In a recent issue of the Times Literary Supplement, Marion Mainwaring has taken to task R W. B. Lewis for errors of fact and interpretation in composing his Edith Wharton: A Biography (1975). These errors could have been avoided, she avers, if only Lewis had properly attended to the information that she—as his research assistant in Paris—had provided him back in the 1970s. Charging him with remarkable carelessness, she complains that “it is the nature, number, scale, and cascade-effect of Lewis’s [errors] that are extraordinary.”

It would be tedious to rehearse Lewis’s alleged mistakes here: readers may consult her claims in “The Shock of Non-Recognition” (TLS, December 16-22, pp. 1394, 1405). But briefly they come down to a few mistranslations, some misspelled or misunderstood names, a few wrong addresses and dates, and an alleged misinterpretation of the cloudy relationship between Morton Fullerton, a scapegrace journalist in Paris, and his several inamoratas, one of whom was Edith Wharton herself According to Ms. Mainwaring, she had no opportunity to read and correct the Paris chapters of Edith Wharton in page proof; hence, Lewis’s errors survived into the published biography and have propagated errors in subsequent Wharton literary criticism. Most of Lewis’s mistakes are repeated, she claims, in The Letters of Edith Wharton (1988), recently edited by R W. B. Lewis and Nancy Lewis. There are also, Ms. Mainwaring ominously warns, serious deficiencies in Lewis’s account of Mrs. Wharton’s early life in New York—errors that will be corrected in Mary Pitlick’s forthcoming Edith Wharton’s Formative Years.

These are serious allegations. “Everyone makes mistakes,” as Ms. Mainwaring concedes.

These are serious allegations. “Everyone makes mistakes,” as Ms. Mainwaring concedes. And scholars and critics will be pleased to have the facts corrected at any stage of the developing scholarship of this subject. But readers with no access to the archives in Paris may well wonder why Ms. Mainwaring has waited thirteen years to bring forward such serious charges against so preeminent a biographer and editor of Mrs. Wharton’s work. (After all, Edith Wharton: A Biography did win the Pulitzer Prize and the Bancroft Prize for history.) These charges are especially remarkable in view of Lewis’s enthusiastic praise, almost fulsome in its extravagance, of Ms. Mainwaring’s estimable detective work for him in Paris. Wouldn’t it have been more responsible of her, if the charges are true, to have presented her errata back in 1975 when the book first appeared? A reader halfway familiar with Mrs. Wharton’s life and work may experience, as I did, a curious effect in studying Ms. Mainwaring’s charges: a rising sympathy for R W. B. Lewis. Her essay is so embittered and incoherent, so mean-spirited and condescending, and so utterly muddled in its presentation of “corrective” detail that the reader may have difficulty following her arraignment. Given the absence of lucidity in her complaint, it is therefore entirely possible that Lewis did misunderstand what Ms. Mainwaring was trying to communicate to him. In this respect, all serious historians and biographers are at the mercy of research assistants who may or may not get things right, who may or may not communicate the data intelligibly.

Then, too, one’s suspicions grow even more disturbing at Ms. Mainwaring’s casual announcement that she is the author of a new manuscript on Morton Fullerton entitled Mysteries of Paris, now making the rounds. Is this hatchet job on Lewis a case of advance publicity—or a sensational claim meant to hook the attention of a potential publisher? Or is it merely that, in the thirteen years since the biography, she has turned up correct information that was not given to Professor Lewis? We will have to await, then scrutinize and verify, the facts she presents.

In the meantime—almost as if in concert with Ms. Mainwaring—R.W. B. Lewis’s other research assistant for the 1975 biography, Ms. Mary Pitlick, has now complained in a TLS letter (December 30, 1988, p. 1443) that the Lewis biography also got wrong some facts of Mrs. Wharton’s early life in New York and that he perpetuates some of these errors in the 1988 Letters. Various misspellings and misdatings are cited, and it is claimed that there are six thousand rather than four thousand Wharton letters extant. But the important complaint seems to be that Lewis had no evidence for claiming, based on a gap in her letter-writing, that Mrs. Wharton had a nervous breakdown between 1894 and 1896. Ms. Pitlick maintains that, although Mrs. Wharton told her publisher during this period that she had been seriously ill and was “not yet allowed to do any real work,” her other letters reveal her to be “an ebullient woman going back and forth to Europe, revelling in French and Italian architecture and decorative arts, and ransacking shops for antiquités to furnish houses back home.” According to Ms. Pitlick, then, Edith Wharton was a liar and Lewis her unwitting dupe.

