The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik
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January 20, 2014

Autre Temps...

      'You won't know Leila. She's had her pearls reset. Sargent's to paint her. Oh, I was to tell you that she hopes you won't mind being the least bit squeezed over Sunday. The house was built by Wilbour's father, you know, and it's rather old-fashioned -- only ten spare bedrooms. Of course that's small for what they mean to do, and she'll show you the new plans they've had made. Their idea is to keep  the present house as a wing. ... They're thinking of Egypt for next winter, unless, of course, Wilbour gets his appointment. Oh, didn't she write you about that?  Why, he wants Rome, you know -- the second secretaryship. Or. rather, he wanted England; but Leila insisted that if they went abroad she must be near you. And of course, what she says is law. Oh, they quite hope they'll get it. You see Horace's uncle is in the Cabinet -- one of the assistant secretaries -- and I believe he has a good deal of pull - '
      'Horace's uncle? You mean Wilbour's, I suppose,' Mrs. Lidcote interjected, with a gasp of which a fraction was given to Miss Suffern's flippant use of the language.
      'Wilbour's? No, I don't. I mean Horace's. There's no bad feeling between them, I assure you. Since Horace's engagement was announced -- you didn't know Horace was engaged? Why, he's marrying one of Bishop Thornbury's girls:  the red-haired one who wrote the novel that everyone's talking about. This Flesh of Mine. They're to be married in the cathedral. Of course, Horace can, because it was Leila who -- but, as I say, there's not the least feeling, and Horace wrote himself to his uncle about Wilbour.'
      Mrs. Lidcote's thoughts fled back to what she had said to Ide the day before on the deck of the 'Utopia.' 'I didn't take up much room before, but now where is there a corner for me?' Where indeed in this crowded, topsy-turvy world, with its headlong changes and helter-skelter readjustments, its new tolerances and indifferences and accommodations, was there room for a character fashioned by slower sterner processes and a life broken under their intolerable pressure? And then, in a flash, she viewed the chaos from a new angle, and order seemed to move upon the void.  If the old processes were changed, her case was changed with them; she, too, was part of the general readjustment, a tiny fragment of the new pattern worked out in bolder freer harmonies. Since her daughter had no penalty to pay, was not she herself released by the same stroke? ... It was almost -- wondrously enough! -- as if Leila's folly had been the means of vindicating hers.
After having abandoned her for much too long, I spent part of this long, quiet, unexpectedly snowy weekend getting back into R.W.B. Lewis' biography of Edith Wharton, the one that I've been reading for about a year. {Sigh.} I picked it up again at the chapter describing the months leading up to EW's decision (a wavering, painful, uncertain one) to divorce her mentally unstable, philandering husband, which she did, finally, in 1912. The biography suggests that her uncertainty stemmed not only from a sense of responsibility or care for Teddy but also from how she would be viewed, and accepted, in her social circles.  She knew that divorce was increasingly common, but found it hard for her '51-year-old self' to turn away from everything associated with it. {It even describes her asking her friend Bernhard Berenson to write to some prominent Bostonians, including one of his old professors and the current President of Harvard, to where their sympathies lay; Teddy's family was from Boston, and they had been vindictive toward her.}

When the biography mentioned 'Autre  Temps...,' a short story EW published about six months before her divorce became final, I went looking for it on my bookshelf.  It was perfect to read it at this moment.  The story centers on Mrs. Lidcote, who is middle-aged, living in Florence, and encumbered by her past.  We're not told exactly what she has done, but we learn that she has, at least, committed a social transgression out of love, and is now divorced. When she learns that her daughter, Leila, is unhappy, and has divorced her husband and quickly remarried, she knows she must go to her, to offer comfort and advice, but she also believes that society's acceptance of what Leila has done will mean that the shadow will be lifted from her actions.

