“Yoknapatawpha on the Hudson”? On the Novelistic Universe of Edith Wharton
Krithika Varagur Rereads The Old Maid
Like William Faulkner or Thomas Hardy, and not unlike the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Edith Wharton loved some milieus too much for just one story. In its setting and characters, The Old Maid is quintessential Wharton, the New York-born author who wrote fifteen novels and novellas and became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Today she is most closely identified with the upper-class, hermetically sealed New York of her childhood and young adulthood, which she sharply indicted in The House of Mirth (1905) and satirized more gently in The Age of Innocence (1920).
Few realize that she wrote even more stories set in Gilded Age Manhattan. Indeed, Wharton summoned up the lost world of her childhood almost compulsively as an adult, long after she resettled as an expatriate in France. Edith Newbold Jones was born in 1862 into a grand New York family related to the Astors and van Rensselaers. As a novelist, she was a late bloomer. She wrote a number of poems and stories during her itinerant childhood in the U.S. and Europe, but her work was sidelined by her society debut at age seventeen and, a few years later, a long and miserable marriage with a Boston Brahmin named Teddy Wharton.
In her thirties, she started writing books about travel and interior decoration and finally published her first novel at age forty, in 1902. That opened the floodgates to dozens of short stories and novels, which she produced year after year until her death in 1937, in France. She moved there in 1907, divorced her husband in 1913, and barely set foot again in America after World War I. But she revisited the Gilded Age society of her youth in her writing, sometimes with biting satire, sometimes with rose-tinted nostalgia. And, in the case of The Old Maid, also with a qualified appreciation of certain lost values, and certain ways of carrying oneself in the world.
The Old Maid, first published in 1924, was part of a four-novella collection called Old New York, which dedicates a story to each decade from the 1840s through the 1870s. They are set among the same mercantile elite of Dutch and English families as is The Age of Innocence, and their casts of characters sport familiar surnames like Archer and Van Degen, creating a sort of Yoknapatawpha on the Hudson. The Old Maid takes place a generation before the famous 1870s love triangle among Newland Archer, Ellen Olenska, and May Welland.
A couple of minor characters have roles in both novella and novel: Mrs. Manson Mingott is a convention-defying aunt instead of a convention-defying grandmother, and Sillerton Jackson, The Age of Innocence’s gossip-loving old man, is prefigured as The Old Maid’s bachelor-about-town.
And yet these surface similarities are a little misleading. The exquisite drama of The Age of Innocence revolves, above all, around characters yearning to be free: free from their custom-bound society, and free to follow passion over duty. “Women ought to be free—as free as we are,” Newland proclaims. His love interest, Countess Olenska, is equally given to statements like, “I want to be free; I want to wipe out all the past.” Of course, they can’t be free in those ways, and Wharton ultimately breaks up the would-be lovers with stylish, genteel, epigrammatic finality.
The word “free” never appears in The Old Maid. Its two main characters, Delia Ralston and Charlotte Lovell, don’t want to be free from their imbroglio, their society, or each other. Their predicament is a thorny one – and rather more risqué than what one might expect of this author in this milieu. (The Ladies Home Journal politely rejected the story for being “a bit too vigorous;” it was only published after the success of Innocence.) Charlotte has an illegitimate baby with an artistic dilettante and can’t bring herself to abandon the child to an orphanage. She pleads with her wealthy, married, older cousin, Delia, to support baby Tina, which she agrees to do—if, and only if, Charlotte breaks off her high-society engagement to become the titular old maid. To top it off, the father of Charlotte’s child was once the (chaste) love of Delia’s life.
The novella spans twenty years, from Charlotte’s pregnancy to the eve of Tina’s marriage. Delia and Charlotte each have intense maternal feelings for Tina: one biological but secret and the other based on both affectionate proximity and long-ago passion.
This delicate situation developed because both women made rash, unconventional choices like breaking off an engagement and supporting a former lover’s baby. But they didn’t do these things to pointedly reject society’s mores, or in a conscious bid for freedom. And their story is not just about a bygone society’s oppressive strictures, but also about its piecemeal accommodation of subversive actions and vehement passions.
Both Delia and Charlotte enact the decisive episodes of their lives somewhat outside their most rational selves. Delia admits that “the first sight of little Tina had somehow decentralized [her] whole life, making her indifferent to everything else.” And Charlotte wastes no words prettifying her affair: “No one took advantage of me. I was lonely and unhappy. I met someone who was lonely and unhappy…” Both women accept at face value that they depend on other people, and that they act not entirely in their own self-interest. They are animated by what we might today call feminist care ethics, which centers moral action on interpersonal relationships driven by care and benevolence and assumes that individuals are dependent on a vast array of other people. In direst straits, these characters still only connect.
