Friday, 18 May 2012

EDITH WHARTON Ethan Frome (1911)

Signet Classic, 1987

The words were like fragments torn from his heart.  With them came the hated vision of the house he was going back to – of the stairs he would have to go up every night, of the woman who would wait for him there.  And the sweetness of Mattie's avowal, the wild wonder of knowing at last that all that had happened to him had happened to her too, made the other vision more abhorrent, the other life more intolerable to return to

The NovelAt what point does a life of selfless devotion to others become a life of self-defeating masochism?  Where should the line be drawn between our duty to those we love (or have at least grown used to tolerating and pitying) and our no less important duty to be true to the demands placed on us by our own tormented hearts? 

These are just two of the questions Edith Wharton raises in her magnificent short novel Ethan Frome –– the story of a poor young New England farmer whose life is at first improved and then blighted by the unexpected passion he comes to feel for his wife's young orphaned cousin.     

In her kindhearted, guilt-wracked and ultimately doomed protagonist, Wharton created a character every bit as tragic as King Lear, Hamlet or Thomas Hardy's similarly damned Jude Fawley.  Ethan Frome is a man so burdened by the weight of his responsibilities –– in his case, his need to care for his sick complaining wife Zeena and their failing farm –– that he's become as spiritually and emotionally dead inside as the bleak, snowbound landscape he inhabits.  The arrival of Mattie Silver, with her youth, charm and refreshingly cheerful disposition, seems to offer him the chance he's been waiting for to say goodbye to the town of Starkfield (a symbolic name if ever there was one) and find the happiness that a life devoted to caring for his family –– first his dead crazy parents, now his nagging wife –– has never allowed him to experience. 

Even more miraculously, Mattie returns his affections, allowing herself to be kissed one day while Zeena's away from home seeking the advice of one of the many quack doctors she's so fond of patronizing.  But fate intervenes in the form of a broken wedding dish and the advice Zeena brings home from her visit to the doctor.  The only way she can hope to get well again, she's been told, is to employ a 'hired girl' to take the burden of running the house off her frail suffering shoulders.  This means a choice has to be made between keeping the clumsy, dish-breaking Mattie with them or hiring a more efficient stranger to move in and replace her. 

Of course it's Zeena, not the procrastinating Ethan, who has the final say in this matter as she does in everything else.  By refusing to defy his wife and take his chances with Mattie, he unwittingly sets in motion a train of events which will prove, did he but realize it, to have bitter, long-lasting consequences for all three of them.  What had once seemed so hopeful now becomes its opposite, existing, it seems, only to mock, humiliate and torment him.

Everyman's Library, 2008
Ethan Frome was a shocking book in its day, as much for what it said about life in what were then perceived as being the 'idyllic' farming communities of rural America as for its not very scandalous story of a dissatisfied husband who contemplates adultery.  (The fact that contemplating it is all that Ethan ever does only serves the highlight the underlying hopelessness of his situation.)  Wharton's New England is an isolated, windswept and harshly unromantic place, populated by self-reliant, taciturn people barely able to scratch themselves a living from its thin rocky soil.  While this debunking of the myth of an 'agrarian paradise' might seem anything but shocking to anyone living at the beginning of the post-industrial twenty-first century, this was far from being the case in the North America of 1911, when two-thirds of the population still lived on the land and made their living farming it.   

The harshness of the landscape is reflected in Wharton's precise, painstakingly-constructed prose, with each word appearing to have been selected as much for its cumulative emotional impact as for its literal dictionary meaning.  Indeed, the precision of the writing lends the story of Ethan, Zeena and Mattie the sometimes dreamlike quality of a myth –– an effect enhanced by Wharton's decision to structure it as a narrative within a narrative, viewed through the eyes of an interested stranger who first spots Ethan crossing the town square as a scarred, prematurely aged man of fifty-two and becomes curious to learn more of his story.  Is the tale he weaves a true one or only a fanciful re-imagining of what might be nothing more than a case of three impoverished people choosing to stick together in what are tough and very uncertain times?  It doesn't matter.  What the narrator learns, as does the reader, is that it can be dangerous to sacrifice our feelings to a sense of duty that's neither appreciated nor reciprocated by those who have become our self-willed responsibility in both the physical and in the moral sense

The WriterEdith Newbold Jones (Wharton was her married name) was born in New York City on January 24, 1862.  She was the third of three children and grew up as the pampered daughter of wealthy 'old money' parents in New York and later in Europe, where her father relocated the family in 1866 to escape the depression that was sweeping the United States in the wake of that country's Civil War. 

