I had thought that the only Edith Wharton I had read until now was Citizen Kane, but no, I had read but forgotten the story that leads off The Greater Inclination, Wharton’s first book. The story is “The Muse’s Tragedy” (1899), and it is notable as, from the title on to the end, as a commentary on or parody of Henry James. A young poet meets the still young muse of a great old, deceased poet. What effect will she have on him? Poems, a book about the older poet? Instead they fall into a love affair, in Italy, where else. “The Aspern Papers” meets “The Author of ‘Beltraffio’” meets a number of other James tales.
The story is written like James, too, early James, not like the contemporary What Maisie Knew or The Turn of the Screw but James from twenty years earlier. The first line:
Danyers afterward liked to fancy that he had recognized Mrs. Anerton at once; but that, of course, was absurd, since he had seen no portrait of her – she affected a strict anonymity, refusing even her photograph to the most privileged – and from Mrs. Memorall, whom he revered and cultivated as her friend, he had extracted but the one impressionist phrase: “Oh, well, she’s like one of those old prints where the lines have the value of color.”
It is also the first paragraph, though, which is not so Jamesian. Wharton’s Jamesianism is simplified, or is the right word clarified, not just in style but character, theme. The muse’s tragedy is that her story is not her own, so Wharton gives her a story of her own. Although, strictly speaking, it is also an invention.
“Souls Belated” is a divorce story, one of several I have come across recently. A couple is vacationing in Italy, traveling as husband and wife, not married yet, but waiting for a divorce to be finalized. Even in 1899, Wharton does not treat this situation as especially shocking. More shocking is the person in their train compartment, “a courtly person who ate garlic out of a carpet-bag” – not at all Jamesian. Sometimes Wharton sounds more like Oscar Wilde:
“That’s the worst of it. She’s too handsome.”
“Well, after all, she can’t help that.”
“Other people manage to,” said Miss Pinsent skeptically.
How about “Eleanor is porous, and I knew that sooner or later the unnecessary truth would exude through the loose texture of her dissimulation”? That is from “The Rembrandt,” a preposterous story about a museum curator who overpays for a painting out of cowardice and guilt. I jotted the line down purely for its odd poetic qualities, its vowels sounds, all of those “u”s, ooh ooh ooh.
There’s some of this, there’s some of that. “The Rembrandt” is from Wharton’s second collection, Crucial Instances (1901), which I sampled but did not read as a whole. No, the titles of her story collections are not so good. Reading Wharton’s short stories as a whole seems like a good project for someone else, as much as I enjoyed the ones I tried.