05 July 2014

The Stories of Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton was a prolific writer of stories - maybe call them tales - but not short stories because hardly any of them are what we would now classify as short. She favoured the extended story, often with multiple characters and issues. She produced over eighty stories - nearly as many as her good friend Henry James who clocked up over a hundred - and they cover an impressive range of topics and themes. Social climbing and snobbery; Anglo-American relations; art and artists; tragedies of everyday life; and even ghost stories, for which she had a great fondness. She also produced these shorter works between an impressive series of full length novels, such as The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence, and The Custom of the Country.

It has to be said that they vary in quality. Some of the weakest seem to have been written just to fill space in the many literary and upmarket magazines for which she wrote. But her writing style is fluent and elegant no matter what her subject, and the best of her tales are tightly constructed masterpieces of the genre. Xingu is a very amusing and much anthologised satire of a ladies' reading circle; After Holbein is a macabre account of old age and senility (prefiguring Evelyn Waugh); The Pretext is an almost heartbreaking study of a middle-aged woman who has fallen in love with a younger man; and The Touchstone (one of her earliest and longest tales, which qualifies as a novella) might well contain a self-portrait of Wharton herself in the figure of Margaret Aubyn, a novelist whose early love letters to a young man cause him moral problems long after her death.

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