Old New York – Edith Wharton

I have been on a bit of an Edith Wharton spree over the last couple of years. In 2020, I read and wrote about The Custom of the Country and The New York Stories (the latter published by NYRB Classics in a handsome edition). And this year, earlier on I wrote about The House of Mirth. All are wonderful books to which Old New York is another worthwhile addition.

Old New York is a marvellous collection of four novellas set in 19th century New York, each novella encompassing a different decade, from the first story set in the 1840s to the last in the 1870s. All these novellas display the brilliance of Edith Wharton’s writing and are proof of the fact that her keen insights and astute observations on the hypocrisy of New York of her time are second to none.

FALSE DAWN (The ‘Forties)

In False Dawn, the first novella in this collection, we meet Mr Halston Raycie, whose “extent in height, width and thickness was so nearly the same that whichever way he was turned one had an equally broad view of him.”

Mr Raycie has a formidable personality and is generally well-respected in his social circle, although in many ways he is a tyrant at least where his family is concerned. The novella opens with a garden party at the Raycie residence in honour of the young Lewis Raycie, who is about to embark on his first Grand Tour to Europe. It is intended that Lewis should travel extensively since his father strongly believes that “a young man, before setting up for himself, must see the world; form his taste; fortify his judgement.”

But the senior Raycie also has a project in mind for his son. He wants to build a Raycie gallery with as many Italian art masterpieces as possible, and Lewis has been entrusted with adequate capital to select and purchase some of the finest works of art from the Italian masters in vogue then. Domenichino, Albano, Carlo Dolci, Guercino are some of the names thrown about, even a Raphael, if possible.

The dream, the ambition, the passion of Mr Raycie’s life, was (as his son knew) to found a Family; and he had only Lewis to found it with. He believed in primogeniture, in heirlooms, in entailed estates, in all the ritual of the English “landed” tradition.

Temperament-wise, Lewis could not have been more different from his father – he is impressionable, malleable and remains in awe of Mr Raycie’s imposing persona. Lewis is a bit apprehensive about his upcoming trip, but the mission of building a Raycie gallery fills him with a sense of purpose. Once on his travels though, Lewis befriends a fellow called John Ruskin who introduces the former to some stunning paintings, but from relatively obscure artists. Lewis is mesmerized and suddenly takes the bold, innovative step of buying these artworks. But when he returns home with them, both father and son are in for a rude shock.

Lewis is sure of gaining his father’s approval, but the latter is strongly of the view that his son has “wasted” the capital at his disposal by not buying the famous art paintings as was his mandate. Senior Raycie leaves no stone unturned in expressing his deep disappointment with Lewis, and resorts to actions that have deeper repercussions for his son. But will Lewis end up having the last laugh?

False Dawn, then, examines the set ways of New York society and how it values collective opinions rather than individual views. Halston Raycie is no art connoisseur by any yardstick, but insists on his gallery displaying works of Italian masters that are the talk of the town simply because he wants to keep up with his peers. It is ultimately a question of status and not aesthetics. The fact that every painting can communicate something personal and unique to every viewer is a concept lost on him. Lewis Percy’s individual thinking has no place in New York society and he is derided for his so-called foolishness, not to mention that he must bear the brunt of his father’s subsequent actions.

THE OLD MAID (The ‘Fifties)

The second novella, The Old Maid, to me, is the finest in the collection and alone worth the price of the book. It opens thus…

In the old New York of the ‘fifties a few families ruled, in simplicity and affluence. Of these were the Ralstons.

Within the limits of their universal caution, the Ralstons fulfilled their obligations as rich and respected citizens. They figured on the boards of all the old-established charities, gave handsomely to thriving institutions, had the best cooks in New York, and when they travelled abroad ordered statuary of the American sculptors in Rome whose reputation was already established.

We are introduced to Delia Lovell who has married James (Jim) Ralston at the tender age of twenty. Prior to her marriage, Delia had romantic feelings for Clement Spender, an aspiring painter in Rome, who was also passionately in love with her. However, their union does not come to fruition largely because of his uncertain financial position and his inability to provide for a family.

Now, as part of the Ralston fold, Delia, at 25, is “established, the mother of two children, the possessor of a generous allowance of pin-money, and by common consent, one of the handsomest and most popular ‘young patrons’ of her day.”

Delia is grateful for her comfortable life and her established position, and yet somewhere she is gripped by a sense of discontent, that fleeting notion that life is somehow passing her by.

