Edith Wharton is known, among other things, as the teller of the most devastating of the anecdotes displaying Henry James’s incapacity to communicate efficiently. The story told in her 1933 autobiography, A Backward Glance, has James, late one evening, attempt to ask a doddering Windsor pedestrian how their car can find its way to the address they want. After a page of repetitious parenthetical irrelevancies from James, which leave the old man ‘dazed’, she loses patience and insists James ‘ask him where the King’s Road is’. This, a little less elaborately, he does, and the old man says: ‘Ye’re in it.’
The ineffectual James of this narrative, though, is not necessarily pure matter of fact. A couple of chapters earlier Edith Wharton was bemoaning her ‘unhappy lack of verbal memory’, her inability to recall exactly what people said in her presence. In other words, the long speech James is represented as having made is a reconstruction dating from more than twenty years after the event. The autobiographer’s motives for turning out a tale so to James’s disadvantage, swathed though it is in apology and affection, seems to be connected with the warm rivalry that ran underneath the warm friendship we can trace in their letters.
The prelude to their friendship, as Edith Wharton tells it in the autobiography, had her as a shy young suitor for the great man’s attention at dinners, hoping her ‘newest Doucet dress’ or ‘beautiful new hat’ would win his interest. But it was mainly her literary friendship with Paul Bourget, and her beginnings as an author, with The Greater Inclination (1899) and The Valley of Decision (1902), that achieved this aim. ‘The explanation, of course, was that in that interval I had found myself’: Edith Wharton’s first metamorphosis, from socialite to talented author, gave James his greater inclination to take her seriously. That period in the wings, however, seems to have left its mark on her – apparent, perhaps, in the account of the King’s Road fiasco.
R.W.B. Lewis, Mrs Wharton’s biographer, and editor in 1988 of a selection of her letters, has noticed her ‘displaying in her earliest recorded comments on James clear signs of a restiveness of influence’. Even at the point of becoming one of the Master’s intimates, she was deploring The Sacred Fount (‘I could cry over the ruins of such a talent’) or commanding W.C. Brownell: ‘Don’t ask me what I think of the Wings of the Dove –’ When they became better acquainted her expressions mellowed, as loyalty demanded. By 1907, James was with the Whartons in Paris for a two-month stay, and she wrote to Charles Eliot Norton in praise of her visitor’s character (not his works): ‘The more one knows him the more one wonders – admires the mixture of wisdom – tolerance, of sensitiveness – sympathy, that makes his heart even more interesting to contemplate than his mind.’
A Backward Glance, still admiring, recalls a relaxed, bantering figure at his ease amid the friendly, mostly American group made up by herself, Walter Berry, Howard Sturgis, Morton Fullerton, John Hugh Smith, Percy Lubbock and a few other initiates. She emphasises the man’s ‘quality of fun’, and her James is ‘the laughing, chaffing, jubilant yet malicious James’, not ‘the grave personage known to less intimate eyes’. Like the letters of James’s youth to his family, or of the 1880s to Stevenson, or of the 1890s to the actress Elizabeth Robins and her friend Mrs Hugh Bell, Henry James and Edith Wharton: Letters shows him joking in congenial company; this is the circle where the late James seems most to have unwound.
The bulk of the letters we get here show the social and personal side of James; indeed, most of the letters (167 items) are from James to her, since he burnt up many of hers to him in his inclusive bonfires (only 13 items have survived). A good deal of extravagant chaff is directed at the active Grand Vie she leads in Paris and on her constant travels, her steam-crossings and motor-flights: a manner of life portrayed as a violent contrast with the eremitic existence of Lamb House, James’s snug Rye corner: ‘Your letters come into my damp desert here even as the odour of promiscuous spices or the flavour of lucent syrups tinct with cinnamon might be wafted to some compromised oasis from a caravan of the Arabian nights.’ The Keats echo (from ‘The Eve of St Agnes’) evokes exotic and erotic scenes, only for the lofty simile to dip, with ‘some compromised oasis’, into comic bathos. Seemingly at another extreme, James in an illness apologises for the brevity and lack of ornament: ‘Am forbidden “style”.’ But the melodramatic absoluteness of ‘forbidden’, and the arching of the inverted commas round ‘style’, manage to sidestep the prohibition and strike the Jamesian note regardless of doctor’s orders.
The letters cover a range of registers and subjects: the gossip of the circle, dates and times of visits and rendezvous, the love-life of George Sand, the state of the Wharton marriage, the affair Mrs Wharton carried on with James’s friend Fullerton, the art of fiction, James’s state of health, and, to cap and threaten it all, the War. Some of these, it must be said, are more rewarding to read than others. The best letters, as a rule, are those in which the correspondents are at a distance and not planning to meet soon: then what is to be said can’t be postponed till a tête-à-tête. When James had read Mrs Wharton’s Italian historical novel The Valley of Decision in 1902, he finally wrote to her with such an accumulation of comment in his consciousness that ‘I can’t discharge the load by this clumsy mechanism. The only relief would be the pleasure of a talk with you, – that luxury, thanks to the general perversity of things, seems distant – dim.’ Fortunately he doesn’t despair, but goes on to disburden himself – if only partially – by admonishing her at length and with interesting reasons ‘in favour of the American Subject’. His insistence that she ‘DO NEW YORK!’, which she certainly did in The House of Mirth (1905) and later, might have been lost to us (if not on her) had James not been forced to use the ‘clumsy mechanism’ of the pen.
For Edith Wharton the literary life was an emancipation from the constraints of the grand society of New York, and especially from the ties binding her to her unsatisfactory husband Teddy; it offered her an individual standing in some measure independent of her sex and social eminence. To be recognised and praised by James, whose early ‘Daisy Miller’ and The Portrait of a Lady she had long admired, set the seal on her success in this evasion: but there was a price to be paid, that of submission to the Jamesian codes, an acceptance of his rank. She addressed him as Cher Maître, and the genuine affection of Cher could not altogether prevent the mastery from rankling.
Edith Wharton had pots of money already, unlike James, and made pots more by her books from the start, again unlike James, whose diminished royalties in this period sank him into a state of nervous collapse. But since his by now involuntary fidelity to his creative instincts was the chief cause of his failure to win the rewards he yearned for, he took a corrosively ironic view of the fiction market in which she was doing so well. The money question certainly put an edge on their relation. James closes a letter in 1911 with an allusion: ‘Such, dearest Edith, are the short – simple annals of the poor!’ The full context in Gray puts James among the honest rustics:
Let not ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the poor.
Here again, as with the ‘compromised oasis’, James camps up his relative abasement, attributing to Mrs Wharton ‘ambition’, ‘grandeur’, and the possibility of ‘a disdainful smile’. Clearly enough, it is a running joke that, as James says in another letter, ‘syntax butters no parsnips’; humorous exaggeration serves to vent feeling in knockabout that otherwise might get nasty; but the joke continues to run because James is worried about the worldly obscurity his stylistic obscurity may end in, and the comic heightening of their contrasted fortunes flatters even as it caricatures her. They share the joke, but it in no way settles their differences.
In 1913, worried at James’s anxieties about money, she tried to get up a $5000 birthday gift among his friends – a charitable and officious idea – only for him to find out, feel patronised, and angrily forbid it (as T.S. Eliot would do later when Pound schemed to subsidise him). Mrs Wharton got her own way, though, by persuading Scribner’s to give James money provided by her under the guise of an advance on The Ivory Tower. The deception, which James never suspected, made Charles Scribner feel ‘mean and caddish’; one wonders how it made her feel.
In A Backward Glance the chapter entitled ‘Henry James’ tells a succession of stories in which Edith Wharton is the humiliated junior, failing to make an impression on James, or being told off in oracular fashion for picking the wrong subject for a fiction. She writes a story in French, and he finds out, then proceeds to congratulate her ‘on the way in which you’ve picked up every old worn-out literary phrase that’s been lying about the streets of Paris for the last twenty years, and managed to pack them all into those few pages.’ She makes a point of generously not minding such remarks, which strike the reader as brutalities but in which she detects a ‘twinkle’ or a ‘chuckle’.
In the following section, she goes on to recount two more of her ‘blunders’. The first wounds James’s extreme sensitivity to criticism and parody. She brings him Frank Colby’s jocular 1904 piece, which says that James’s novels are so bloodless that the adultery in them can’t corrupt anyone, and expects him, apparently, to enjoy it. Its patronising tone makes evident why ‘his ever-bubbling sense of fun failed him completely.’ The second ‘blunder’ consists in her asking James, as a matter of fact: ‘What was your idea in suspending the four principal characters in The Golden Bowl in the void?... Why have you stripped them of all the human fringes we necessarily trail after us through life?’ James is surprised, not surprisingly, ‘and I saw at once that the surprise was painful.’ She says she had always assumed ‘his system was a deliberate one ... But after a pause of reflection he answered in a disturbed voice: ‘My dear – I didn’t know I had!’ Sorry though she says she is to have hurt his feelings, she doesn’t for a moment doubt that James ‘had’; she ‘had only turned his startled attention on a peculiarity of which he had been completely unconscious’.
Edith Wharton’s liking for Colby’s indulgently uncomprehending approach, and her reference to the ‘void’ in The Golden Bowl, suggest her greater sympathy with the philistine side on what a 1940s collection of essays called ‘The Question of Henry James’. The writer whose first book, The Decoration of Houses (1897), concluded that ‘the supreme excellence is simplicity’ was hardly in a position to enter wholeheartedly into James’s late aesthetic. In A Backward Glance she defines her literary distance from James as a matter of form: ‘Everything, in the latest novels, had to be fitted into a predestined design, and design, in his strict geometrical sense, is to me one of the least important things in fiction.’ This care for design, which she here so scants, is perhaps what makes James, in his late Prefaces, refer to the novelist as ‘the Poet’.
For Richard Poirier in A World Elsewhere, James’s concern with form marks his concentration on the mind; Edith Wharton’s ‘satisfaction with the simple and sequential ordering of events’ in the chronicle-novel reflects her sense that experience is determined by material circumstances, as in The House of Mirth, where ‘all the conditions of life had conspired to keep them apart.’ Her best-known works all portray the conditions of life as thus conspiring, so that her central characters struggle in vain to be free, and are at last ineluctably trapped by life as it is.
Her own most dramatic bid for freedom, the painful affair with the hopelessly non-committal Morton Fullerton, whom she had met through James, strangely led to The Reef of 1912, the self-consciously tragic novel in which she comes closest to late James. Here the involved multi-character social chronicle temporarily gives way to a story of sexual susceptibility and betrayal mostly set in a country house and taking place between four main characters. The scheme recalls The Golden Bowl, about which she had such doubts, and the book is saturated with James – with bits of plotting and characterisation and of exalted phrasing: ‘For the last time she wanted to let him take from her the fullness of what the sight of her could give.’
But where the novel heads – with what James recognised in a letter to her as ‘undeviating truth’ – is into moral chaos. The heroine’s noble values don’t come out, like a James heroine’s, seriously adjusted and the truer for it: rather, Anna Leath (seemingly an Edith Wharton figure) finds that all her high ideals collapse under the sensual spell of her shifty second-husband-to-be George Darrow, even after discovering his indulgence in a seamy hotel seduction on the side. The novel both loathes and loves Darrow; the heroine is ‘humiliated’ by her subjection to him, but clings the more swooningly to it, and hopes it is a liberation, since it is all she has (‘secret shames and rancours stirred in it, yet richer, deeper, more enslavingly’).
Beneath the Jamesian paraphernalia, as one can see with the help of Lewis’s edition of her letters, lies a still-unsettled involvement with the attractive cad Fullerton, to whom she had written that mon corps ne peut pas oublier ton corps, and that ‘I am mad about you Dear Heart.’
