February 26, 2012

'To my patient listeners at Sainte-Claire'

I was intrigued by this dedication in The Children, and wanted to read ahead in my biography of Edith Wharton to find out more  I did know that this novel was published later in her life {in 1928, when she was 66) and that at about that time she owned a house in Provence:

The lights of the south, both of sky and sun -- the views of mountains and sea, the general atmosphere of peace -- charmed and healed her. She raved about it all to Bernard Berenson in 1919:  'I read your letter  stretched out on a bank of amaranth & moly,' with the blue sea sending little silver splashes up to my toes, & roses & narcissus & mimosa outdoing Coty's best from the centre all around to the sea. In front of us lay two or three Odyssean isles, & and the boat with a Lotean sail which is always in the right place was on duty as usual -- & this is  the way all my days are spent! Seven hours of blue-&-gold & thyme & rosemary & hyacinth & roses every day that the Lord makes; & in the evenings, dozing over a good book! ...
      'Seriously, you can't think what Provence has been this last month. Never have I seen it so warm, so golden, so windless & full of flowers.'
      She had found a wonderful house built in the ruins of the chateau near the top of the hill in the old part of town. ...Here, she established a little world with a rare atmosphere away from the intrusions of reality and the disturbing trends of the twentieth century, and highlighted, of course, by the garden, where she was to 'cultive passionement l'art du jardin,' as the guidebook now reports. 

As for her listeners,

      Soon after moving into Sainte-Claire, she established a routine for herself and her guests similar to the one she had exercised in Paris. Wharton's afternoons and evenings of leisure were achieved by 'the strenuous regulation of the mornings.; She would start work at 7:30 and by noon had written for several hours, dictated letters to her secretary, and seen the cook to order the day's meals. Guests told of being sent a note in the morning when she was writing, saying she would see them at lunch. ...
      In the evening after dinner, the guests gathered for reading and Edith's great love -- conversation. ... Some evenings, the group would hear one of  Wharton's recently completed chapters. She would be working on two or three things at once - sometimes stories that had begun when someone had given her an episode that sparked her imagination:     
It helped her very much, she said, to be able to talk over what she was writing, and she encouraged us to becompletely frank in our comments and suggestions. 'Of course I'm only the man in the street,' someone would begin diffidently, 'but I can't see any one in the position of your hero behaving, or speaking like that,' etc. etc. Then the psychology of the character and the situation would be argued over, and if the objector made good his point, she would be persuaded and agree. I have known her to re-write a scene four times as the result of one of these discussions, and she listened and replied to suggestions not always helpful, with infinite patience and good temper. ... She would never tell one in advance what the denouement was to be; sometimes she said she was not sure herself. I  have known the work on one of her books hung up for weeks when the climax was approaching because she could not find a way that satisfied her for bringing it about. Then she would come down radiant one morning and say 'I've got it!' and the concluding scenes would rush out faster than her pen could write them.

Oh, I was hoping it would be something like this, after a long, hardworking, accomplished, and sometimes difficult life, and it's another interesting glimpse into how she wrote.

{text and photos from Edith Wharton:  an extraordinary life,
by Eleanor Dwight, and Edith Wharton: a house full of rooms: 
architecture, interiors and gardens
, by Theresa Craig}


Fay said...

Beautiful photos. I keep meaning to read Wharton's interior design book, The Decoration of Houses. Maybe this year.

Danny said...

Lovely blog! I love Edith Wharton. House of Mirth is my faavorite novel of hers.

Danny said...

The Decoration of Houses is a wonderful book! Edith, like Virginia Woolf, think of rooms as a metaphor for intellectual freedom. And she's such an authority on doorknobs and chests and things! She also has a book called Italian Villas, I believe.