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Edith Wharton


Edith Wharton's Sanctuary, first published inn 1903, is, frankly, a melodrama. A serene and sunny opening clouds over darkly within a couple of pages. Lightning strikes before the twentieth page. The heroine of the story learns that her fiancé defrauded his brother-in-law's widow in order to gain an inheritance for himself. Her eyes are opened to the world she lives in. Neither her father nor her prospective mother-in-law, she soon realizes, will take the high ground of her revulsion. The curtain falls. When it comes up again, over twenty years later, the heroine is a widow and devoted mother. Her son, an aspiring architect, is put in the position to do something almost as abhorrent as what his father did. The heroine once again agonizes in silence. Then, suddenly, it is over. I wouldn't for the world share a whisper about the ending. For Sanctuary is indeed a book that will keep the better sort of reader on the edge of his or her seat. Its humorless atmosphere is that of a ghost story (a Wharton specialty). The suspense is at times unbearable. The writing is very high.

Even though Wharton was forty-one when Sanctuary came out, the novella qualifies as an early work. The novel that she was working on at the time, The House of Mirth, would show her command of long form fiction for the first time. But Sanctuary remains a jewel that everyone ought to look at once. It's a wonderful example of the interior fiction that translate so poorly into film. It's drama is silent but intensely verbal: this is what writing can do.

When Kate Orme discovers what her fiancé, Denis Peyton, has done, she grows up in a shot and discovers just how important honesty is to her. Hitherto, she had not imagined that honesty would be a problem, either for herself or for anyone in her world. Protected from scandal by tribal ellipses, Kate has learned her virtues from chapbooks, not from life. Only when the man she loves shows himself to be a weak opportunist and a liar does her passion for honesty reveal itself, and threaten to make her life impossible. She puts off the wedding at once and takes to her spiritual bed. Here is the extraordinarily-written climax of Part One:

All this did not come to her clearly, consecutively, but in a series of blurred and shifting images. Marriage had meant to her, as it means to girls brought up in ignorance of life, simply the exquisite prolongation of wooing. If she had looked beyond, to the vision of wider ties, it was as a traveler gazes over a land veiled in golden haze, and so far distant that the imagination delays to explore it. But now through the blur of sensations one image strangely persisted - the image of Denis' child. Had she ever before thought of their having a child? She could not remember. She was like one who wakens from a long fever: she recalled nothing of her former self or of her former feelings. She knew only that the vision persisted - the vision of the child whose mother she was not to be. It was impossible that she should marry Denis - her inmost soul rejected him - but it was just because she was not to be the child's mother that its image followed her so pleadingly. For she saw with perfect clearness the inevitable course of events. Denis would marry someone else - he was one of the men who are fated to marry, and she needed not his mother's reminder that her abandonment of him at an emotional crisis would fling him upon the first sympathy within reach. He would marry a girl who knew nothing of his secret - for Kate was intensely aware that he would never again willingly confess himself - he would marry a girl who trusted him and leaned on him, as she, Kate Orme - the earlier Kate Orme - had done but two days since! And with this deception between them their child would be born: born to an inheritance of secret weakness, a vice of the moral fibre, as it might be born with some hidden physical taint that would destroy it before the cause should be detected...[sic]  Well, and what of it? Was she to hold herself responsible? Were not thousands of children born with some unsuspected taint?...[sic] Ah, but if here was one that she could save? What if she, who had had so exquisite a vision of wifehood, should reconstruct from its ruins this vision of protecting maternity - if her love for her lover should be, not lost, but transformed, enlarged, into this passion of charity for his race? If she might expiate and redeem his fault by become a refuge from its consequences? Before this strange extension of her love all the old limitations seemed to fall. Something had cleft the surface of self, and there welled up the mysterious primal influences, the sacrificial instincts of her sex, a passion of spiritual motherhood that made her long to fling herself between the unborn child and its fate...[sic]

She never knew, then or after, how she reached this mystic climax of effacement; she was only conscious, through her anguish, of that lift of the heart that made one of the saints declare that joy was the inmost core of sorrow. For it was indeed a kind of joy she felt, if old names must serve for such new meanings; a surge of liberating faith in life, the old credo quia absurdum that is the secret cry of all supreme endeavor.

This is prose that's dressed pretty much as Wharton dressed: it's profusely impeccable. It is as full and true an account of Kate Orme's conversion experience as Wharton can write without repeating herself. We no longer speak with such dramatic, eloquent explicitness. But there's no question that Wharton has captured the grandeur of George Eliot at her very best.

For anyone familiar with Wharton's life, the wishful-thinking aspect of Sanctuary will be pungent. Wharton imagines a world in which her own disastrous marriage to Teddy Wharton is effaced. Kate goes straight from fiancée to widow. There is just enough retrospection to let us know that Kate got through her marriage somehow - and that Denis misspent his ill-gotten gains. Through miracles of thrift, Kate saw to her boy's education, eventually taking him off to more affordable Paris, where he studied at the École des Beaux-Arts. At the beginning of Part Two, mother and son are back in New York. Dick Peyton is struggling in his own office, set up with a draughtsman. He has great hopes for a competition for the design of a new sculpture museum. Kate is troubled by something that she has long noticed about Dick.

Whatever art he enjoyed he wished to practise, and he passed from music to painting, from painting to architecture, with an ease that seemed to his mother to indicate lack of purpose rather than excess of talent. She had observed that these changes were usually due, not to self-criticism, but to some external discouragement. Any depreciation of his work was enough to convince him of the uselessness of pursuing that special form of art, and the reaction produced the immediate conviction that he was really destined to shine in some other line of work.