The Reef does contain some very unJamesian, but in its own way very mannered, romantic gush: ‘She saw the dancing spirit in his eyes turn grave and darken to a passionate sternness. He stooped and kissed her, and she sat as if folded in wings.’ Remarkably, since the affair was pretty well over, she sent The Reef to Fullerton for scrutiny as she wrote it; and perhaps the Jamesian manner was even adopted with Fullerton’s predilection for the Master’s subtleties in mind (one of the few substantial pieces of writing Fullerton finished was an article on the New York Edition). At any rate, there is a strain on the chosen form, and the novel’s ending can’t muster even an ambiguous Jamesian resolution. Anna decides the only way to act nobly is to seek out the other woman and promise her she’ll break with Darrow – but, dismally, she can’t find her, she’s gone to India – and then, suddenly, Finis.
The climactic confrontation doesn’t come off, and the novel just cuts out. Presumably Anna will keep on self-disgustedly succumbing to Darrow’s dancing spirit, passionate sternness and enfolding wings until he abandons her.
When Edith Wharton sent this disturbingly divided novel to her friend Bernard Berenson, she extravagantly disowned it: ‘It’s not me, though I thought it was when I was writing it.’ This may mean she is not Anna, or it may mean that the Jamesian novel is not her. At any rate, after the Great War and James’s death, she returned to doing New York and the social chronicle in The Age of Innocence (1920), a novel which shows a reflux (and some might say a regression) in what Poirier calls ‘her confused feelings about impulse and order’. The disappointment of the affair with the fecklessly bohemian Fullerton seems rather to have put the lid back on the imperative to freedom: she had even told him his spinelessness was the result of his youth in Paris, away from the disciplines of community which in her fiction on American subjects mostly come off so badly. ‘A social criterion,’ she said to Fullerton, ‘is formative – fortifying – wholesome.’
The Age of Innocence performs an interesting manoeuvre or two with regard to James: it goes back to New York and Newport and Boston in the 1870s, the last period in which James was for any length of time a first-hand witness of American society; it picks up and embroiders the plot of his The Europeans of 1878, replacing his Baroness with the Countess Olenska and Robert Acton with Newland Archer; and it finds a value in sacrificial paradoxes like ‘I can’t love you unless I give you up,’ words by which, as Karl Miller remarks, ‘James might have been moved’. The book’s manner is more like that of early than of late James (especially Washington Square): but she also goes in for a good deal of what James had called ‘George Eliotising’, in curious combination with a slightly beady-eyed, Galsworthy-like insistence on the Family as the ‘tribe’, equipped with ‘totems’, ‘rites that seemed to belong to the dawn of history’, analogies with ‘Primitive Man’, and so on. It is an extraordinary amalgam.
The title refers to the pretence of innocence, the ritualised avoidance of ‘the unpleasant’, in New York’s grand circles: a system we may connect with James’s elaborated dialogues between speakers skirting abysses. It may be that Edith Wharton’s avowedly historical novel allows us to situate James’s interest in silences and the unspoken as the product of a specific milieu: at any rate, The Age of Innocence may be said to offer a strong posthumous coda to James’s oeuvre in the climactic moment at a dinner when Newland Archer suddenly realises what his entire family and circle of acquaintance believe about him, and what they have conspired to do about it. It is a fine moment of social horror, akin to James’s more containedly paranoid crises of consciousness (Isabel Archer catching on to the Osmond-Madame Merle connection, for instance, in Portrait of a Lady).
One reviewer of the novel, no doubt desolatingly for her with her continuing ‘restiveness of influence’, praised some scenes as worthy of James; but another, as Lewis tells us in the biography, classed her as ‘an originator of her own’. This difficult question, that of the extent of her creative initiative within the relation, is still, I think, a central matter for the understanding of Edith Wharton’s work, though her achievement may lie in the completeness with which she takes possession for her own ends of elements of the James world – which, of course, so far as it was the real world, was equally her own. The letters Lyall Powers has edited will be a prime exhibit in this debate.