and an extraordinary fluency of speech. There was nothing she did not remember—wrongly; but her halting facts were swathed in so many layers of rhetoric that their infirmities were imperceptible to her friendly critics."
When the narrator, a man, first hears her, she is rather shy and hesitant, but upon attending one of her lectures after she has become successful, he notices quite a change. Unfortunately, her factual accuracy has not improved:
"This assurance had so facilitated the flow of her eloquence that she seemed to be performing a trick analogous to that of the conjurer who pulls hundreds of yards of white paper out of his mouth."
And it is always "for the baby" that Mrs. Amyot continues her work, even when the baby, whose name is Lancelot, is quite grown.
"The next time I saw her was in New York, when she had become so fashionable that it was a part of the whole duty of woman to be seen at her lectures. . . They received Mrs. Amyot with warmth, but she evidently represented a social obligation like going to church, rather than any more personal interest; in fact, I suspect that every one of the ladies would have remained away, had they been sure that none of the others were coming."
Mrs. Amyot now is quite well-off, and "the baby" attends Harvard, but eventually people see through the ruse and demand lecturers with more
professionalism and fresher subject matter. This story covers over thirty years, as the narrator unexpectedly comes into contact with Mrs. Amyot after
long intervals of separation. It speaks loudly of the pretentiousness of society ladies of the era.
Souls Belated is about a couple who are not married, but living, actually traveling together. While Mr. Gannett is the reason Lydia left her stifling marriage, it is when she gets her divorce papers that she feels stuck between her liberation and plunging back into conventional behavior. Mr. Gannett assumes they will marry, until he understands that Lydia wants them to be together strictly out of love, and doesn't want him to feel the obligation of permanence. She wishes that she had simply left her husband, but the fact that she has left him for another man complicates the psychology of the situation.
However, they find a nice hotel in Monte Rosa, where Lydia registers as Mrs. Gannett. Mr. Gannett has not pursued his writing since he and Lydia got together, and he feels this is the atmosphere for inspiration. They become part of the accepted social circle, exactly what Lydia wanted to avoid, and yet she enjoys her position. That is, until she learns another woman knows her secret.
This one certainly delves deeply into the changing social and sexual mores of the period.
Xingu is a scathingly humorous look at a group of rich women who form an exclusive club, with false pretensions of erudition. And now they are to host the celebrated writer, Osric Dane, bringing up some disagreement within the Club. Mrs. Ballinger, founder of the Club, insists they meet at her house, even while the others prefer the home of Mrs. Plinth, who has a picture gallery.
However, the day arrives, and the small group of ladies begin to assemble in Mrs. Ballinger's drawing room, where, to those who know her, she is in the habit of pointedly displaying a "Book of the Day."
"What became of last year's books, or last week's even; what she did with the "subjects" she had previously professed with equal authority; no one had yet discovered. Her mind was an hotel where facts came and went like transient lodgers, without leaving their address behind, and frequently without paying for their board."
Well, as it turns out, Osric Dane is a rude snob. This one starts out with snickers, but ends in roars of
The last story, called The Other Two, is about a woman who has married for the third time. Much to the chagrin of her third husband, Mr. Waythorn, he unfortunately keeps running into the first two husbands. While at first, extremely uncomfortable, he begins to get used to it, then finally makes a joke of it. His wife, Alice, is faithful to him, and the situations involving the first two husband are not invasive on their part, so in the end no harm is done.
"He even began to reckon up the advantages which accrued from it, to ask himself if it were not better to own a third of a wife who knew how to make a man happy than a whole one who had lacked opportunity to acquire the art."
This one is full of sly wit and humor.
Edith Wharton certainly had her own unique style which includes an amazing talent for putting words together to create caustic and sharp-edged commentary on a society and its conventions that she found intolerable. Here is a great selection of her short stories, all unique and definitely to-the-point—some delightful entertainment!
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