She was too near to the primitive Ralstons to have as clear a view of them as, for instance, the son in question might one day command: she lived under them as unthinkingly as one lives under the laws of one’s country. Yet that tremor of the muted key-board, that secret questioning which sometimes beat in her like wings, would now and then so divide her from them that for a fleeting moment she could survey them in their relation to other things.

Meanwhile, there enters Charlotte Lovell, Delia’s impoverished cousin, “the old maid” of the title. Charlotte’s upbringing is in sharp contrast to Delia’s despite coming from the same family. Charlotte’s father was in fact branded as one of the “poor Lovells.” Due to their constrained means, not much of a bright future is expected for her. Indeed, we are told “poor Charlotte had become so serious, so prudish almost, since she had given up balls and taken to visiting the poor!” It is generally agreed that Charlotte is destined to be an old maid.

But then to everyone’s surprise, Charlotte’s engagement to Joe Ralston is announced. However, instead of experiencing the joy of a promising future, Charlotte’s woes only deepen. In the weeks leading to her betrothal, Charlotte makes a dramatic confession to Delia that alters the course of the former’s life. Delia learns that Charlotte has borne a child out of wedlock as a consequence of a brief love affair, and has managed to keep it a secret. It also explains why Charlotte had devoted so much of her time to poor children, her daughter – Tina – has been placed among them, and it’s the only way for her to remain as close to Tina as possible.

What torments Charlotte is the future of Tina. Should she part herself from her? Or should she reject marriage and happiness to continue her furtive care of her baby?

Charlotte’s dilemma is particularly fuelled by the fact that after marriage, Joe Ralston expects her to give up her time with those poor children. Why visit them when she can focus on starting her own family? But that would mean abandoning Tina, which Charlotte cannot bring herself to do. Delia suggests a way out. She offers to provide a comfortable home for Tina and for Charlotte to be with her, but for this she has to make a sacrifice – Charlotte cannot entertain any hopes of marrying Joe Ralston.

At the core of this gorgeous, layered novella is the relationship between Delia and Charlotte, how they are as different as chalk and cheese, and how they envy each other on certain aspects. Having married safely, Delia hasn’t experienced sexual passion like Charlotte has. Similarly, Charlotte, despite being a mother, cannot really experience the joys of motherhood like Delia can, because her secret cannot be revealed at any cost, not even to her daughter. It’s a story where Wharton does not entirely rule out the idea of human happiness; it’s only that this happiness is always narrow in its scope, confined within strict boundaries. One can’t help but think that all things considered, it is Charlotte to whom Fate deals the cruellest hand.

THE SPARK (The ‘Sixties)

The third novella called The Spark, was my least favourite of the lot, but still very interesting, delving into the theme of the moral compass of Old New York.

The narrator here is a young male from a good family who is fascinated by an older man in his parents’ set, a man called Hayley Delane. What catches the narrator’s eye is how different Delane is from the other men of his ilk. For instance, Delane marries Leila Gracy, a woman fifteen years his junior, despite the fact her father is in disgrace to the point where “he had to resign from all his clubs.” Delane, however, loves her unreservedly and does not seem to be too perturbed even when she is brazenly flirting with other men.

Two particular incidents form the focus of this novella, which display how Delane can rebel and be at odds with his social set. The first is when he slaps one of Leila’s lovers for ill-treating a horse. But because this would be perceived as an act of revenge of a jealous husband, Delane is forced to apologise so that his wife’s reputation is not sullied. The other incident where Delane draws much flak is when he decides to provide a home to his father-in-law under his own roof and undertake the responsibility of his care, an act which sees Leila distancing herself from Delane as well.

Delane has differing opinions when it comes to social questions, or the relation between “gentlemen” and the community. And his typical response tends to be along the lines of…

“After all, what does it matter who makes the first move? The thing is to get the business done.”

NEW YEAR’S DAY (The ‘Seventies)

In New Year’s Day, the spotlight is on Lizzie Hazeldean, a married woman, who is spotted leaving a Fifth Avenue hotel with a man who is not her husband. This development immediately sets tongues wagging, and Lizzie is in danger of being completely excluded from society.

A lot about this novella reminded me of The House of Mirth, where Lily Bart’s downfall is precipitated when she is unfairly judged for leaving the house of a married man, and how society gradual shuts her out with tragic consequences.