In fact, however, Lewis’s documentary evidence is abundant for Wharton’s mysterious illness through the 1890s, culminating in a diagnosis of “neurasthenia” and treatment in Philadelphia under the supervision of Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, author of Lectures on the Diseases of the Nervous System, Especially in Women (1881). In his biography, Lewis conceded the riskiness of a layman’s trying to diagnose Mrs. Wharton’s medical complaints some eight decades after the fact, but his reasonable speculations, frankly advanced as such, were based on a wealth of commentary scattered throughout the letters, like the following remark, made not to her publisher but to her close friend Sara Norton in 1908:

. . . for twelve years I seldom knew what it was to be, for more than an hour or two of the twenty four, without an intense feeling of nausea, such unutterable fatigue that when I got up I was always more tired than when I lay down. This form of neurasthenia consumed the best years of my youth, left, in some sort, an irreparable shade on my life. Mais quoi! I worked through it, came out on the other side . . . .

Why should Ms. Pitlick be at such pains to discredit Lewis’s admittedly speculative and cautious account of her illness? Is there some resistance to the claim that Mrs. Wharton suffered an emotional disorder in the 1890s, a wish to make her appear wholly normal? If so, I find no need for it. The point is that Mrs. Wharton “worked through it” and became one of the six or seven best novelists that America has produced.

Perhaps readers will want to know a fact that Ms. Pitiick does not disclose in her carping letter: namely, that—as a result of her collaboration with Professor Lewis—in the early or mid 1970s she was put under contract to edit the Wharton letters; but, as the years passed and no progress on the edition seemed evident, the publisher broke the contract. The Lewises were then asked by Charles Scribner’s Sons to bring out the 1988 edition. Is Ms. Pitlick resentful that the edition was taken away from her? Does she have knowledge of two thousand letters not known to the Lewises, or even concealed from them?

Whatever the answer, one thing seems evident. Ms. Pitlick’s arraignment of Lewis; Ms. Mainwaring’s preference for Cynthia Griffin Wolffs biography, A Feast of Words: The Triumph of Edith Wharton (1977); and her praise of Mary Pitlick’s forthcoming Edith Wharton’s Formative Years, which will “free the novelist from the erroneous context of the official biography” and thereby liberate critics from “feeling obliged to fit [Wharton’s fiction] into the official biographical mould”—all of these attacks, blazoned on the occasion of this new edition of Mrs. Wharton’s letters, mark a turn in Edith Wharton criticism that deserves some fuller consideration.

We may begin with the observation that as feminist literary criticism got into high gear in the mid-1970s, it was natural that critics with an interest in the status and condition of women, especially American women writers, should turn to Mrs. Wharton. This was an altogether positive development. After all, she has so much more literary importance and aesthetic significance than the horde of female scribblers then being advanced to eminence—for example, Augusta Jane Evans Wilson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Fanny Fern, and Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth. These writers were being held out to us, with a straight face, as neglected geniuses worthy of comparison with Hawthorne, Melville, and Henry James. But Mrs. Wharton was in another league: one could, without embarrassment or hyperbole, intelligently compare her with Howells and James, Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis, and others.

It was R.W. B. Lewis’s 1975 biography that sparked a number of these fresh reassessments of the woman and writer.

It was R.W. B. Lewis’s 1975 biography that sparked a number of these fresh reassessments of the woman and writer. An Edith Wharton Society was founded and the Edith Wharton Newsletter began to appear. Conferences were held at Mrs. Wharton’s legendary mansion, The Mount, in Lenox, Massachusetts, also at her estate in France, and at Long Island University. Reprints of even the minor novels began to appear, sometimes by feminist presses, often with flamboyant introductions characterizing Wharton as an exemplary victim of the male patriarchy who, despite the enormous domestic pressures that drove her to a nervous breakdown, broke free of the Old New York taboos and re-created herself as a distinguished novelist whose major theme was the entrapment of women in marriage. That her first experience of passionate love occurred at the late age of forty-five, in an affair with the ne’er-do-well Fullerton, who betrayed her, added poignance to the account.

