Edith Wharton writes about that segment of society, or shall I say Society, that few of us are probably privvy to--that wealthy class of people that inhabit a certain station in life (of which I am more than a few rungs down) so very, very well. She knows them, she knows their secrets, and you can tell she doesn't approve but she knows how the game works and either her characters play by the rules and are miserable or don't play by the rules and so are thrown out.
In this weekend's short story from Infinite Riches, "Souls Belated" (I'm still contemplating what the title means), she trains her scalpel on those people who aren't playing by the rules, but the question is, will they get away with it? Even at the end of the story I am not sure they will, or have. "Happy" endings aren't always happy or necessarily satisfying endings.
Two lovers are on a train. Sounds romantic, doesn't it? But two such uncomfortable people they are, you can feel their avoidance of each other. A third person who has just vacated his seat and departed means now they are alone with themselves and each other, and during the course of the story being alone with their thoughts is not attractive. Something stands between Lydia and Gannett. Their silence is not companionable and you can sense a question between the two of them.
"How could it be otherwise, with that thing between them? She glanced up at the rack overhead. The thing was there, in her dressing-bag, symbolically suspended over her head and his. He was thinking of it now, just as she was; they had been thinking of it in unison ever since they had entered the train. While the carriage had held other travelers they had screened her from his thoughts; but now that he and she were alone she knew exactly what was passing through his mind; she could almost hear him asking himself what he should say to her . . ."
This thing is a divorce which Lydia's husband has demanded and the paper announcing the expected result of their affair sits tucked away her suitcase just above their heads. A divorce when you are in love with someone else sounds sort of freeing, don't you think? But when the two arrive at the Italian resort so very far away from their world, they still must play at being a proper couple. It would not do to arrive as a divorcée and her lover.
And so they play the game. The resort is 'ruled' by an upper-class British lady who resides there almost permanently. To be anything other than a proper married couple would mean being ostracized and unaccepted. But the two can pass until Lydia is approached by a guest, the wife of another couple, who sees her for what she really is. This other guest is in the same situation as Lydia, only she is still waiting for word of a divorce. Gannett and this woman's 'husband' were closeted together the night before and she threatens to expose Lydia for what she truly is unless she finds out whether this man is going to leave her or not. Lydia refuses, but it is as if the woman has held up a mirror in front of her face.
"'Oh, do you see the full derision of it? These people--the very prototypes of the bores you took me away from, with the same fenced-in view of life, the same keep-off-the-grass morality, the same little cautious virtues and the same little frightened vices--well, I've clung to them, I've delighted in them, I've done my best to please them'."
Gannett tells her they can go away and marry now that she is free. They can go to Paris and no one will ever know the difference.
"Do you know [Lydia says to Gannett], I begin to see what marriage is for. It's to keep people away from each other."
Lydia feels a fraud. She wants to live by her own rules and be happy with the man she loves but she knows marriage to him will simply destroy what is important to her. It's like having your cake but not being able to eat it, too. So what is the solution? How do you stay true to yourself and be happy, too? Is it possible in this turn-of-the-century world where you are wealthy enough to be 'free', but that freedom will come at a price that may be too high to pay.
Edith Wharton is once again such a perfect observer of this world. I don't know why I've not read my way through her books. I must pick up something longer by her soon.
Next week a story by Jessie Kesson. I'm past the halfway mark with this collection and have only six more stories to read. I have plenty of other collections to choose from, but I am already sad at the thought of finishing this book. I could breeze through the rest, but I want to continue savoring them.
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In his Q&A with the New Yorker, Colm Tóibín mentions that it sometimes takes years for him to write a short story. Knowing the intricacy of his writing, that does not surprise me. There is nothing rushed (and certainly nothing wasted) in his writing. In this week's issue (March 23), Tóibín's story "Sleep" is very revealing. Not just about the main character but also about the writer himself since it is somewhat autobiographical. In the story, an Irishman, keeps having intense and disturbing dreams about his brother. They are so intense that his boyfriend cannot remain in the relationship and leaves him. Once again there is a sense of melancholy about the story, which Tóibín does so well. There is a genuineness to his stories that I like very much.