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The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, October 30th, 2007
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Sanctuary (Hesperus Classics)

by Edith Wharton

The Novels of Mrs. Wharton

A review by Henry Dwight Sedgwick

[Ed. Note: This review was originally published in the Atlantic Monthly in August 1906.]

I.

When Mrs. Wharton's stories first appeared, in that early period which, as we have now learned, was merely a period of apprenticeship, everybody said, "How clever!" "How wonderfully clever!" and the criticism -- to adopt a generic term for indiscriminate adjectives -- was apt, for the most conspicuous trait in the stories was cleverness. They were astonishingly clever; and their cleverness, as an ostensible quality will, caught and held the attention. And yet, though undoubtedly correct, the term owes its correctness, in part at least, to its ready-to-wear quality, to its negative merit of vague amplitude, behind which the most diverse gifts and capacities may lie concealed. No readers of Mrs. Wharton, after the first shock of bewildered admiration, rest content with it, but grope about to lift the cloaking surtout of cleverness and to see as best they may how and by what methods her preternaturally nimble wits are playing their game, -- for it is a game that Mrs. Wharton plays, pitting herself against a situation to see how much she can score.

To most people the point she plays most brilliantly is the episode, which in the novel is merely one of the links in the concatenation of the plot, but in the short story is the form and substance, the very thing itself; and so to be mistress of the art of the episode almost seems to leave any other species of mastery irrelevant and superfluous. In Mrs. Wharton this aptitude is not single, but a combination. It includes the sense of proportion, and markedly that elementary proportion of allotting the proper space for the introduction of the story, -- so much to bring the dramatis personae into the ring, so much for the preliminary bouts, so much for the climax, and, finally, the proper length for the recessional. It includes the subordination of one character to another, of one picture to another, the arrangement of details in proper hierarchy to produce the desired effect.

"The Dilettante," for instance, is a good example of craft in introducing a situation. The story is very short, the episode a mere dialogue; and, as the nature of the dialogue forbids an explanation of the situation through the mouths of the speakers, a neat prologue, in half-livery as it were, opens the door and takes your name, then the dialogue, in full livery, immediately shows you upstairs into the inner privacy of the episode, where the climax awaits you. You are met at each step by the forethought of a somewhat anxious hostess; and there is throughout a well-bred economy of effort which one expects to pass into grace, but which for some reason deflects and slips back into cleverness.

Some readers deem the dialogue the strongest point of Mrs. Wharton's game, it is so pithy and witty. Others, again, among the various excellences, prefer the author's own observations and comments. Still others like best the epigrams or the dramatic interest of the incident itself.

If the reader, after he has gone over these various points in the game, attempts to sum up his impressions, to his astonishment and dismay he finds himself again face to face with his old adjective clever. At first he surmises that this is a trick of his own indolence, which, lazily yielding to habit, offers him this serviceable word; but upon reflection he perceives that the adjective has a positive merit. It is a word of limitation; it fences in its own domain and excludes other regions beyond. Mrs. Wharton's stories are not original like Miss Wilkins's, not poetic like George Eliot's, not romantic like Bret Harte's, not rippling with muscular energy like Kipling's, nor smooth with the dogmatic determinism of Maupassant. To none of those story-tellers would one apply the word clever; and though Mrs. Wharton cannot very well monopolize the adjective, by her high level of skill, by her ready command over her own resources, by her tact, by her courage, -- no situation daunts her, -- and especially by her limitations, she wholly justifies the public in crying out, "Oh, clever Mrs. Wharton!"

Cleverness not only limits its own domain, but stamps a special character upon it. In the novel proper there is one fundamental rule: that the characters, once introduced, must act with the large liberty of life, and work out their own fortunes. For novelists believe that, though other arts are all artificial and do not hold up the mirror to nature, yet their art is life indeed, their business is to leave the reader uncertain whether he is really in or out of the book. Let that be so. Novels proper are not everything. There are other fields of fiction in which the author is an absolute tyrant, and need make no pretense of giving his characters any free will whatever. To these regions the short story as a rule belongs. There is no room for liberty. The characters must complete their episode in scanty pages, and they must do the most artificial things in order to make the scene effective. Mrs. Wharton makes a most excellent tyrant, and gives her subjects vastly more vivacity than they would have if left to themselves. The dialogues are far too good for life, the episodes too well modeled, the motives too well calculated, the actions too complete, to admit of any doubt concerning the immediate presence of the autocrat. Everywhere the emphasis is the emphasis of art, not of life. This literary art is, of course, not only wholly legitimate, but some people might contend that it is the only art worth having. Artificial fiction makes no pretense that it is a reflection of life; it does not profess to make a real man and a real woman living in a real house, and really talking over real toast and tea. It sets itself up as an independent art, with its own rules, its own proprieties, its own standard of success. It is akin to artificial comedy, as Sheridan, for instance, handled it. No one judges The Rivals as a bit of real life. The business of Mrs. Wharton's dramatis personae is to portray an effective episode; and it is a business which requires cleverness, as distinguished from originality, poetic feeling, humour, insight, romance, energy, or power.

II.

Going a step farther, the most casual investigator becomes acquainted with Mrs. Wharton's propriety, tact, nicety of craftsmanship, and that special possession which in creative art is of the first importance, -- human personality. Those people who advocate the suppression of all traces of the creator in his creations are too ascetic, too marmoreal, too super- or infra-human. Our generation, not yet wholly purged of the lingering effects left by the old Romantic individualism, cannot but feel that the more fiction is interpenetrated by the author's personality the more interesting it is.

This assumption involves as a corollary the immense importance of gender; and gender is indeed a matter of fundamental interest in literature, as in life. We are born on one side or the other of the great chasm; and in whichever camp we are, on the approach of anything that awakens our real interest, we challenge at once, "Fine or Superfine?" A man's world is not a woman's world. He and she are differently endowed; they perceive differently, -- that is, all except the bald, unnanotated reports of the senses, -- group their impressions differently, deduce differently. Traits which preserve neutrality and straddle the chasm, serving both sides alike, are limited to the performance of the mechanical parts of fiction, and subject to rules and regulations. Where they end, begins the employment of those faculties that make individuality; and here the first rough and ready test as to whether the work has the flavor of personality is the determination of sex. Readers, male readers at least, are sometimes so blinded by preudice, by an indefensible habit of identifying art with the male sex, that when a woman writes a novel such as Jane Eyre or Adam Bede, there is a general masculine readiness to be surprised, and a general masculine agreement that the talents and capacities which created the novel are of a peculiarly masculine order. In Mrs. Wharton's case men are debarred from any such self-complacent theory, for her talents and capacities are not only intrinsically feminine, but also, despite her cleverness, which, generally speaking, is a neutral trait, they are superficially feminine.

This fundamental fact of Mrs. Wharton's femininity is conspicuous in many ways. There was, for instance, in her early stories, a certain feminine dependence, as a girl on skates for the first time might lay the tip of her finger on a supporting arm. She showed a wish to learn, a ready docility, and the attractive simplicity of credulity, toward her first teacher, such as women, with their innate appreciation of authority, possess in a much greater degree than men. This hesitating dependence, as she took her first comparatively timid steps, following as closely as she could the sway and oscillations to which her teacher subjected his equilibrium, served her purpose. She learned her lesson, skated with ever greater ease, and, though still maintaining the rules she had learned, gradually got her own balance, and, after hard work and frequent practice, skated off, head erect, scarf, ribbons, and vesture floating free, with the speed and security of a racer. Her movements are always feminine movements, her ease, her poise, always feminine.

There is also in the stories what one might call a certain feminine capriciousness or arbitrariness, even beyond the ordinary autocracy of the story-teller, a method of deciding upon instinct rather than upon reflection. Take the union of episodes. Mrs. Wharton sees her story in episodes, or rather she sees episodes and puts them together. Sometimes they have no natural congruity, or are ever rebelliously opposed to union. A man would acknowledge their independence and leave them apart; but Mrs. Wharton, insisting on her autocratic prerogatives, forcibly unites them. In The Sanctuary, for example, she conceived the idea of repeating weakness of character and similarity of temptation in two generations; so she contrived two episodes, which, however, had no natural bond of union. She then put double duty on the heroine, and made her fulfill the function of joining the two episodes by the ingenious method of marrying her to the hero of the first in order to make her the mother of the hero of the second.

