Glorious Escapsim: ‘The New York Stories of Edith Wharton’

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Last summer I really went nuts for New York literature, but even at the time I knew my dedication would only allow  me to scrape this surface of the mass of books that fall within this category.  Knowing my own limitations, I even tried (slightly) to limit my book buying … and I felt my restraint had been rewarded when this beautiful NYRB edition of Edith Wharton short stories appeared in a London charity shop a few months ago.  Finally, I could stop feeling bitter about being so sensible, and start to really look forward to seeing New York anew, through the eyes of one of its best writers.

According to the blurb the collection ‘charts the growth of an American master;’ in my opinion, it shows a coherent and consistent body of work from a writer whose first published story ‘Mrs. Manstey’s View’ is as impressive as anything written subsequently.  Wharton is an outstanding writer of the city but, most of all, she is an acute observer of human behaviour.  In this opening story, she gives us a completely realised picture of an ‘uncommunicative old woman [with] a vague tenderness for plants and animals.  It was, perhaps, this tenderness which made her cling so fervently to her view from her window, a view in which the most optimistic eye would at first have failed to discover anything admirable.’  The specific vantage point of the narrative gives an intimate, understated and wholly beautiful vision of the city.  A beauty, of course, which is as transient as the chaotic lives of its inhabitants.

Matching the different faces of the city are the range of Wharton’s characters.  She is equally at home in shabby-genteel boarding houses where men and women live on the edge of destitution as in the luxurious ball rooms of the super rich.  Whatever the setting, characters and society are drawn with biting precision.  One of my (many) favourite stories takes as its heroine the put-upon, adored Mrs. Fetherel ‘Every woman feels for the sister who is compelled to wear a bonnet which does not “go” with her gown; but how much sympathy is given to her whose husband refuses to harmonize with the pose of the moment?  Scant justice has, for instance, been done to the misunderstood wife whose husband persists in understanding her; to the submissive helpmate whose task-master shuns every opportunity of browbeating her, and to the generous and impulsive being whose bills are paid with philosophic calm.’ 

These stories contain everything a Wharton fan could want, cutting satire, lush period details, and frequent battles between the sexes.  As you may expect from someone who chronicles society with such an eagle eye, some stories seem a little dated in content (such as ‘The Other Two’ in which a man marries a divorcée) and others in style (with a few unexpected melodramas creeping in).  The vast majority however remind us that society has always been in flux, then as well as now, and that human depths and shallowness will always make for great fiction.  Whether she’s charting the trials of successful popular authors or struggling artists, nervous new wives or settled businessmen, Wharton crafts perfectly-judged narratives to escape into.  I’m so happy to add this volume to my Wharton collection, and it’s only whetted my appetite to discover more of her shorter works.

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10 Responses to Glorious Escapsim: ‘The New York Stories of Edith Wharton’

  1. Another writer I need to read more of – I have one of her large novels lined up for August! 🙂

  2. Izzy says:

    Oh my God I want it ! Lovely cover, wonderful writer…what’s a girl to do ?

  3. Jonathan says:

    I was thumbing through a copy of this at my local library the other day; it’s very tempting.

    • The great thing about a good local library is that it’s like an extended personal bookshelf – I wish you very happy reading when you get round to checking it out!

  4. Sounds wonderful! I’ve not read any of her short stories at all.

    • This is the second volume of Wharton ‘New York’ books on my shelves; a few years ago I bought an equally wonderful Vigaro book of Wharton’s shorter works called ‘Old New York’ which has four brilliant novellas from 1940, 1950, 1960 and 1970. There’re a lot of great Wharton stories out there!

  5. Desiree B. Silvage says:

    You’re right about everything. I remember when I read the story of Roman Fever. Wharton reflected very well the hidden rivalry between the two characters. But what I liked most was the final surprise

    • I know, I was a little surprised to find it as the finale in a book called ‘The New York Stories’, but then I’m so pleased to have read it, I can’t complain!

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