Interestingly, Lizzie’s circumstances are subsequently revealed to the reader and the reasons that compel her to hook up with another man. But in the claustrophobic world of Old New York, conventions and decorum are meant to be adhered to, and there is a heavy price to pay for deviating from conformity. Unconventional behaviour is a surefire recipe for doom.

This is also a novella which shines a light on the plight of women who due to their single-minded upbringing are not equipped for an independent career but must rely on marriage for financial support.

Marriage alone could save such a girl from starvation, unless she happened to run across an old lady who wanted her dogs exercised and her Churchman read aloud to her. Even the day of painting wild-roses on fans, of coloring photographs to “look like” miniatures, of manufacturing lampshades and trimming hats for more fortunate friends – even this precarious beginning of feminine independence had not dawned.

Some more thoughts on these novellas…

In each of these four novellas, the central characters struggle to adapt to the rigid mores of conventional New York. Thrown into extraordinary situations not aligned to societal expectations, they find themselves alienated from the only world they have ever known. In her introduction, Marilyn French dwells on how appearances matter a great deal and if a man lost his money or a woman lost her reputation, they simply fell out of society, they were treated as if they did not exist.

The women, as ever, are always given a raw deal. A married woman seen with another man means that the woman’s image is guaranteed to be tainted, the man is never judged. Similarly, a man with a child out of wedlock hardly causes much flutter, and if he separately provides for it, the matter is considered closed and swept under a carpet. But a woman in exactly the same situation is sure to be ruined and treated harshly.

What makes it all the more worse is that these so-called rules of society are also upheld by women. There is a particular scene in The Old Maid where Charlotte is yet to divulge to Delia the gravity of her problem. Here’s a snippet of a conversation between the two…

“Well?-Oh, Chatty,” Delia exclaimed abruptly illuminated, “you don’t mean to say that you’re going to let any little thing in Joe’s past-? Not that I’ve ever heard the last hint; never. But even if there were…” She drew a deep breath, and bravely proceeded to extremities. “Even if you’ve heard that he’s been…that he’s had a child-of course he would have provided for it before…”

The girl shook her head. “I know: you needn’t go on. ‘Men will be men’; but it’s not that.”

Delia seems to be okay with the irritating, misguided notion that “men will be men” and that Charlotte can brush aside Joe’s affairs and offspring from them, if any. But when it’s clear that Charlotte is the one with an illegitimate child, Delia feels that it is dishonourable for Charlotte to wed Joe without revealing the truth of her situation to him. Delia may have taken the unconventional step of providing for Charlotte’s child, yet she is also prone to double-standards that are troubling.

In all the four novellas, Wharton’s prose sparkles with intelligence and deft touches of irony. Nowhere is this more apparent than in False Dawn and The Spark, both of which end on a visibly ironic note, while there are subtle hues present in the other two novellas.

Old New York, then, is Wharton’s brilliant, scathing depiction of a society “where sensitive souls were like muted keyboards, on which Fate played without a sound.”

The Custom of the Country – Edith Wharton

Many moons ago I had read Wharton’s The Age of Innocence and was blown away by it. It was the novel that earned her the Pulitzer Prize, the first woman to do so. It is one of those novels I plan to revisit sometime soon.

The Age of Innocence is one of the three ‘society’ novels that Wharton is famous for, the other two being The House of Mirth and The Custom of the Country, and it was the latter that tempted me first.

The protagonist, or should we say anti-heroine of The Custom of the Country is the uniquely named Undine Spragg, easily one of the most appalling and yet highly fascinating characters in fiction.

We first meet Undine in the Hotel Stentorian in New York where she has recently moved in with her parents. The Spraggs are originally from Apex City (a fictional town somewhere in the Midwest), but they shift to New York so that Undine can realize her ambition of being part of the elite society in the city.

Undine is tremendously beautiful, a fact she is well aware of and knows how to use to her advantage. But there is much she is yet to learn about the codes and customs of Old New York. In the meanwhile, she captures the imagination of Ralph Marvell, who belongs to an old and respectable family in the city and they marry.

Undine is soon to realize that people who constitute Old New York are not necessarily well moneyed. The Marvells live comfortably but they have modest means and it is not enough to whet Undine’s rather expensive tastes. Ralph is a gentleman with no eye for business or work, and aspires to become an author. He receives a monthly allowance from his grandfather, but Undine’s insatiable desire for rich clothes and a decadent lifestyle means that they are also compelled to rely on the support of Undine’s father Mr Spragg.

