'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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July 9, 2012

My Year with Edith: 'Mrs. Manstey's View'



Mrs. Manstey, from her coign of vantage (a slightly projecting bow-window where she nursed an ivy and a succession of unwholesome-looking bulbs), looked out first upon the yard of her own dwelling, of which, however, she could get but a restricted glimpse. Still, her gaze took in the topmost boughs of the ailanthus below her window, and she knew how early each year the clump of dicentra strung its bending stalk with hearts of pink.
      But of greater interest were the yards beyond. Being for the most part attaching to boarding-houses they were in a state of chronic untidiness and fluttering, on certain days of the week, with miscellaneous garments and frayed table-cloths. In spite of this Mrs. Manstey  found much to admire in the long vista which she commanded. Some of the yards were, indeed, but stony wastes, with grass in the cracks of the pavement and no shade in spring save that afforded by the intermittent leafage of the clotheslines. These yards Mrs. Manstey disapproved of, but the others, the green ones, she loved. ...

Yesterday, when I was looking through my books for 'The Last Asset,' I saw that the first story in one of them was 'Mrs. Manstey's View,' and I remembered reading that this latter story was the first short story Edith Wharton published.  In July, too, as it turns out (in 1891). 

Knowing that this was an Edith Wharton story, I would have expected Mrs. Manstey to be a straightlaced member of wealthy society, and her 'view' to be a strong opinion a position, a take on things.  Not yet:  Mrs. Manstey is widowed, poor, elderly, alone, afflicted with gout, and living on the third floor of a slightly shabby boarding-house, and her 'view' is, literally, what she sees from her window.  She tells a neighbor later, in some desperation, that she has never been a happy woman, but she seems content to spend the large part of her days, finding what seems like joy in looking out at yards, trees, and church spires, noticing that the flowers are earlier this year, and noting with stern compassion what her neighbors and their servants are doing.  When her landlady tells her that the boardinghouse-owner next door is ready to start construction on an extension {'That's the most absurd part of it. The extension is to be built right up to the roof of the main building now, did you ever?'}, Mrs. Manstey feels a loss so significant that she takes unaccustomed action.

This doesn't seem like the Edith Wharton we know yet (though we shouldn't expect it to...), except possibly for the knowledge of flowers and plants, the New York setting, and Mrs. Manstey, who is a fully-drawn character who acts with decision.  I've never read many short stories (have you?), but I'm increasingly drawn to them (are you?)

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