Yet there was an oddity in all this new attention given to Mrs. Wharton: she was being now advanced as a woman author neglected by the male literary establishment. A recent bibliographical essay on Wharton in The Edith Wharton Newsletter proposed that her status as “a major writer” only became evident in the literary criticism “produced between 1974 and 1983.” And, indeed, at the 1988 conference of the Edith Wharton Society, speaker after speaker assumed as a given that Mrs. Wharton had languished in obscurity, stifled by the critical prejudice of the patriarchy, until the present generation of feminist critics had rescued her from oblivion. When I demurred at this, one indignant woman told me that, during all of her course work in a well-known graduate school, she had never even heard of Edith Wharton. {I took this as a commentary on the particular graduate school, if not on the commitment of the student to a self-motivated general mastery of the field—not as a measure of Mrs. Wharton’s stature as a novelist, which has always been secure.) Others at the conference likewise assumed that Wharton had never been accorded the criticism due to so exemplary a portraitist of the victimization of women. All of this suggested to me a complete unfamiliarity with the massive bibliography of Wharton studies before the 1970s.

The fact is that Edith Wharton (1862-1937) achieved international celebrity in 1905 with the publication of The House of Mirth, a brilliantly ironic dissection of frivolous high society in New York and a poignant account of a beautiful young woman’s destruction at its hands. This remarkable novel was followed by works of near comparable literary power, including Ethan Frome (1911), The Reef (1912), The Custom of the Country (1913), Summer (1917), The Age of Innocence (1920), Old New York (1924), and Hudson River Bracketed (1929), as well as a number of brilliant short stories like “Roman Fever,” “The Other Two,” “After Holbein,” “The Eyes,” “Souls Belated,” and “Autres Temps . . . .” Far from being neglected in her lifetime or needing rediscovery since, Mrs. Wharton always had an avid popular readership, was extensively and favorably reviewed, made a substantial fortune from fiction royalties, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1920, had many of her works translated, and witnessed several theatrical and film productions of her work in her lifetime. Although a thirty-year ban on the inspection of her private papers delayed Lewis’s biography and other kinds of cognate criticism, the Wharton bibliography of interpretive studies, in every decade of her life and since, is quite substantial. It is difficult to think of another American novelist, man or woman, of any time, who has been accorded such popular and critical attention.

Not that the criticism was always positive.

Not that the criticism was always positive. Certain left-wing critics always had it in for Mrs. Wharton. She was too rich, too socially privileged, too preoccupied with high society, too critical of our calculated democratic vulgarity to satisfy the proletarian yearning. Besides that, her métier—the novel of manners, particularly in its re-creation of Old New York—was immediately pronounced passé in the era of modernist experimental ism. Historical re-creations—like The Age of Innocence (1920), Old New York (1924), and The Buccaneers (1938)—whispered “the last enchantments of the Victorian age” to Robert Morss Lovett, proving that she was an anachronistic throwback to the forgotten era of Howells and James. But if she dramatized the modem inanity of the era of flappers and sheiks—as in The Glimpses of the Moon (1922), The Mother’s Recompense (1925), and Twilight Sleep (1927)—her excoriations likewise proved that she was out of touch with contemporaneity and had outlived her own time. Besides, she was an expatriate who preferred France. In any case, her social conservatism was anathema to those convinced that the United States needed a socialist revolution.

The contempt in which she was held by such critics on the Left is suggested by John Curtis Underwood’s Literature and Insurgency: Ten Studies in Racial Evolution (1914), which, while acknowledging her brilliance, dismissed it as uninteresting to real American he-men:

. . . brilliancy is a patrician quality, of the superficial, by the superficial, for the superficial. It is intrinsically alien to the genius of the Anglo-Saxon world, in particular to that of its male half; and the great mass of the world in general has some reason for looking at it with suspicion.

