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.