When Delia decides to support baby Tina, she resolves to “once more break down the Ralston barriers and reach out into the world.” Moreover, after her “immediate and unflinching” vow to care for Tina, “She saw only a future full of duties.” Not choices or desires: duties. Even these characters’ rebellions create new ways to relate to one another.
Wharton sets up their world in a virtuoso, dryly comic cold open. Old New York, she writes, was ruled by a “few families… in simplicity and affluence… well-fed slow-moving people… [who] lived together in genteel monotony.” They believe in nothing except their bank accounts, in contrast to the other prominent early Americans: the Puritans who died for their “creed.” And these New Yorkers worship at an “edulcorated” Church of England—the Episcopalian Church—that has sanded off harsh dogmas for decorum’s sake. But these old New Yorkers’ conservatism is ironic—because they’re all arrivistes.
The Ralstons may have socialized with George Washington and served Thomas Jefferson just three generations ago, but that’s because they live in a country that’s less than a century old. Their obscure taboos and rites, like shrouding pregnant women from public view, are all a little comic, even absurd. The business-minded Ralstons, into whom Delia marries and Charlotte is meant to marry, are paragons of this hidebound elite.
As Delia and Charlotte massage their social world to accommodate their subversive arrangements, the third-person narrator occasionally shifts to the collective perspective of upper-crust New York society. Like a Greek chorus, they comment on and grapple with various unusual developments over the novella’s twenty-year timespan. “You could always have told, everyone agreed afterward, that Charlotte Lovell was meant to be an old maid… there was something prim about her,” they intone as the novella’s second section opens. (In fact, just a few pages ago, it was clear that Charlotte’s broken engagement was a radical move for a well-born, pretty debutante from a family with a long history of marrying Ralstons—but a few pages is all it takes for this group to start rationalizing.)
The same chorus reassures itself that she was a consumptive, “coughing her lungs out—that, of course, had been the reason for her breaking her engagement with Joe Ralston,” even though surely some of them guessed at the real reason a young woman would disappear from view for about a year. As for the baby she brings to her spinster abode in upstate New York? Rather than the obvious conclusion, society reasons that “the baffled instinct of motherhood was peculiarly intense in cases where lung-disease prevented marriage,” which is why Charlotte kept the (ostensibly random) foundling.
Finally, after Delia legally adopts Clementina at the story’s end, the chorus relates yet another fresh consensus: “Her origin was really undiscoverable, that she represented one of the unsolved mysteries which occasionally perplex and irritate well-regulated societies.” As these explanations accrete, readers are clearly meant to be in on the joke. And as a result, this “old New York” is greatly defanged.
So we have our suspicions about the assertion that, “Social tolerance was not dealt in the same measure to men and to women, and neither Delia nor Charlotte had ever wondered why: like all the young women of their class they simply bowed to the ineluctable.” Of course, over time, they don’t. Charlotte does get to spend her life near her biological daughter. And Delia does manage both to escort Clem Spender’s illegitimate child into society and to oversee her licit marriage.
They do these things with a feminine can-do ethos of making the best of limited opportunities. Self-pity is neither Charlotte’s nor Delia’s emotional repertoires. Charlotte grows “robust and middle-aged, energetic and even tyrannical,” and has seemingly no regrets about her life-changing tradeoff. Delia, meanwhile, realizes early on that she will never experience real passion. “Life had passed her by, and left her with the Ralstons.” But it’s no occasion to wallow: “Very well then! She would make the best of herself, and of the Ralstons.”
That attitude is precisely how she engineers such idiosyncratic arrangements into their prim world. And it entails behaving as if every outré step—adopting Tina, letting her spinster cousin move in with her—“had always been an understood thing.” Even Tina’s unusually short engagement and secular wedding, which raise some eyebrows in the “female elders of the tribe,” barrel forward, thanks to Delia’s insistent smile.
Such an enterprising spirit toward knotty human affairs is where The Old Maid diverges from Wharton’s other works in this setting, which have a more worked-over sense of inevitable tragedy. By the story’s end, Delia Ralston has earned her society-wide reputation for “carrying things off.” Her secret weapon was “a long inheritance of moral modesty [that] helped her to keep her questionings to herself.” That, surprisingly, is what emerges from this unsentimental story as something worth preserving from the way things were.
By the novella’s end, the way Delia pulls things off sounds irresistible: “Behind Delia’s assurance there was a tumult of doubts and uncertainties. But she had once learned that one can do almost anything (perhaps even murder) if one does not attempt to explain it.” In a world where breaking free is impossible, smoothing things over has its own charms.