Dick is buoyed up not only by his mother's encouragement but by that of Paul Darrow, a classmate from the Beaux-Arts. Paul hails from the West, and is twice described with some form of the word "crude." But he is a good and decent man, possibly gifted as well, and Kate presses her son to maintain the old friendship. Paul has also entered the competition; he's the only competitor whom Dick thinks might win, other than himself. Kate cannot repress an outburst: "I'm not sure I think it quite nice of him." Dick rebukes her lack of generosity, and her "blush deepened to crimson." If in the first part of the novella Kate made a clean break, from wife to mother, she is now shown to be torn and conflicted in her motherhood, for she wants two things for Dick. She wants him to succeed, and she wants him to deserve his success. Her outburst about Paul, utterly contrary to her genuine affection for the young man, is triggered by the most elemental maternal bond. She bursts out again, "I hate these competitions!"

Kate does not share her son's complacence about the work.

His mother continued to study him with an anxious tenderness. "Have you worked out the whole scheme? Do you see it yet?"

"Oh, broadly, yes. There's a gap here and there - a hazy bit, rather - it's the hardest problem I've ever had to tackle; but then its my biggest opportunity, and I've simply got to pull it off.

Mrs Peyton sat silent, considering his flushed face and illumined eye, which were rather those of the victor nearing the goal than of the runner just beginning the race. She remembered something Darrow had once said of him: "Dick always sees the end too soon." 

The image of the two runners - the victor and the beginner - is almost tragically eloquent.

Dick's hopes for the competition are couched in hopes for the hand of Clemence Verney, a bright young lady of society whom Wharton manages to make unpleasant even before she appears. Her very name seems precious. Clemence and Kate fall into a somewhat stilted conversation in which the girl makes her attachment to worldly success as clear as can be.

"What do you call success?" the latter asked. "It means so many different things."

"Oh, yes, I know - the inward approval, and all that. Well, I'm afraid I like the other kind: the drums and wreaths and acclamations. If I were Mr Peyton, for instance, I'd much rather win the competition that - than be as disinterested as Mr Darrow."

No sooner has this piece of work been bundled off by her duenna than Kate takes a good look at Paul and sees, for the first time, how wasted he is. She manages a tête-à-tête with him, at the end of which Paul pronounces wickedly fine judgment on Clemence. "I think," he said smiling, "that she likes to be helped first, and to have everything on her plate at once.

Wharton never specifies what's wrong with Paul - that would be clutter. But what ever it is that afflicts him, it begins its final gallop now. Within four pages, Paul is dead. He has left behind the following note for Dick: "I want you to use my plans for the museum if you can get any good out of them." Kate initially weeps at this simply because she regards it as a loving gesture inspired by her talk with him, in which she expressed her anxieties about Dick. Thinking it over the next day, the word "temptation" comes to mind, followed instantly by the rejection of the idea that Dick would ever take advantage of Paul's offer. But Dick, of course, has seen Pauls' drawings and judged them to be superior to his own in every way.

The remainder of Sanctuary is the build-up to a finale that Wharton invests with all the anxiety of a ghost story. After days of tortured reflection, during which she says nothing to Dick, only noticing his sudden aversion to her company, and a chilling encounter with Clemence at a musical party - a scene fraught with the same unspoken hostility that makes Lambert Strether's initial encounters with Mrs Pocock in Paris so menacing (Henry James's The Ambassadors came out in 1903 as well) - Kate ventures, on the eve of the competition deadline, to Dick's office. It is the very dead of night.

The watchman apparently did not think it proper to offer comment on this unusual proceeding, and a moment later she was fluttering and rustling up through the darkness, like a nightbird hovering among rafters [Kate has come from the opera]. There were ten flights to climb: at everyone her breath failed her, and she had to stand still and press her hands against her heart. Then the weight on her breast lifted, and she went on again, upward and upward, the great dark building dropping away from her, in tier after tier of mute doors and mysterious corridors. At last she reached Dick's floor, and saw the light shining down the passage from his door. She leaned against the wall, her breath coming short, the silence throbbing in her ears. Even now it was not too late to turn back. She bent over the stairs, letting her eyes plunge into the nether blackness, with the slight glimmer of the watchman's lights in its depths; then she turned and stole toward her son's door.

There are no ghosts behind that door, but only, what's worse, the prospect of a moral horror not dissimilar to the maddened Kurtz in The Heart of Darkness. Wharton employs every trick in her repertoire to wind up the monstrous uncertainty that besets Kate. As she moves from room to room in Dick's office, the certainty of dire prospects intensifies almost to solidity. You are fully prepared for a heartbreaking dénouement.

Someday, when I have reason to believe that more than ten other readers and myself, plus a clutch of Wharton scholars, have read Sanctuary, perhaps I'll discuss the outcome. It is very well done, but, as I say, this is melodrama, and to know the end is to spoil the awful pleasure of the read. This is melodrama at its most intelligent, at its most literate, and at its most high-minded. The novella's ceaseless agitation leaves a powerful scent of Wharton's sensual, passionate nature; a writer who didn't feel as Kate feels could never have brought off describing it with such exciting economy. Not least of the excitement is Wharton's boundless sympathy for a mother. She herself was doomed to childlessness.

Sanctuary is not a masterpiece. It's doubtful that anything so melodramatic - so marked by stimulating peripeties - could be one. But Sanctuary is a very invigorating tale that's not too long for one's investment. It's the work of a gifted writer whose formidable acuity is fully matched by her ardent sympathy. A modern reader might complain in the vernacular that "it's intense!" And so it is. But that very intensity is what preserves, even for the modern reader, the thrills of a world that put little value in cool. (July 2007)

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