Monday, May 16, 2016

What a scene it was! - Edith Wharton's styles

Let’s look at The Descent of Man and Other Stories (1904), Edith Wharton’s sixth book, if I am counting correctly – three books of stories, a novel, and two novellas.  The next book is The House of Mirth (1905).

The Descent of Man is a better book than Wharton’s first collection, The Greater Inclination (1899), which was already better than the usual magazine fiction.  Just five years later, Wharton had successfully 1) specialized and 2) diversified.  A specialty in what everyone thinks of as Wharton-world, the domestic life of monied New York, but when she wanted she good write a good story set somewhere else.

So there’s a Hudson Valley ghost story (“The Lady Maid’s Bell”), a romance of the Italian revolution (“The Letter”), and a boy’s adventure story set in Venice (“A Venetian Night’s Entertainment”).  I would put “The Dilettante” in this alternative category, too, since it is in style a Henry James parody set in Wharton-world, .  “Perhaps her most shocking story” writes Roxana Robinson in The New York Stories of Edith Wharton (p. xviii).  Perhaps!  But I was more shocked by at least two other stories in this very collection, particularly the scene in “The Other Two” where three men married to the same woman rub their phallic symbols together.  Not expecting that!  While a story about a man quietly but cruelly manipulating a woman who loves him, that I have seen before.

By “James parody” I mean that it is propelled by the kinds of little emotional moves that Jamesians call “subtle” and that it is written like this:

It surprised Thursdale to find what freshness of heart he brought to the adventure; and though his sense of irony prevented his ascribing his intactness to any conscious purpose, he could but rejoice in the fact that his sentimental economies had left him such a large surplus to draw upon.  (269, page references to original edition)

Wharton catches James’s metaphorical mode:

The words fell strangely on the scented stillness of the room: they seemed out of harmony with its setting of afternoon intimacy, the kind of intimacy on which, at any moment, a visitor might intrude without perceptibly lowering the atmosphere.  It was as though a grand opera-singer had strained the acoustics of a private music-room.  (277)

If “strained the acoustics” sounds odd, it is.  A paragraph earlier, the narrator interrupts a character’s impassioned speech to note that “she mixed her metaphors a little” (277), which might even be a dig at someone.  Not James.  Jamesian characters.

By contrast, the boy’s adventure story, “A Venetian Night’s Entertainment,” where the energetic all-American lad is set loose on Venice:

A moment more and he was in the thick of it!  Here was the very world of the old print, only suffused with sunlight and colour, and bubbling with merry noises.  What a scene it was!  (319)


Tony was no chicken-heart.  He had something of a name for pugnacity among the lads of his own age at home, and was not the man to stand in Venice what he would have resented in Salem…  (324)

Wharton’s stylistic adaptability is impressive.  Tomorrow, though, I will stay in Wharton-world, where Wharton sounds like herself.


  1. Interesting to see your comments on Wharton's stylistic adaptability. I'd like to get back to reading her soon - I have a collection of her New York stories on the shelf.

  2. The NYRB New York Stories of Edith Wharton actually includes five stories from The Descent of Man, half of it, and that makes almost a quarter of the NYRB collection. That book has the James parody but not, as you would guess, the Italian stories.