Thursday, July 03, 2008

Their Best Selves

I’ve long been a fan of Edith Wharton, a writer whose supremely elegant voice is generally combined with a sharp-edged and cynical view of corrupt, tribal, upper class society in turn of the century America. Wharton’s interest lies in the borderline characters, those who have the capacity to be better than the people who surround them, but who have fatal weaknesses for luxury or admiration. There are rules and regulations governing the possession of both luxury and admiration in Wharton’s world, and far from being ones we might expect concerning hard work or cultivating fine qualities, the winners of her societies tend to be those who know how to fight dirty, to manipulate coldly and to selfishly search out every possible advantage. That’s why the sympathetic characters who take center stage in her novels are so often doomed from the outset; they are just too nice to survive. And Wharton does tragedy very well; the collapse of marriages, business ventures, friendships, fine prospects are portrayed with beautiful, diamond-bright prose while her ruthless secondary characters look on from the shade of the veranda, drinks in hand.

So this Wharton novel we’ve been reading, The Glimpses of the Moon, turned out to be something of a surprise. It started out all too well, with happy couple Suzy and Nick Lansing celebrating their marriage of convenience. Both are attached to high society life without the funds to make it work, but they hit on a plan of living off their friend’s generosity for a year or so, honeymooning in borrowed houses across Europe and America. It’s intended to be a gentleman’s agreement that either of them can back out of when they find a ‘better prospect’, which is to say, a richer spouse. It’s a perfect plan, except for one detail: they turn out to have fallen in love with each other. Naturally this all falls apart within a couple of chapters and misunderstandings lead to a long period of painful separation. But this isn’t the usual kind of Wharton love affair either, where the feeling runs deep but the characters are so bounded by their own rules and conventions that they are entirely unable to help one another. What is most astounding, beyond the happy ending that Wharton guides her couple towards, is the fact that they learn and grow en route. I can’t think of a single character in any of her other books who actually does this, who develops and eventually adheres to, a kind of morality that we might recognize as beneficial and that actually does them good. The glimpses of the moon in the title translate literally into the narrative with Suzy and Nick gazing at the stars from positions of great happiness and great sorrow; it’s something between a symbol and a pathetic fallacy, but by the end I wondered whether we reader’s hadn’t also been given a glimpse of a Whartonian moon, another planet entirely where it was possible for good to prevail.

There’s a distinctly gendered dimension to the issue that separates the couple and the process they must go through before finding a way to reconcile. Suzy’s strategy for survival in the tough material world has involved a lot of compromise with morality; she’s not had the liberty of maintaining any kind of moral code if she is to keep her head above water, and often this has meant undertaking unpleasant chores in return for her friend’s hospitality, like flirting with their husbands to cover up their infidelities. Once Nick discovers her ‘managing’ their joint affairs with similar style, he suffers an attack of supercilious male pride. He’s not the first of Wharton’s men to watch a woman get her hands dirty and to respond with disgust and disdain rather than empathetic understanding. There clearly wasn’t a lot of that particular quality going around in late nineteenth century New York. And so he rushes off with congenial friends on a lengthy cruise, eyeing up the daughter as a potential new marriage partner (as much a need to save face with Suzy as the experience of any real attraction) whilst Suzy is left to battle it out alone with their crowd. It isn’t long at all before one of her close male friends finds himself in a position to offer her the riches and lifestyle she thought she longed for, but Suzy discovers that falling in love has wrought a transformation on more than just her heart. Nick’s dislike of her ‘managing’, his contempt for her infinite flexibility in the face of right and wrong, has turned out to be contagious, and in his company she has experienced a way of living that is itself more rich, more sumptuous, than the jewel-bright society to which she thought she belonged:

‘She felt as though she were on the point of losing some new-found treasure, a treasure precious only to herself, but beside which all he offered her was nothing, the triumph of her wounded pride nothing, the security of her future nothing. […] Nick had not opened her eyes to new truths but had waked in her again something which had lain unconscious under years of accumulated indifference. And that reawakened sense had never left her since, and had somehow kept her from utter loneliness because it was a secret shared with Nick, a gift she owed to Nick, and which, in leaving her, he could not take from her. It was almost, she suddenly felt, as if he had left her with a child.’

What an extraordinary passage to find in a Wharton novel. But there it is; Suzy and Nick find out that true love, real love, is the place where you are your best self, the finest version of the many people you could possibly be. That’s why Suzy still loves Nick and will never falter, despite the fact that he has behaved very badly towards her. He was the trigger for her enlightenment and in his presence she feels the lure towards further self-development. No amount of money can recompense such a loss. As for Nick, well, he has to learn that something as abstract and negligible as love can be stronger than his cold, hard principles. Men always fare better than women in Wharton’s novels, a cold, hard truth of her times and her ideology. But Nick backs down, he acts before it’s too late, he renounces his own puffed-up decisions, and that’s quite something. Lawrence Seldon wasn’t capable of doing it for poor, doomed Lily Bart, and even at the end of their lives, Newland Archer can’t get up those stairs to see the Countess Olenska. Rigidity and lack of moral flexibility dominate the men in Wharton’s world, just as supreme flexibility and endless compromise become the rule for women. Just for once, Wharton herself seems to have softened, and Suzy learns not to be so flexible, whilst Nick swallows his pride. And old romantic that she most unusually is here, Wharton tells us that this is love’s doing, that love can actually take her characters to places nicer than the Italian Riviera. Who ever would have thought it?

1 comment:

Dorothy W. said...

I enjoyed this review! Thanks for putting this novel in context with some of her others -- I'm familiar with a few of her other works, but I hadn't figured out just how unusual this novel is. Fascinating!