Robert Herrick had earlier issued a like complaint in condemning Wharton’s “singularly unreal and aristocratic literature,” which contributed little toward “painting our national canvas”; he claimed, I think rather idiotically, that she wrote “perhaps too consciously well.” Likewise, V. L. Parrington dismissed her in 1921 as “Our Literary Aristocrat”:

. . . she is too well bred to be a snob, but she escapes it only by sheer intelligence. The background of her mind, the furniture of her habits, are packed with a potential snobbery, and it is only by scrupulous care that it is held in leash. She is unconsciously shut in behind plate glass, where butlers serve formal dinners, and white shoulders go up at the mere suggestion of everyday gingham.

Alfred Kazin parroted these claims in On Native Grounds (1942). Although Mrs. Wharton—the author of more than forty books of fiction, poetry, drama, and autobiography—had attained the popular and critical esteem I have described, he dismissed her in the observation that “a great artist, even a completely devoted artist, she never became.” Kazin preferred the proletarian Theodore Dreiser, a redskin who could not be accused of writing “too well” about wealth and poverty. Kazin dispatched Mrs. Wharton as “the biting old dowager of American letters” who was even blind to her real subject—the supplanting of the patrician aristocracy by the parvenu industrialists.

So commonplace were these objections to her work that Mrs. Wharton complained to her editor that “the assumption that the people I write about are not ‘real’ because they are not navvies & char-women” made her “feel rather hopeless. I write about what I see, what I happen to be nearest to, which is surely better than doing cowboys de chic.” It is no wonder that Mrs. Wharton treasured the commendations she received, especially from younger writers like Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis. As she told Lewis in 1921, his praise of The Age of Innocence was “the first sign I have ever had—literally—that ‘les jeunes’ at home had ever read a word of me. I had long since resigned myself to the idea that I was regarded by you all as the—say the Mrs. Humphry Ward of the Western Hemisphere; though at times I wondered why.” Indeed, why? She offers such a penetrating insider’s critique of the intellectual and social limitations of her upper-class milieu that her work has outlasted that of every novelist and critic on the Left.

But it is not the irritation with Mrs. Wharton by the old-line Leftists that interests us now, or even the treatment of Wharton by other male critics, but rather the appropriation of Mrs. Wharton by the sorority of feminists. For there appears to be a new battle developing for control of Wharton criticism—for the power to reshape the dominant view of the woman and her work, of which the attack on R W. B. Lewis’s scholarship seems to me the first really direct, if ineffectual, salvo. No longer is the patrician class of Old New York, the moneyed aristocracy from which she emerged, the principal enemy of the new ideologues. No longer is Wharton’s snobbery or her disdain of democratic vulgarity the issue. Rather it is the patriarchy itself, the constricted existence of women as created by the men of her class, that has become the focus of the new criticism.

Mrs. Wharton’s protagonist Lily Bart in The House of Mirth (1905), for example, is no longer seen as a poignant instance of how “a frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys,” as Mrs. Wharton defined her intention in her autobiography (italics mine). Rather Lily, and Justine Brent in The Fruit of the Tree (1907), not to speak of other Wharton heroines, illustrate “Wharton’s essential criticism of marriage as a patriarchal institution designed to aggrandize men at the expense of women,” as Elizabeth Ammons put it in Edith Wharton’s Argument with America. (1980). Carol Wershoven, in The Female Intruder in the Novels of Edith Wharton (1982), concludes that “the woman in society is thus trapped—by rules (such as the double standard) not of her own devising, by a materialism that makes her only the chief ornament in her husband’s establishment, and by a society that encourages her to remain a child, ??innocent’ of reality and protected from life, while her man lives it elsewhere, in Wall Street, or the law office, or with another woman.” Likewise Wendy Gimbel, in Edith Wharton: Orphancy and Survival (1984), remarks that in Wharton’s world “the victim is woman, the passive creation of the patriarchy. Whatever individual talent the female may have, it is not strong enough to withstand the powerful force which demands her continued infantilization.”

But the difficulty with seeing Mrs. Wharton and her heroines as pure victims of patriarchal domination is that it ignores completely the poignant, virtually identical infantilization of the men of her Old New York world—as illustrated in Newland Archer of The Age of Innocence, Ralph Marvell of The Custom of the Country, and Hayley Delane of Old New York. In her autobiography, A Backward Glance (1934), Mrs. Wharton was to write:

I have often sighed, in looking back at my childhood, to think how pitiful a provision was made for the life of the imagination behind those uniform brownstone facades, and then have concluded that since, for reasons which escape us, the creative mind thrives best on a reduced diet, I probably had the fare best suited to me. But this is not to say that the average well-to-do New Yorker of my childhood was not starved for a sight of the high gods. Beauty, passion, and danger were automatically excluded from his life (for the men were almost as starved as the women); and the average human being deprived of air from the heights is likely to produce other lives equally starved—which is what happened in old New York, where the tepid sameness of the moral atmosphere resulted in a prolonged immaturity of mind.

