Early Edith Wharton short stories, those are things I have read recently. I went so far as to read an entire book of them, in non-book form, the 1899 The Greater Inclination. It is Wharton’s first book, and contains most, not all, of the stories she published during the 1890s, commercial magazine fiction of the time, of the better sort, although that is an easy judgment, since I have an idea of what is to come later.
But no, these stories are good. One dud in The Greater Inclination, a two scene play about a man who asks his wife to rekindle an old love affair to help him get a political favor. She is offended – enter old flame – she changes her mind. French twaddle. A bit where the characters flirt via metaphor is excruciating although hilarious:
Isabel: If one has only one cloak [cloak is metaphorical] one must wear it in all weathers.
Oberville: Unless it is so beautiful and precious that one prefers to go cold and keep it under lock and key.
Isabel: In the cedar-chest of indifference – the key of which is usually lost. (“The Twilight of the God”)
That “cedar-chest of indifference” is transcendently bad. Two lines later there is “an auction sale of fallacies.” All dialogue, please remember. A parody of French twaddle, perhaps. Let’s assume that. And I remind myself, the sole dud.
More typical is the kickoff of the next story, “A Cup of Cold Water”:
It was three o’clock in the morning, and the cotillion was at its height, when Woburn left the over-heated splendor of the Gildermere ballroom, and after a delay caused by the determination of the drowsy footman to give him a ready-made overcoat with an imitation astrachan collar in place of his own unimpeachable Poole garment, found himself breasting the icy solitude of the Fifth Avenue.
So efficient – name, place, social status via a small but meaningful confusion. As much as commercial magazine fiction has changed, mostly by becoming much less commercial, there is plenty that does not sound so different. Well, no one would write “the Fifth Avenue.”
“A Cup of Cold Water” turns out to be a noir. I mean, “In the unventilated coffee-room they found a waiter who had the melancholy air of being the last survivor of an exterminated race, and who reluctantly brought them some tea made with water which had not boiled,” Raymond Chandler might be okay with that one. Desperate to marry a woman in the cotillion set, wearing much too nice of a coat for a bank clerk, Woburn has gambled heavily and embezzled a bundle from his bank. He needs to be on an ocean liner to Europe, but spends the night finding excuses to not skip out quite yet. The psychology of the character is quite good.
Later in the night, he meets a dame in distress, and the story suddenly fills up with noir clichés, which were all I know were not yet clichés. Perhaps they are inexorably generated by the form. I prefer this description of the rich woman who does poor Woburn in:
Miss Talcott’s opinions had no connection with the actual; her very materialism had the grace of artificiality. Woburn had been enchanted once by seeing her helpless before a smoking lamp: she had been obliged to ring for a servant because she did not know how to put it out.
This is closer to the Wharton her best readers know, right? It should be assumed that I am an ignoramus about Edith Wharton.