I love Edith Wharton. So much so that I slogged through her memoir A Backwards Glance. It wasn’t worth it. Most of it was not about writing. A substantial amount was about interior decoration. But there was some good stuff in there! For instance, Edith Wharton was _not_ really a part of literary high society, either in the US or in London. Her main writer friend was Henry James, with whom she was extremely close. But she does describe the literary productions of a few other friends, amongst whom were Howard Sturgis and David Graham Phillips.
Well what I always say is that if they’re good enough for Edith Wharton, then they’re good enough for me! I promptly ordered Sturgis’s Belchamber, which wasn’t even available from Project Gutenberg! Damn, you’ve gotta be obscure when even Gutenberg won’t archive your book. You’ve gotta be obscure when even the NYRB classics series, which specializes in reissueing obscure out of print books, has allowed their edition of your book to fall out of print.
And it was really good! I honestly don’t know why the book hasn’t gotten a great reception. It’s about this dude, Lord Belchamber, who is heir to a great fortune, but who is just a shy, bookish, timid, retiring guy. The problem is that his brother and his cousin are terrible wastrels, and because he has the purse strings, it falls to him to reign them in whilst also not allowing them to be ruined by their own excesses. Belchamber, although shy, has a strong sense of right and wrong and of his own responsibilities. He is the British sense of propriety, divorced from the British sense of masculinity. Lots of readers, apparently, hate him, but I thought he was sweet! Very, very worth your time.
Susie Lenox, David Graham Phillips’s book, is a bit more of an acquired taste. It’s about a girl in turn of the century Indiana who has an affair and runs off with this dandy, who of course promptly abandons her. Then she begins a picaresque adventure that takes her through the Cincinnati and New York underworlds. It’s like a mash-up of MOLL FLANDERS with HOUSE OF MIRTH. Lennox constantly flirts with prostitution, in various forms, but then flinches away, only to flirt with it again. The book goes on a bit too long, but I was quite engaged throughout, and I thought it had interesting things to say about morality, propriety, and relations between the sexes.
The third book I read that was unappreciated in its time, although Wharton does not mention it, was Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. So good!!! I read Agnes Grey, her first novel, a few years back, and I was struck even then by how different this book was from anything else I’d read from that period. She seems far more influenced by continental authors, by Balzac and by Stendhal, in particular, than by any English writers. There’s not a touch of romanticism in Agnes Grey. It’s all about the dreary, day-to-day experience of being governess to two brats.
But The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was even better!!!! Here the eponymous tenant, Mrs. Graham, details the story of her disastrous marriage to a rake and spendthrift. Bronte is excellent at making her husband seem initially to be not that bad, and to even be loving, before everything starts to slide downwards. Graham does her best to save him, and then she does her best to protect their son from him, and, finally, she feels she’s been left with no other option than to flee.
The book is a work of astounding moral force, and I loved the characters (except for the somewhat flat narrator of the framing tale, which is about a man who falls in love with Graham after she’s fled from her husband), but I was also struck by how much more mature the writing was than it is in many 19th century novels. The landscape, the architecture, the flowers and the plants, they all have a critical role to play in the symbology of the book, and unlike in many comedies of manners, you really feel like you’re inhabiting a living world (compare, for instance, Jane Austen, who never describes anything). It’s mostly a work of realism, but there’s a slight touch of the Gothic that, in my opinion, really improves and elevates the novel. I would definitely class it above Wuthering Heights (a book to which it bears many surface-level similarities, in setting, situation, and structure). I’m sorry Anne didn’t live longer; she would’ve written some great stuff.
On the other hand, maybe she would not have, because her book was panned, when it came out, for, essentially, its moral laxity. The reviewers faulted Anne for writing vulgar scenes where the husband and his friends are partying and tormenting the protagonist, and they fault her protagonist for choosing to leave the husband! Anne ripped the mask off of some realities that Victorian-era book reviewers really wanted to keep ignoring, but, more importantly, from the modern perspective, she did it while retaining her own humanity. This isn’t a novel about an oppressed woman; it’s about a woman struggling to live a decent life within oppressive circumstances.
In the end, that’s what all three of these novels share. These books are all deeply moral. They’re about people who have a strong sense of right and wrong, and who find that although their society pays lip service to their ideals, it does not expect them to actually follow those ideals.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve become more and more interested in the ways that ideals and morality impact personal behavior. There is so much fiction about how social systems interact with people and how people interact with social systems, but less about how it affects the ways they interact with each other. Or perhaps moral fiction has always been rare, but it’s only the moral fiction that survives. These three books, while they were not successful upon release (Susie Lennox was probably the most successful, and I see that it was adapted into a movie in the thirties, but Wharton refers to it as unjustly forgotten), all still have tremendous power even after more than a hundred years, and not many books of that (or any) era can say the same.