It is true that Mrs. Wharton’s fiction does feature the theme of the young woman’s ordeal in landing a suitable New York husband, and there do recur, throughout her writing career, crucial instances of the superior woman entrapped in marriage to a boring and mindless inferior. These themes—brilliantly developed in The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country, and The Reef—reflect both the very personal disaster of Edith’s marriage to Edward Wharton, the philandering dullard whom she was obliged to divorce in 1912 when he embezzled her inherited trust funds, and the experience of women friends in New York.

But Mrs. Wharton’s fiction does not serve very well to buttress the ideology of a feminism engaged in an attack on men.

But Mrs. Wharton’s fiction does not serve very well to buttress the ideology of a feminism engaged in an attack on men, their domination and cruelty, on marriage as such, or on the so-called patriarchy. Her satiric focus, particularly in a novel like The Age of Innocence, is the insularity of the New York haut monde from those enlightened ideas and attitudes that make for a wholesome society. Though well bred and well educated, New Yorkers of her time had little respect for art or the life of the mind, preferring desultory talk about wines, horses, and stocks rather than conversation about ideas, literature, and art. They had, she makes plain, no “intellectual liberty,” “critical independence,” civic responsibility, or capacity for breathing the “air of ideas.” They had, she laments, “a blind dread of innovation, an instinctive shrinking from responsibility” that prevented them from looking life in the face, as civilized European societies do. As this novel makes plain (through its poignant portrait of her protagonist, Newland Archer), men suffer equally with women from the disappointments, especially in marriage, of such a limited social milieu.

However, as The Age of Innocence also makes plain, it is not the men who dictate the constraining forms and terms and conditions of social propriety in New York society; it is the women. If May Welland is a bland, colorless, and ignorant wife, it is perhaps no wonder that her husband Newland Archer becomes enchanted with the Europeanized Ellen Olenska, whose vivid intelligence, social style, and unembarrassed sexuality are magnetic. But May Welland, the wife, is the product of the New York female society that has shaped her. Her “innocence” Mrs. Wharton calls an “artificial product,” a “factitious purity” that had been “cunningly manufactured by a conspiracy of mothers and aunts and grandmothers and long-dead ancestresses, because it was supposed to be what [Newland] wanted, what he had a right to . . . .” No scene in Mrs. Wharton’s work is as decisive as that in The Age of Innocence where the Old New York matriarchs conspire to stage a dinner party for Ellen Olenska that in effect expels her from the New York tribe, thereby saving Newland’s marriage to May Welland. Nothing can be more poignant than New-land’s dawning revelation, in seeing the “guileless” May’s eyes “wet with victory,” that he has lost Ellen, the woman he passionately loved. Her return to Europe is the sign that the Old New York matriarchs have triumphed. As the Epilogue suggests, it is better so. Although he misses “the flower of life,” romantic passion, Archer remains with his wife, discharges his marital and paternal responsibilities, and lives a decent life. (For most sentimental readers, for whom even a transient sexual passion is the summum bonum, Archer pays too high a price. Mrs. Wharton didn’t think so.)

So interested was Edith Wharton in the intellectual society of men (Henry James and Egerton Winthrop, Percy Lubbock and Walter Berry, et al.), and so incisive was her satire on women, at least at times, that Janet Malcolm wrongly concluded in a New Yorker piece that Mrs. Wharton hated women. In fact she did not, although she did see how women like her mother, her cousins, and aunts had abused their social power. Nor did she hate men, or attribute to them, as a sex, the stresses that make life difficult for women, although she satirizes them as well. Edith Wharton had something of the true artist’s androgynous sensibility, which led her to take pleasure in and repeat a remark once made of her—that she was a “self-made man.” Many who knew Edith Wharton commented on her breadth of learning beyond the capacity or endowment of most women, her almost “masculine” intelligence, and her vivid wit. In fact, her friend Henry James, in Notes on Novelists (1914), pointedly celebrated the way in which, in her fiction, “the masculine conclusion” so tended to “crown the feminine observation.” (This remark led some enemy of both writers to call Edith a “male Henry James.”) The new Letters make plain her consciousness of the coexistence, in her, of masculine and feminine powers. “I conceive my subjects like a man—that is, rather more architectonically & dramatically than most women—then execute them like a woman,” so as to provide “the small incidental effects that women have always excelled in, the episodical characterization, I mean.”

