Friday, January 15, 2010

The Classics Circuit: Madame de Treymes and Three Novellas by Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton is one of my favorite authors of all time. Wharton was the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize (for The Age of Innocence). Her novels are beautifully written accounts of mostly upper class Americans during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. The novels have a high degree of irony and wit in them, both qualities that I extremely enjoy in a novel. Her novels and short stories also often explore many themes including morality, a theme that I found common through Madame de Treymes and Three Novellas.

As this book contained four novellas, I am going to break them down and discuss each one on its own merits.

The Touchstone (1900)
As a young college student, Glennard fell in love with Mrs. Aubyn, a young woman who had separated from her husband. He enjoyed her intellectual capabilities and she soon becomes a successful author. While he did once enjoy her intelligence, Glennard soon discovers that he does not like to be in Mrs. Aubyn’s shadow and loses his love for her.

My favorite quote describes this transformation:
“The sense of metal equality had been gratifying to his raw ambition; but as his self knowledge defined itself, his understanding of her also increased; and if a man is at times indirectly flattered by the moral superiority of woman, her mental ascendancy is extenuated by no such oblique tribute to his powers.”

They separate and Mrs. Aubyn moves to Europe and corresponds with Glennard until her death. The novella opens with Glennard discovering that the letters he received may be worth something as Margaret Aubyn had few friends and there was not much correspondence from her that was known. He is at a point in life where he would like to marry his beloved, Miss Trent, but has no money. He struggles with whether to publish the letters and use the money to fund his happiness with Miss Trent as it would be a betrayal to Margaret Aubyn’s trust and love of him.

I loved the moral struggle within the novella on whether it is right to use personal private letters written with love for personal monetary benefit. It is also a great love story between Miss Trent and Glennard. I love how the story puts morality and love hand in hand, how does the morality of the one you love, change your love and respect for that person? It was an interesting prospective of how a man can be threatened by the intellect of a woman and loses his love for her. Not much has changed . . . for some men!

Sanctuary (1903)
Kate Orme is happily engaged to Denis Peyton. Peyton has recently come into some money upon the death of his stepbrother. Denis confides a deep dark secret to Kate about the source of the money and her love and view of him and his moralities is changed forever. She raises their son to have a higher moral standard, but when this is threatened by circumstances and love for a woman, Kate worries that her son will suffer the same moral failings as his father.
My favorite quote from Sanctuary is about Denis: “His conscience responded only to the concrete pressure of facts.” What a beautiful sentence that says so much about Denis.

This was a very interesting story about morality and ethics, how far will one bend their own sense or ethics in order to achieve fame and wealth. Sadly with many of the financial problems our country has had lately, some people like Bernie Madoff are willing to bend them a lot, but luckily there are still a lot of people with ethics out there.

Denis and Kate’s son is an up and coming architect, which was very interesting to read about. I also love how Kate was a strong, educated woman with a strong sense of her self and her own morals.

Madame de Treymes
While the first two novellas were set in New York, Madame de Treymes is set in France, but is primarily about Americans (from New York) living in uneasy terms with the native French aristocracy. John Durham visited France and discovered his old friend from younger days; Fanny Frisbee is separated from her very unmoral husband the Marquis de Malrive. John falls in love with the mystery of Madame de Malrive and would like to marry her. The Malrive family is Catholic and does not believe in divorce. Fanny does not want to risk losing her son by divorcing her husband. John talks to one of the heads of the family, Fanny’s sister-in-law Madame de Treymes, in order to determine a smooth path to allow Fanny to be free to divorce and marry John. All does not flow smoothly and John is left to decide whether to stick to his morals and lose the woman he loves or to betray him and win Fanny.

One of my favorite quotes is about how John did not love Fanny Frisbee, but does love Fanny Malrive.

“She was the same, but so mysteriously changed! And it was the mystery, the sense of unprobed depths of initiation which drew him to her as her freshness had never drawn him.”

My other favorite quote was a catty one from John’s sister when they arrive at Fanny’s house to visit, “Well, if this is all she got by marrying a Marquis!”

I loved the moral struggle and slightly ambiguous ending of this story. There was also a sensual undercurrent between Madame de Treymes and John that I found fascinating. I loved all of their conversations together and found them more exciting then John and Fanny. It was also a great social commentary on the French elite and Americans in France. As Wharton lived in France for much her later life, it as a commentary written from her own personal experiences and observations.

Bunner Sisters (1916)
Bunner Sisters is the one novella that really sticks out in this collection. As I began to read it, I realized I had read it in a different collection at some point in the past. This story is not set among the upper classes; it is about two sisters that are barely getting by with their small shop in New York City. The story line also does not have the morality and love storyline that characterized the first three novellas. It was an excellent story, but I don’t feel that it belonged in this collection.

Ann Eliza and Evelina are two old maid sisters that enjoy a calm and unexciting existence. One day, Ann Eliza buys a clock for Evelina and the two sisters meet Mr. Ramy. Both sisters fall in love with him and once must make a choice to allow the other to be happy. There is a twist in the story at this point that I will not give away. It was unexpected.

I was mostly struck by this story at how hard it was to be a woman one-hundred years ago. It was hard work just to make it and it didn’t take much for you to lose it all. This novella would make a good companion to The House of Mirth.

Overall this collection was excellent and very thought provoking. I love the examination of morality, ethics, hypocrisy, and love.

I am happy to be a part of The Classics Circuit today. A month long celebration of Edith Wharton is always something that I would love to be a part of.

Book Source: I purchased this book at the ½ Off Book Store in Battle Creek, Michigan that no longer exists during a Wharton frenzy that I went through in college at least ten years ago. I held this book back to read at some later date . . . and the day finally came with the help of The Classics Circuit.


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  2. Laura, it sounds as if you really enjoyed these novellas by Edith Wharton. I probably would, too. The Classics Circuit provided the perfect incentive to read the book you'd saved. Thank you for another intelligent and thoughtful review.

  3. Another great review, Laura. E.Wharton has recently become one of my favourite writers, I've read only The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth but I want to read more! These novellas may be a very good idea to go on with her wonderful prose.
    You are right. Being part of the Classic Circuit has been a great opportunity!

  4. Spectacular review Laura. I love Edith Wharton also, but it has been some time since I read The Age of Innocence. So glad you enjoy her too.

  5. From one Laura to another ... I really enjoyed your review! I haven't read this collection yet. My TBR pile has grown significantly thanks to The Classics Circuit this month.

  6. I've never read any of these but love Wharton. Need to see if I can find these to download.

  7. I enjoyed reading the Touchstone and that's the only one of these i've read! But they sound great: I love the moral dilemma and these sound great. Thanks for joining the Circuit!

  8. Although I've read quite a few of Wharton's works, I haven't read any of the ones you mention here. I'll definitely be on the look out for them.

  9. I have never read Edith Wharton. Thanks for summarizing four of her books. I now have the urge to read this author.

    By the way, I have awarded your blog with the One Lovely Blog Award! More info here: