Edith Wharton: The Beckoning Quarry

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Because of such openness, Hugh had led me to believe, he had long since put the poem to the match.

Other love poems made their appearance, at Yale and Dumbarton Oaks, in rural France. Other documents were acquired from the archives of Fullerton’s Harvard College, from the office of Le Figaro , where he worked for a spell, from the Paris Herald . Kindly, elderly folk in New York, Paris, London, and Boston searched their memories for further data.

Yet one portion of the old legend still clung to my obstinate, condescending male mind. I could now date the affair with some precision, from the fall of 1907 to the summer of 1910, and I knew or thought I knew almost every move the lovers had made together. But I continued to assume that the erotic side of the relationship had been limited and conventional. Last fall, however, when I was making a final desultory look through the unfinished Wharton manuscripts in the Yale Library, I came upon the brief fragment of a novella called “Beatrice Palmato.” There are several startling aspects to this exquisitely written, quasi-pornographic little work—it has to do, overtly, with incest—but I could not doubt that the detailed account of the intense, imaginative, and skillful love play was based on well-remembered personal experience. I could now vouch for the fact that this could only be the experience with Fullerton. Morton Fullerton’s bragging letter of 1946, I had to conclude, and with the sense of freeing myself from the legend at last, was literally and entirely accurate.

The present little article is intended to be reportorial, not interpretive, so I will not speak to what is probably the most valuable result of the Fullerton discoveries—the insights into Edith Wharton’s writings that they led to, and the much better understanding of the post-Fullerton years of her life, indeed the entire pattern of her life.

The relation between fact and rumor, or image, had to be tested in other ways as well. The kind of thing I came across is suggested by a New Yorker obituary written in 1937, and reprinted in 1972, by the usually accurate and always interesting and eloquent Janet Planner (who writes under the pen name Genet). The seven-page piece is riddled with misstatements, most of them seemingly trivial matters of numbers and dates. They were not hard to correct, but it took a while for me to realize that these small factual errors helped to perpetuate a deprecating and false image of Edith Wharton’s later years.

 

In the obituary Edith Wharton is envisaged as an old lady who had retired once and for all “into a French country house and solitude.” Solitude? Edith Wharton’s diaries from 1920 to 193? (supplied by Ambassador Tyler) show an almost incredible flow of houseguests and more transient visitors. Miss Planner does name a few persons whom Edith Wharton came to know and treasure in France—the Paul Bourgets, Bernard Berenson, Geoffrey Scott, and others; but she also alludes in passing to “certain odd pedants in archeology and horticulture.” It’s not clear whether, among these pedants, there should be included such friends and guests as Kenneth Clark, Paul Valéry, André Gide, Aldous Huxley, A. E. Housman, and Bronislaw Malinowski. The general picture of Edith Wharton in her later years as a lonely old woman forgotten by much of the world dissolved with astonishing speed once one began to examine the evidence.

One of the perennial rumors about Edith Wharton—I traced it back at least to 1909, and there is some evidence that it may have started much earlier than that—was that she was illegitimate, the daughter not of George Frederic Jones of New York but of a young Englishman who lived in the Jones household around 1860 as the tutor of Edith’s older brothers. This allegation spurred intensive, far-flung, and finally quite fruitless inquiries; they added up to a lesson of sorts.

Every lead had so to speak a built-in refutation. One woman, now deceased, recalled Edith, while the two of them were driving through an English village, saying that her father had been born there; I had laboriously to ascertain that Edith and the other woman never once spent a moment together in Fingland. Another person was quoted as declaring that Edith was the very image of the young Englishman; but a comparison of documents and some careful arithmetic showed that this source had probably never laid eyes on the tutor. So it went. My researches led to a number of hidden scandals in old New York, including a lengthy adulterous affair featuring a female cousin of Edith’s own mother (exactly contemporary with the time of her mother’s alleged indiscretions), and it was all very entertaining. I was left to speculate why such a rumor should have arisen and have spread so far.

Another kind of image that grew up around Edith Wharton, as around other individuals of great accomplishment and imposing public personality, was the “comic image”—that is, accumulating anecdotes, constantly repeated with variations, about her lordly behavior and imperious responses. In one of them a Lenox matron, showing Edith about her home, observed: “And this I call my Louis XV room”; to which Edith, gazing about through her lorgnette (she never used a lorgnette), replied: “Why, my dear?” Characters like Henry James, Proust, and Mrs. Jack Gardner figured in these small tales, but almost all of them had unhappily to be labelled apocryphal. Yet, again, their very existence seemed suggestive.