Her choice of plot, even, is distinctly feminine. Take The Touchstone for instance: given the situation, a man would have shifted the centre of gravity, and have rearranged all the effects. Her emphasis, her sense of interest, of importance, differ from a man's. Her feminine tact -- that quality of unexpected control among forces so slight or so stubborn that no man can see how a woman gets her leverage; that power of steering when his rudder would be trailing in the air or stuck in the mud -- is conspicuous in dialogue, in adjustment of relations, the whole frame and finish of the story.

These characteristics are minor matters, but they point unhesitatingly to the conclusion that Mrs. Wharton is not or mentally feminine, with all the value of personality and humanity, but so much so as to belong plainly enough to the species, -- the notable and justly celebrated species, -- the American woman. This interesting type has been studied with the ardor due to the rapid modification by which it has diverged from its European progenitors. Its salient traits are well known, and perhaps no one has portrayed them more effectively than Mr. John Sargent. In his portraits we see a network of nerves drawn too taut for the somewhat inadequate equipment of flesh and blood; an attention given to the business of receiving and acting upon sensations so disproportionate that there is no proper leisure for the sensations themselves; a superior, indeed, a snubbing attitude of the nervous system toward the rest of the body. In Sargent's women there is no wholesome tendency to loafing, no ease of manner, no sense of physical bien-être: rather they stand, or sit -- in the latter case on the edge of their chairs -- like discoboli, waiting for a signal to whirl and hurl anything -- anywhere -- direction being unimportant, the sibylline contortion everything. This fundamental nervous restlessness shows itself in all Mrs. Wharton's stories, in her rapidity of thought, of phrase, of dialogue, in her intensity, her eagerness, her rush of thought. This American dash, this cascade-like brilliancy of motion, make, no doubt, for most readers the interest of the stories. But many of us, idle and inefficient, weakly wish for repose, a little pause, a trifling indulgence. With many story-tellers the reader gets aboard an accommodation train, and during the jogging, the stopping and starting, the pleasant Trollopy leisure, he looks out of the window, reflects on what has gone before, and speculates on what is to come. None of these weaknesses are permitted to Mrs. Wharton's readers, -- I speak of the stories, -- we are booked express, the present is all-exacting, and the pace is American.

This nervous eagerness and intensity find their fullest and freest expression in the epigrams, metaphors, similes, and aphorisms which crack fast and furious about our ears. No sooner do we hear an epigrammatic phrase, catch a loose end of its applicability, and grasp at apprehension, than crack! crack! go another and another. There is something vindictive in this hailstorm. "His egoism was not of a kind to mirror its complacency in the adventure." "There was something, fatuous in an attitude of mental apology toward a memory already classic." "He had no fancy leaving havoc in his wake, and would have preferred to sow a quick growth of oblivion in the spaces wasted by his inconsidered inroads; " and so forth. Such quotations -- one can pluck them from every page -- are clearly the literary gesticulations of an American woman.

III.

This American element, which gives the stories so much of their character, is also noticeable in another of Mrs. Wharton's accomplishments, -- one had almost said one of her talents, so fully and freely does she use it, -- her artistic and literary cultivation. That cultivation is distinctly American in the sense that it immediately displays its American acquisition and ownership, and peremptorily excludes the notion that it be English cultivation or French.

That such a distinction may be is due, no doubt, to the fact that we are on this shore of the Atlantic, and not on the other. The great traditional humanities, the inheritances of literature and art, are fundamentally foreign to us. Our ancestors did not create them, did not experience the emotions that prompted their creation, nor were they in any way cognizant of the stimulating circumstances under which they were produced. Emigration from Europe broke the course of spiritual descent, and our type is the result of modification by new conditions, and by a natural selection adapted to such new conditions, that our inheritance of European understanding and sympathy is an almost negligible quantity. We learn the humanities as we learn lessons; not in the way cultivated Englishmen or Frenchmen learn them, as part and parcel of their familiar experience of life.


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