Ralph and Undine are as different as chalk and cheese, which becomes increasingly apparent during their honeymoon. They travel to Europe. While Ralph is content to be alone with Undine, appreciating the quiet countryside and looking for inspiration to begin his novel, Undine is unhappy. She craves the life of big hotels, of being surrounded by people, dining and socializing. Ralph relents and they head to the Alpine town of St Moritz in Switzerland, where Undine, with her newly acquired set of friends, delves headlong into a life of dining at smart restaurants and umpteen shopping expeditions, a charade that continues subsequently in Paris as well.

As her extravagant lifestyle eats into their finances, despite Ralph’s many attempts to rein her in, cracks begin to appear in their relationship.

During their first days together it had seemed as though pecuniary questions were the last likely to be raised between them. But his marital education had since made strides, and he now knew that a disregard for money may imply not the willingness to get on without it but merely a blind confidence that it will somehow be provided. If Undine, like the lilies of the field, took no care, it was not because her wants were as few but because she assumed that care would be taken for her by those whose privilege it was to enable her to unite floral insouciance with Sheban elegance.

The arrival of their son Paul does nothing to soothe Undine, who feels constrained by their limited circumstances. Ralph, meanwhile, also tries to reconcile himself to Undine’s many moods which keep oscillating depending on the money at her disposal and various amusements at hand.

Then there’s also the looming presence of Elmer Moffatt, a self-made man and a go getter. He is a man from Undine’s past in Apex City – much before she makes her entry into New York society. We are given an inkling of this right at beginning of the novel in a conversation between Mr and Mrs Spragg when they apprehensively discuss Mr Moffatt’s appearance in New York, a man Undine wants to have nothing to do with.

I won’t dwell anymore on the plot, although a lot more happens.

Undine Spragg, meanwhile, is a quite a character. She wants to be at the pinnacle of fashionable society, the talk of the town during the season and finds marriage as the fastest way to do it.

But, alas, while she expects wealth and respectability, she ends up getting only one of them, never both.

She wanted, passionately and persistently, two things which she believed should subsist together in any well-ordered life: amusement and respectability…

Undine believes in the power of her beauty and with it the ability to get what she demands. This takes a toll on Ralph who is driven to dabble in business to support her even though he has no aptitude for it.

On one hand, Undine has a single-minded focus of attaining material possessions and getting them despite suffering various setbacks in the process. Yet her idea of success also depends a lot on how she perceives herself in the eyes of others. She is always yearning for the unattainable with the result that she remains unhappy in most of the situations she finds herself in. She is frankly horrid to poor Ralph, and yet it is perversely fascinating to watch how she takes her failures on her chin and to just move on.

In many ways she has quite a few common traits with Moffatt – both refuse to be bowed down by setbacks and while Moffatt strives for success and wealth in business, Undine aspires for it in her married life.

In this way, Wharton gives a wider view of the newly rich in America and their zeal for money as a key driving force. Undine, in a way epitomizes this, in her wanting to spend the money now, on the spot rather than save it for a distant future. In the later sections of the novel, Wharton also successfully contrasts the American obsession with material wealth with the European ideals of traditions and age old customs. With respect to this point particularly, here is Frenchman Raymond de Chelles speaking to Undine…

‘You come from hotels as big as towns, and from towns as flimsy as paper, where the streets haven’t had time to be named, and the buildings are demolished before they’re dry, and the people are as proud of changing as we are of holding to what we have – and we’re fools enough to imagine that because you copy our ways and pick up our slang you understand anything about the things that make life decent and honourable for us.’

Divorce is also a key plot device and a dominant theme in the novel. Wharton subtly encapsulates the implications of ending a marriage for a woman and how it restricts her standing in polite society. Interestingly, this novel was published around the time Wharton herself had just divorced her husband. Clearly, while more and more women had begun to opt for divorce across America, it was still unheard of in Old New York at the time.

Wharton’s prose as ever is top notch, elegant and incisive. This is an incredibly immersive novel where the pace never lets up. It is packed with fully realized characters and Wharton’s keen and subtle insights into society – both American and European – at the time.

Overall, The Custom of the Country is an absolutely brilliant novel and I would place it right up there with her masterpiece The Age of Innocence.