Wednesday, 18 January 2012

The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton, Wordsworth Editions

A marked modernity about this book strikes you on first reading. The voice throughout has a deprecating wit and a knowingness about male shortcomings; so much for our time and so little heard in her own. Read it without knowing the author, and you’d be forgiven for thinking this an unlikely post-modern take on the transatlantic Edwardian.
The veil drops on a little delving. Wharton was borne of such a privileged background, in New York one-hundred and fifty years ago, that it was her true family name that became synonymous with the phrase ‘keeping up with the Joneses.’ Family affluence assured she grew up wanting for nothing, which included early room-to-room electricity, the telephone and regular tourism. Fortunately, money hadn’t been bestowed upon a dullard, Wharton’s considerable talents encroaching into landscape art, interior design and related works of non-fiction, making her something of a forerunner to, say, Jocasta Innes.
Her wealth, allied to her work as something of an anti-Victorian Smart-Setter, reversed the usual life trajectory of struggling writers; being that she didn’t seriously turn to short fiction until she was almost forty, when she surely didn’t need to turn to it at all. After 1901, at the peak of her powers, having completed building of her own home, (in Lennox, Massachusetts), designed to her own specifications, she set to work on a couple of novels; ‘The House of Mirth’ hotly followed by ‘Ethan Frome.’ This strong, independent woman of means now reached a position where she could write because she wanted to, rather than out of grinding necessity. A position most women would rightly envy today.
David Stuart Davies’s Introduction to this addition to Wordsworth’s ever-lengthening Mystery & the Supernatural series relates the childhood terror she drew upon, after ‘a near fatal attack of typhoid fever at the age of nine.’ Brother and sister playmates gave her a book featuring the tale of a robber. Apparently, its effect actually caused a relapse in her condition. She awoke from it feeling haunted and troubled, unable to sleep alone nights. This, at least, connects her to most other writers, who, far from a subsequent life of self-denial, actually revel in, and utilise, such old fears for their work as a form of catharsis. A failed marriage to a less intellectual philanderer only appears to have emboldened her creatively, showing the extent a woman could achieve then, unencumbered by male society’s expectations.
Throughout, Wharton is exceptional at the suggestiveness of place to each character, (and so to us) and their reactions are never less than subtly authentic. It is clear she knows these people well; their witty, self-deprecating dialogue and half-spoken mutual understanding in conversation revealing the voices of the set she herself moved among early last century. Every tale here is a literary gem, but the second half contains ‘Bewitched,’ ‘Mr. Jones,’ ‘Pomegranate Seed’ and ‘All Souls,’’ that must be considered classics of the genre.

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