Monday, June 4, 2007

Money, some old and new

The publication of Hermoine Lee's new biography of Edith Wharton (Chatto & Windus, 2007) which, ahem, will be on my birthday wish list, reminded me of this wonderful writer who still appears to live in the shadow of her friend and writing colleague Henry James.

Edith Newbold Jones, before she became Edith Wharton (1862 – 1937), belonged to an old New York family, so illustrious, so rich, that they were said to be the original Joneses (as in the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses”). She was a passionate writer of rare sensitivity and insight into the matters of the heart and the pocket.

A sensitive, introverted girl she was deemed “too intelligent” by the family of her first fiancee and was unceremoniously dumped. She then passed unluckily into the arms of the wealthy Bostonian Edward “Teddy” Wharton in 1885 at the age of 23. The marriage was not a happy one and was likely unconsummated, and she finally divorced him in 1913 due to “his mental condition, his carelessness with money, and his numerous extra-marital affairs”.

Edith Wharton was rich, somewhat snobbish about her prestigious origins and slightly rattled by the morally dubious nouveau riche whom she saw penetrating the old world money of New York. She, who had a great deal of it, skewered those lesser mortals who valued it too much.

How her world had changed with the ascension of modern writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald of whom it was said by the critics had assumed her literary mantle.

He saw her, as have many others readers and writers, as the embodiment of an "enviable conjunction of wealth and social connection, prodigious authorship, critical success and intimate association with the artistic upper crust". She greatly admired Fitzgerald's work and invited him to tea at her home in Saint-Brice-Sous-Fôret in France; he returned the favour by showing up horribly drunk. After an interminable visit which climaxed with a tasteless joke about an American couple in a bordello she noted, more with sadness than surprise, merely that he was "awful" in her diary.

I have only read a handful of her dozens of books but it seems a common theme runs through them: Mrs. Wharton deemed the unbridled desire to acquire wealth as the source of many evils in the early 20th c. society, and, secondly, that the actual possession of money itself brought little happiness. She could honestly testify to both precepts. The most prominent example of both themes is in her depiction of Undine Spragg, the heroine of The Custom of the Country (1913), deemed by some to be her finest novel, and the character of Lily Bart in The House of Mirth (1905).

Undine Spragg, married four times to a succession of wealthier and wealthier husbands (redneck entrepreneur Elmer Moffatt, New York blue blood Ralph Marvell, French aristocrat Raymond de Chelles and then Moffatt again - once he became a billionaire), whom Undine managed to discard once the offending spouse(s) got in the way of achieving her materialistic desires.

Author Cynthia Griffen Wolff posits in her 1987 introduction to the book that The Custom of the Country was Wharton's response to the post Civil War nouveau riche who had invaded New York: devoid of values, materialistic, showy (Undine loves beautiful things and sees them as a perfect backdrop for her own beauty). Old money was more ethical, more careful, more principled, Wharton seems to suggest in the novel.

Wharton describes Undine thus: "Success was beauty and romance to her" - by success she means material gain and fame. Neither familial loyalty to parents, young son Paul or ailing second husband Ralph dissuaded her from her path. She held the curious notion that obtaining money was akin to the following of some underground spring: it might momentarily disappear but was sure to resurface soon enough.

But Undine is too crassly drawn, too one dimensional a creature to inspire our passions - even our hatred - as she is too cartoonish to be believed. Beautiful, cruel, shallow, uncultured, grasping - she is the nightmare vision of the nouveau riche who must have horrified Wharton's generation and her forbears. But Undine is never a fully realized character for me. And eventually she is thwarted in her desires, surmising at the very end that she should have been an Ambassador's wife and now never would be with her succession of divorces (count 'em three!).

There is also an almost fatalistic sense in the novel that the American blue bloods had run their course in American society. Capitalism which happily gave way to the robber barons of the 19th c. would no longer accept that true "gentlemen" of aristocratic birth should do precisely nothing in order to retain their place at the top of the American hierarchy of wealth and prestige. Ralph Marvell, with all his refinement and principles, was no match for the aggressive, acquisitive Undine (or either of her two successive husbands) and chose to kill himself when he suffered financial setbacks and he felt that he could no longer fight Undine for custody of their child. Wharton seems to pity his end and the end of his kind but somehow it seems inevitable and she recognizes that.

Lily Bart, the impoverished aristocratic beauty in The House of Mirth, who misses her chance to wed "the right sort" and retain the status that she craves for, seems a type with whom Wharton is more familiar with. Lily is beautifully drawn, as well as beautiful. (Alas, even most female authors, plain or beautiful, are loath to have a plain heroine.)

At 29, Lily is unmarried and appears to be in no hurry to changer her status despite the interest of Lawrence Selden, one of her circle, whom she honestly cares for but who doesn't have enough personal wealth to meet her material requirements which they both charmingly acknowledge. Selden is witty, cerebral, easily Lily's equal but he too knows that he has little to offer her in terms of wealth.

She has expensive and exquisite tastes which her aunt Mrs. Peniston, her sole remaining relation, will not indulge and Lily often spends time with her wealthier friends Judy and Gus Trenor which only encourages an unfortunate and growing interest in gambling. As a beauty with a distinguished if impoverished background, Lily's path crosses that of Simon Rosedale, an industrious and newly wealthy Jew. Here Wharton's ugly prejudices show in his characterization. He is vulgar, unattractive and apparently desirous of obtaining Lily only as a sort of trophy wife. She rebuffs him disdainfully and repeatedly.

Her financial woes lure her into an investment scheme with the untrustworthy Gus Trenor who promises to increase the value of her small savings. This appears to work for a time and Lily relishes the new funds that come her way (via Gus' own financial contributions as he wishes to secure her affections and more) but it comes at a price that she is unwilling to pay.

Shortly afterwards, an unfriendly and jealous rival, fabricates a tale which implies that Lily is promiscuous and she is banished from the wealthy circles that she frequents. Lily is cut adrift by Mrs. Peniston, who is scandalized by the gossip. When the aunt falls ill and dies she leaves Lily a pittance rather than the fortune she was expecting with the proviso that it is only be paid a year from her death. The amount will barely cover her debts to Trenor.

Lily's fortunes crumble even further and she listlessly attempts to save her reputation and her status. How easily she is discarded! She fails at every new enterprise as she unaccustomed to both honest labour as a hatmaker and saving money. Even Simon Rosedale now rejects her as she is seen as soiled goods and has lost her allure for him. Eventually she poisons herself, perhaps purposefully, after ensuring that her debt to Trenor is repaid with her aunt's inheritance. Selden, who still loves her. arrives too late to save her.

It is easy to surmise that Lily is being punished for many things: being too finicky about choosing a suitable husband from her own circle, frittering away her time and modest financial resources with frivolous shallow people, rejecting the poor but sincere Selden, behaving foolishly if not truly scandalously, virtually offering herself up to Rosedale, a social outcast amongst her set whom she despises, in return for financial security once all appears lost.

The tale is melancholy and difficult to read at times - Lily's ruin is so thorough, so cruel - akin to Emma Bovary's fate except that Lily is guilty of really no more than excessive pride and poor judgment. At times, a Victorian streak of melodrama shoots through the novel - Lily's degradation is so complete, so painful to observe.

But Wharton knew her tribe, knew her people and the ruthlessness with which someone was discarded if they broke the unspoken rules of conduct.

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