On the steamship that takes her to New York, Mrs. Lidcote meets Franklin Ide, an old friend, a calm, practical voice of reason, who insists that many of her concerns are figments of her imagination, and asks her to marry him.  But she leaves to  visit her daughter and new son-in-law in Lenox, on a weekend when the young couple seem to be having an important house party. She travels with her cousin, an older woman who is 'always in mourning, and always commemorating the demise of distant relatives by wearing the discarded wardrobe of their next of kin.'  Miss Suffern is a wonderful character; she seems to be a representative of EW's old New York, but she is really the person tasked with being a go-between Mrs. Lidcote and her 'tender, solicitous,' happy, bright, insincere daughter.

      'Oh, did you mean to go down for tea?' Suzy Suffern peered at her, a little flustered. 'Leila sent me up to keep you company. She thought it would be cozier for you to stay here. She was afraid you were feeling rather tired.'
      'I was, but I've had the whole afternoon to rest in. And this wonderful sofa to help me.'
      'Leila told me to tell you that she'd rush up for a minute before dinner, after everybody had arrived, but the train is always dreadfully late. She's in despair at not giving you a sitting room; she wanted to know if I thought you really minded.'
      'Of course I don't mind. It's not like Leila to think I should ...' Mrs. Lidcote drew aside to make way for the housemaid, who appeared in the doorway bearing a table spread with a bewildering variety of tea cakes.
      'Leila saw to it herself,' Miss Suffern murmured as the door closed. 'Her one idea is that you should be happy here.'
      It struck Mrs. Lidcote as one more mark of the subverted state of things that her daughter's solicitude should find expression in multiplicity of sandwiches and the piping hotness of muffins, but then everything that had happened since her arrival seemed to increase her confusion. ...
      ... Miss Suffern's gaze grew vague. 'You do look tired, you know,' she continued, seating herself at the tea table and preparing to dispense its delicacies. 'You must go straight back to your sofa and let me wait on you. The excitement has told on you more than you think, and you mustn't fight it any longer. Just stay quietly up here and let yourself go. You'll have Leila to yourself on Monday.'
      Mrs. Lidcote received the teacup which her cousin proffered, but showed no other disposition to obey her injunctions. For a moment she stirred her tea in silence, then she asked:  'Is it your idea that I should  stay quietly up here till Monday?'
      Miss Suffern set down her cup with a gesture so sudden that it  endangered an adjacent plate of scones. When she assured herself of the safety of the scones she looked up with a fluttered laugh. 'Perhaps, dear, by tomorrow you'll be feeling differently. The air here, you know -- '
      'Yes, I know,' Mrs. Lidcote bent forward to help herself to a scone. 'Who's arriving this evening?'
As their conversation continues, and the evening unfolds, we come to know, as Mrs. Lidcote already does, what has changed and what has not.

I'm not as much of a devotee of the short story as some of my reading/blogging friends are, though I'm learning to appreciate them more. I thought this one was a gem. There's humor, but there's also a more poignant, less pleasant undercurrent, and as I found myself admiring Mrs. Lidcote, during what happens next, I found myself admiring Edith for writing a story like this at the time that she did.

{The painting, by Julian Weir, was found on Pinterest.}


Karen K. said...

I love Edith. This one was in the New York Stories collection I read last year and I remember liking it. I just read my first Wharton novel in forever and it was far too long. I still want to read her biography too.

Bellezza said...

Personally, I'd be much more captivated by a short story than a biography, but that's just because I'm such a sucker for fiction. Love the Sargeant painting above, if indeed it is his, and I admire you for sticking with a novel for a whole year!

Anonymous said...

Edith Wharton does short stories very well, and I really should read some more of them one day. And the biography (by Hermione Lee) that has been sitting on a shelf for so long. You may be taking your time, but you're still ahead of me!

JoAnn said...

I love Edith's novels and short stories, but am failing miserably when it comes to reading about her life. Hermione Lee's biography (purchased on my previous visit to The Mount) continues to languish on the shelf…. I must take action soon. ;)

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