Mrs. Wharton was no enemy of men or of what is now routinely called the patriarchy. Nor was she an enemy of social conventions as such. She did deplore the mindless observance of conventions that had lost their animating social vitality and were empty husks of once-living cultural meanings. She saw conventions as the product of evolution and hence subject to slow alteration. For that reason she frequently gives us strong, independent heroines who triumph over the power of deadened social forms. Edith Wharton herself was the living example of this power. Her life and her art are testaments to how the limitations of time and place can be transcended, and her victories were celebrated in strong and independent heroines.

This is not to suggest that she did not value the socially cohesive value of tradition and continuity, especially in social relations. She understood the centrality of the family, its manners and mores, and the chaos that ensues when the old established customs that bind a society together begin to disintegrate. She had nothing but contempt for the self-aggrandizement of individuals, for the hedonism of the Twenties, for women (or men) who put self-actualization before all else. Someone has remarked that, although she herself was divorced, no one has treated divorcées in fiction more punitively. That is doubtless true, because divorce cut at the root of the living tree of familial and social interconnectedness. “Ah, the poverty, the miserable poverty,” she once told her friend Charles Du Bos, “of any love that lies outside of marriage, of any love that is not a living together, a sharing of all!”

Perhaps the fullest articulation of Mrs. Wharton’s social views may be found in French Ways and Their Meaning (1919), published first as articles between 1916 and 1918 in American periodicals. This work of social analysis, written during World War I, was meant to explain to Americans the French national ideal and the necessity of saving France from the German onslaught. This national ideal was comprised of four principal qualities, which she listed as Reverence, Taste, Intellectual Honesty, and Continuity. Some consideration of these qualities will make plain the basis of her satire on Old New York and on the trivialities of the modern age that had succeeded it. They are cautionary, I suggest, for any feminist revisionism of her work.

By Reverence, Mrs. Wharton meant the deeply rooted respect in France for old customs, traditions, rituals, and taboos.

By Reverence, Mrs. Wharton meant the deeply rooted respect in France for old customs, traditions, rituals, and taboos—“les bienséances,” “the always-have-beens,” what she called “the successive superpositions of experience that time brings.” She noted the “reflex of negation, of rejection, at the very root of the French Character: an instinctive recoil from the new, the untasted, the untested, like the retracting of an insect’s feelers at contact with an unfamiliar object.” She saw a deep-seated wisdom in the reverence of the French for old ways, because “whatever survives the close filtering of time is likely to answer to some deep racial need, moral or aesthetic.”

By Taste, Mrs. Wharton meant “the regulating principle of all art, of the art of dress and of manners, and of living in general, as well as of sculpture or music.” She found the French to be possessed of a kind of natural taste which had developed over generations, infusing itself into their attitude toward language, education, the theater, architecture, the shape of cities, the arts, and so on.

By Intellectual Honesty, she meant the tendency in Frenchmen to accept things for what they are: their acceptance of the facts of life, for example, from which Anglo-Saxons seem to avert their eyes; their frank pleasure in the sensual joys of life; their Rabelaisian humor; their ability to see life steadily and see it whole, as opposed to the “American need” to see reality through rose-colored spectacles; their high esteem for art and ideas, for culture; and their recognition that whatever is worth having requires time, energy, and hard work.

By Continuity, Mrs. Wharton meant “the most homogeneous and uninterrupted culture” in the world, extending backward into prehistory. Unlike Americans, who have broken with the past, the French, she remarked, have slowly and steadily evolved, during the centuries, a set of values marked by prudence, thrift, economy, a maturity based on the weight of the race’s moral experience, and a mature sense of the value of tradition and the strength of continuity. “In all this,” Mrs. Wharton wrote, “France has a lesson to teach [America] and a warning to give. It was our English forebears who taught us to flout tradition and break away from their own great inheritance; France may teach us that, side by side with the qualities of enterprise and innovation that English blood has put in us, we should cultivate the sense of continuity, that ’sense of the past' which enriches the present and binds us up with the world’s great stabilising traditions of art and poetry and knowledge.”

