'How pleasant it is to spend an evening in this way! I declare that after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! — When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.' No one made any reply. She then yawned again, threw aside her book, and cast her eyes round the room in quest of some amusement. — from Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen (1775-1817)
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May 6, 2012

My Year with Edith: 'After Holbein'




The long table was set, as Mrs. Jaspar always insisted that it should be set on these occasions; but old Munson not having returned, the gold plate (which his mistress also insisted on) had not been got out, and all down the table, as Lavinia saw with horror, George had laid the coarse blue and white plates from the servants' hall. The electric wall-lights were on, and the candles lit in the branching Sevres candelabra -- so much at least had been done. But the flowers in the great central dish of Rose Dubarry porcelain, and in the smaller dishes which accompanied it -- the flowers, oh shame, had been forgotten! They were no longer real flowers; the family had long since repressed that expense; and no wonder, for Mrs. Jasper always insisted on orchids. But Grace, the youngest daughter, who was the kindest, had hit on the clever device of arranging three beautiful clusters of artificial orchids and maiden-hair, which had only to be lift ed from their shelf in the pantry and set in the dishes -- only, of course, that imbecile footman had forgotten, or had not known where to find them. And, oh, horror, realizing his oversight too late, no doubt, to appeal to Lavinia, he had taken some old newspapers and bunched them up into something that he probably thought resembled a bouquet, and crammed one into each of the priceless Rose Dubarry dishes.

At one time, forty years ago, Evelina Jaspar had been New York's leading hostess; 'she had lived, breathed, invested and reinvested her millions, to no other end.'  Now she is very old, and suffering from 'softening of the brain;'  her young nurses and her elderly servants care for her in her Fifth Avenue mansion, playing along on the nights when she dresses in purple velvet, diamonds, and black orthopedic shoes and hobbles down the grand staircase to greet her imaginary guests.  But there was a long social decline before all this happened, and Anson Warley has long entertained his friends by insisting that he responds to 'Mrs. Jaspar requests the pleasure..' with 'Mr. Warley declines the boredom...'.

Warley is a bachelor, aging but still in demand for dinners and dances.  He scoffs when his valet, Filmore, suggests that he should not be going out every night, but he admits that there have been episodes of confusion, and dizziness, and a moment, when he was out walking, when he knew that he had turned a corner. With these two lives, representing old New York, intersecting, you know what is going to happen long before it does, but porcelain and houses and clothing and lives are so beautifully and creepily depicted, and observations are so devastating, in this story that I was very happy to be drawn in and along.

In the biography of Edith Wharton that I've been reading, Shari Benstock mentions that 'After Holbein,' published in May 1930, was considered 'a triumph.'  She also notes that Mrs. Jaspar was probably based on Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, a cousin of EW's father George Frederic Jones. {I couldn't help smiling when George, the 'imbecile footman,' serves mineral water to the dinner guests, first saying that it is the Perrier-Jouet, 'ninety-five, and then taking it around twice more, after the mashed potatoes and the spinach, 'announced successively as Chateau Lafit, 'seventy-four and the old Newbold Madeira.' EW's maiden name was Edith Newbold Jones, which must have been an old New York family name, right?}

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Back in January, I found this chronology of EW's writings, and came up with the idea of reading one of her short stories every month, in the month that it was published, in honor of her birthday and my year with Edith.  I made a list, but I'm starting four months late;  I'll just try to keep going into next year.  The Mount, her home in Lenox, re-opened for the season this weekend, and though it will be a few weeks until I can go there, I'm counting the days!



{The image at the top is of an English jardiniere, c. 1860,
in 'Rose Dubarry pink,' found here.}


6 comments:

The Passing Tramp said...

One of my favorites by her. Kind of a wry horror tale in a way.

Karen K. said...

What a lovely idea -- and also manageable. I haven't read any Wharton in a while and really must, I have a couple of her books on the TBR shelf and a lovely edition of her New York stories from NYRB Classics. I think she's equally good as a short story writer and a novelist. I thought her ghost stories were really good. I haven't read After Holbein yet.

And you are so lucky to be able to go to The Mount! If I ever make it back up to Massachusetts I'll have to make the trip.

Audrey said...

Hi, Passing Tramp -- that's a perfect description; it's a masterful horror story even if you have guessed what's going to happen!

Hi, Karen -- I have that edition, too. That's where I found After Holbein; Pomegranate Seed (which I read last year) is very good too.

JoAnn said...

You're planning a trip to The Mount soon? I really hope to take a day trip sometime this summer.

The Passing Tramp said...

Love Pomegranate Seed. So eerie in what's left unstated. Wharton was a one of the best supernatural writers.

Vintage Reading said...

Oh please do a post and some photographs of The Mount. I love reading about literary pilgrimages. So envious!

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