Mysteriously Embarrassing: Edith Wharton

by Liz

I rescued a book from the freebie table in my university English Department today. It was the oldest tome on the table, and being inevitably drawn to ratty old books, I swiped it. The cover was faded and the golden title and author were nondescript and unknown to me. The cover brought to mind old hymnals. Texture-wise, hymnals have always set my teeth slightly on edge, but like many old hymnals, this humble book had something of far greater value: cottony, rough-cut quarto-fold.

The paper was cut sporadically– sometimes varying by whole millimeters. Closed, the book looks like a stack of torn paper napkins or over-washed dollar bills. Many old books have these jagged cut edges. I adore them, and regard them fondly.  Some modern bookbinders  copy this look in an attempt to lend an aged, “authentic-ness” to the book, but they can never match the soft, intriguing texture of an antique book.

Anyhow, back to the book at hand. When I picked it up, the book belched a loose page onto the floor. When I examined the fallen page, I discovered this particular book was illustrated. I was delighted. I began to look through the book with eager anticipation.  Thumbing through the pages in my quest for illustrations, I was struck by the odd, clumsy opening paragraph of the story:

“It is not often that youth allows itself to feel undividedly happy: the sensation is too much the result of selection and elimination to be within reach of the awakening clutch on life. But Kate Orme, for once, had yielded herself to happiness, letting it permeate every faculty as a spring rain soaks into a germinating meadow. There was nothing to account for this sudden sense of beatitude; but it was not this precisely which made it so irresistible, so overwhelming? There had been, within the past two months– since her engagement to Denis Peyton– no distinct addition to the sum of her happiness, and no possibility, she would have affirmed, of adding perceptibly to a total already incalculable.”

Granted, it may just be my personal preferences in conflict with the early 20th century stylings, but the diction and syntax still tickle me as slightly odd and cryptic. Clearly, this story floated along the lines of Kate Chopin’s Awakening. Now distracted, I turned to page 117 and was delighted by another odd quote:

“In the dim light, with his pallour heightened by the sombre effect of his mourning, he came upon her almost startlingly, with a revival of some long-effaced impression, which, for a moment, gave her a sense of struggling among shadows.”

Truly, the last phrase was utter genius, but the rest of the sentence was deliciously ’round-about. The feast of funny phrases continued:

“Mrs. Peyton’s midnight musings summed themselves up in the conclusion that the next few hours would end her uncertainty.”
(Delightfully alliterative and repetitious, like a child’s favorite song played over and over and over and over…)
“If the girl should reconcile Dick to his weakness, should pluck the sting from his reputation?”
(Either an editor or a typesetter took a well-deserved nap or something more unusual is going on in this question.)

Other bits are more interesting stylistic habits or simply a matter of the obvious:

"This record is broken!" "Oh! The poor thing!"

"droop of slackness"

The table of illustrations is especially fun (pardon the blurred picture). Here, the serious storyline is summed up in grand, accidental humor:

Lets hope Dick doesnt live up to his name.

I was about to have a wildly good time with this book, excited that I had in my possession a genuine piece of poorly written/edited literature, a real Inverted Jenny of the book world! High on pride and binding glue, I googled the title and author.

Oh crap.

The joy bubble popped. When the search results finished loading (the free internet in my economy apartment is a little temperamental) Edith Wharton, the “unknown author” of my dingy treasure, is actually the Edith Wharton, author of the 1921 Pulitzer Prize winner The Age of Innocence and all-around Queen of Awesome. Ah, I can hear the English teachers reaching for their torches and pitchforks as I type…

Queen of Awesome

This book is obviously not the famous Age of Innocence, but one of her earlier works from 1903, Sanctuary. For those of you who are (were) as ignorant about this story as I was, here is the eye-opening (and shaming) summary from The University of Pennsylvania Press:

“Kate Orme is a young woman whose illusions of marital bliss are shattered when she comes face to face with the dark secret harbored by her fiance, the wealthy and deceptively ebullient Denis. Kate decides to go ahead and marry Denis, however, as a selfless gesture to protect any child he may conceive from inheriting their father’s moral weakness. The couple does have a child, Dick, and in a marriage with a man that Kate has admittedly ceased to love, she transfers her original affections for Denis to their son.
“Denis dies suddenly and Kate is left to raise their young son. Knowing that Dick could have inherited the faults of his father, Kate anticipates a time when Dick’s morality will be severely tested. That time comes years later when Dick, an eligible bachelor and aspiring professional, is faced with a dilemma that will affect the course of his life.
“With the precision, beauty, and sharp awareness of the cracks in upper-class New York society that made her one of the great writers of the twentieth century, Edith Wharton offers a subtle critique of the nature versus nurture debate that raged in the early 1900s. Sanctuary is a spare and moving investigation of the forces that impel human beings toward sin, self-doubt, and redemption”

The Last Illustration

I still find the wording and the pace cumbersome, but now that I can’t admire the author for being absolutely rediculous and still achieving publishing success, I can still admire Walter Appleton Clark’s powerful illustrations. Though printed with disjointed quotes (remember the table of contents?), the haunting images are breathtaking. Many wholehearted thanks to the faculty member who discarded this gem. I love it.

~*~

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