Of course it may be said that the French regularly violate, with cavalier abandon, every one of these qualities and that, as sociological analysis, her attribution to the French of these national virtues merely projects onto them values they do not fully exhibit. Having read a great deal about the savagery of the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror in this bicentennial year, I have no quarrel about that. (And we must remember the wartime context in which her articles were written, and her passionate desire for America to save France from the Huns.) But the point is that these are the principles that she held most dear. They constitute a deliberative affirmation of conservative values, yet she was properly attentive to how enterprise and innovation may enrich the received tradition, the continuity of which, she was confident, answered deep human needs.

This social conservatism in Mrs. Wharton makes her a doubtful ally of feminists who wish to substitute for the traditional form of man-woman relationships a new social order based on the views of Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug, and the editors of Ms. magazine. Theirs are of course not new ideas but have their origin in the radical socialist egalitarianism of the Enlightenment and in the Marxist extrapolation. (This much has been conceded by feminist theoreticians: Toril Moi, in Sexual/Textual Politics, openly concedes that “the principal objective of feminist criticism has always been political“; and Elaine Showalter confesses that the “theoretical affiliations” of feminism are with “Marxist sociology and aesthetics.”) What would Mrs. Wharton have thought of the feminist appropriation of her fiction for the purposes of a sexual revolution?

It is worth remembering that Mrs. Wharton explored the utility of radical egalitarian ideas in The Valley of Decision (1902), a long historical novel devoted to the impact of the philosophes on the Duke of Pianura, in Italy, in the late eighteenth century. As a young man, he had embraced equalitarian notions from Fulvia Vivaldi, a radical with whom he fell in love, and from her band of underground conspirators. Once in power he undertakes to obliterate the social arrangements by which Pianura’s life has been organized for centuries, thus arousing the wrath of the Church, the aristocracy, and the bourgeoisie, as well as the peasantry, who are condemned to starve in the social chaos that ensues. In implementing his radical ideas, Duke Odo precipitates a civil war in which Fulvia is assassinated, the duchy disintegrates, and he is exiled at the approach of a conquering Napoleon. Mrs. Wharton’s portrait of the horrors created by the arbitrary imposition of the noble but abstract ideas of liberty, equality, and fraternity on an actual society composed of complex interacting interests is ghastly; but it is no less so than the actual historical record of the Terror, on which her novel was based. In a sequel which she never finished, to be called The New Day, she described the counter-revolution that followed, in which the last case proved to be worse than the original conditions in Pianura.

For Mrs. Wharton, any needed social change had to come about by a gradual orderly process, based on recognition of the traditional rights of all of the classes involved, in the light of the conventional duties and responsibilities socially required of each sex; and it had to be based on a shrewd foresight of the consequences of any action taken to alter the balance of interests that constitutes a living society. These ideas are acutely understood and properly formulated in R. W. B. Lewis’s biography of the woman. He accurately grasped that she had nothing but contempt for the notion that a Utopia of perfect sexual or political equality could be established by intellection in a coffee house or a consciousness-raising session at Ms. In one of the new letters in the Lewises’ edition, Mrs. Wharton, in the 1930s, tells the Marxist Upton Sinclair that while his portrait of the plutocrat millionaires in Oil

is enough to justify any thoughtful man in the desire to make some radical change in the organization of society, I believe that a wider experience would have shown you that the evils you rightly satirize will be replaced by others more harmful to any sort of civilized living when your hero and his friends have had their way.

I suspect she would have taken a similar stance in regard to the feminist ambition to make over our society in a female image. But I do not expect her fundamental conservatism to deter our feminist literary critics from making her fiction out to be an attack on the social order as it has come down to us, men and all. In the meantime, we will have to await Mysteries of Paris and Edith Wharton’s Formative Years to see whether Edith, and we, are really freed from what Ms. Mainwaring has called “the erroneous context of the official biography” and “the official biographical mould.”

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