Wharton was a studious, intelligent child who began to recite stories aloud before she learned to read, using an open book as a 'prop' to help improve the effect.  'At any moment,' she later wrote, 'the impulse might seize me; and then, if the book was in reach, I had only to walk the floor, turning the pages as I walked, to be swept off full sail on the sea of dreams.'  She wrote her first unpublished novel, Fast and Loose, at the age of fifteen and three years later, with the aid and consent of her domineering mother, privately published a volume of poetry titled Verses.  One of her poems found its way to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who passed it along to his friend William Dean Howells, novelist and editor of the prestigious literary magazine The Atlantic Monthly.  Howells published Wharton's poem but here, Lucretia Jones decreed, her daughter's literary career must end.  A few months later she oversaw Edith's social début in the ballroom of a millionaire's house on Fifth Avenue, the object of the exercise being the ever-crucial one of finding her a suitably well-to-do husband. 

In 1885, following a broken engagement and an inconclusive romance with a consumptive law student, Edith married the Boston socialite Teddy Wharton.  The marriage, while socially acceptable, was never a happy one and the Whartons would spend much of the next twenty-eight years apart –– a situation made possible by the large inheritances Edith received from her father and a wealthy reclusive cousin.  In 1890 a short story, Mrs Mantsey's View, appeared in Scribner's Magazine but it would be seven more years before the name 'Edith Wharton' would appear again in print, this time as the co-author of a non-fiction book titled The Decoration of Houses.  Meanwhile, Edith spent several months in a sanitarium in Philadelphia being treated for depression –– an illness some scholars attribute to the coldness displayed to her by her mother throughout her childhood and adolescence.  In 1899 her first volume of stories, The Greater Inclination, was published by the New York firm of Charles Scribners Sons, surprising everybody –– its thirty-six year old author included – by selling in excess of 3000 copies.

Lucretia Jones died in 1901, allowing Wharton to buy a 113 acre estate in Massachusetts she later christened 'The Mount.'  A year later she published her first novel, a romance set in eighteenth century Italy.  It was not until 1903, however, after receiving a letter from fellow novelist Henry James urging her to abandon historical fiction in favor of writing a novel set in contemporary New York, that she began to work on The House of Mirth –– a book which set out to expose and satirize the ultra-privileged Park Avenue socialite world she grew up in. The novel appeared in 1905 and became a runaway bestseller, its sales rising to 140,000 by the end of the year, making her even wealthier in the process.  

Other novels followed, including The Fruit of the Tree, The Reef and the savagely satirical The Custom of the Country, as well as many shorter works including Ethan Frome and its companion piece Summer.  Between 1905 and 1937 Wharton published scores of articles, short stories and non-fiction books about subjects ranging from travel and the study of French manners to gardening –– work she was able to completed while continuing to lead a very active social life and conducting an affair (which remained publicly unknown until 1968, when her private papers were finally unsealed) with British journalist Morton Fullerton.  

In 1909 she discovered that Teddy had embezzled $50,000 from her bank account, forcing her to sell her properties in New York and, in time, 'The Mount' as well.  (Teddy later repaid the money, using funds set aside for him in trust by his mother.)  The couple divorced in 1913, after which Edith returned to Europe, where she remained for the next ten years, basing herself in Paris where she tirelessly devoted herself to the task of raising money for war relief and helping the displaced, the sick and the homeless gain access to work, medical assistance and shelter.  This also allowed her to visit the Western Front and publish several articles about what she saw and experienced there in Scribners Magazine.  This later furnished the material for a new novel, The Marne, which appeared in 1918 

After the war, finding Paris too noisy, she purchased the Pavilion Colombe, a new home situated just outside the city, and began to divide her time between it and a rented château in the south of France overlooking the Mediterranean.  Financial pressure and an unstable stock market obliged her to abandon her plan to write another war novel and return to the familiar territory of Gilded Age New York for inspiration. The Age of Innocence, serialized in the Pictorial Review in 1920, would go on to win her the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, making her the first woman to be so honored.  (In 1993 the book was made into an Academy Award winning film, starring Daniel Day Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer, directed by Martin Scorsese.)

Wharton continued to travel through the 1920s and into the 1930s, publishing novels (including Twilight Sleep, which appeared in 1927 and satirized the Jazz Age), further collections of stories and receiving visits from a new generation of friends and admirers including F Scott Fitzgerald (a meeting described as being 'strained and awkward' for both parties), Sinclair Lewis (whose bestselling 1922 novel Babbitt was dedicated to her), Jean Cocteau, Aldous Huxley, André Gide and Cyril Connolly.  A memoir, A Backward Glance, appeared in 1934 –– a work that has frustrated many scholars because it failed to be specific about the difficult life she led with Teddy or her passionate but long-hidden relationship with Fullerton.  Her final novel, The Buccaneers, remained incomplete at the time of her death from a stroke in 1937.  It was published, along with her notes for the ending and an afterword by her friend Gaillard Lapsley, in 1938. 

Click HERE to visit the homepage of THE EDITH WHARTON SOCIETYThere are many biographies of the writer currently available, the most recent of which is Edith Wharton by HERMIONE LEE, published by Alfred A Knopf (US) and Chatto & Windus (UK) in 2007.

You might also enjoy:
SINCLAIR LEWIS Babbitt (1922)
ELIZABETH HARROWER The Watch Tower (1966)
GOOD GRIEF!! Remembering Charles M Schulz

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