You can’t read the secondary literature on Edith Wharton without bumping into the ghost of Henry James. They both wrote about rich Americans, some of whom spent their time in Europe, so the critics have gathered around this obvious clue and have palpated it to death, rather like the rather dim police inspectors in Sherlock Holmes who fail to make subtle deductions from the more apparently trivial clues with which they are presented, while running off the track when big clues are, by malign design, thrown in their way..
I haven’t waded far enough into the secondary literature to see if anybody has connected Wharton to Oscar Wilde, but as I find traces of Wilde all over The House of Mirth, I think I’m going to take up the theme and give it a good shaking.
Wharton does a rather neat trick in The House of Mirth – she manages to convincingly create a hybrid of social comedy and melodrama. The melodrama is the natural aesthetic correlate of the overwhelming emotions, for melodrama is an excessive form,a form for deformation, and in its too muchness it brings a certain paradoxical proportion to the total flavor of those emotions that swamp the self. These are the blood rushing emotions, the emotions that call metaphorically upon the involuntary surges of the internal organs at work within us, which is why we quickly go to the heart, and secretly go to the genitals, when imagining them. Certainly the melodrama in The House of Mirth is cued to tidal waves, coursing rivers, and all kinds of mounting water action. When Lily Bart, after the humiliation of her scene with Gus Trenor that falls almost in the middle of the book, decides that she will confide in Seldon, the phrase that describes this is perfectly in line with high water : “the thought of confiding in him became as seductive as the river’s flow to a suicide.” Flow just is seduction – as the novel makes clear.
But social comedy is a drying thing, and before the rivers flow and the storms crescendo, there are the brilliant setpieces at Bellomont, the most brilliant of which, in its setting, its stage props (ample use being made of cigarettes) and its at times cynical, at times lyrical dialogue, is the conversation between Lawrence Seldon and Lily Bart on the fatal Sunday when she loses her grip on the rich sap she has decided to marry, Percy Gryce. The whole thing is too much like Wilde’s essay dialogues not to be, at some calibrated distance, signifying. For instance, from what text, The House of Mirth or The Decay of Lying, do these two phrases go? a, If we are all the raw stuff of the cosmic effects, one would rather be the fire that tempers a sword than the fish that dyes a purple cloak; and b, Art itself is really a form of exaggeration; and selection, which is the very spirit of art, is nothing more than an intensified mode of over-emphasis.
Notes on Dorian Gray: It is hard to be kind to Dorian Gray. It mixes up the brilliant and the lurid, but the luridness cancels out the brilliance and the brilliance makes the luridness seem ridiculous. Yet, it has survived. It has even become a gothic archetype , partly because it is animated by a very protestant, not to say Puritanical, motif: eternal youth equates to eternal viciousness. The same thematic adventure is, of course, central to The House of Mirth. It is Lily’s youth that is going. At several points, she looks in the mirror with the same curiosity and fear as Dorian looking at his portrait, and when she sees lines on her face, she worries.
Wilde of course was not even in the same league, as a novelist, with Wharton. Partly that is because he couldn’t foot his novel in the homosexual social circle that the book cries out for – he couldn’t, like Gide, simply seize the permission to do so.The result of Wharton’s deep sense of the way her own comedy is footed in a social circle she knows down to the design of the wallpaper allows her to move from comedy to melodrama without upsetting the narrative balance of the story. Melodrama, of course, relies, even excessively, upon the conventional – and Lily, for all her flashes of insight, is too conventional for her own good. She is too conventional not to hunt for a rich husband, and too conventional not to reject the offer from Rosedale, the richest man she knows, because he is a Jew. Melodrama also relies on coincidence – but coincidence has an unfairly bad reputation in fiction. In good fiction, coincidence is often a measure of the degrees of the social world in which the characters move – a sort of not always reliable pi. Without coincidence, there is no measure to that world – and thus, it ceases to act as a world.
The Wildean note in Wharton makes more sense now, when we have opened up all her sealed papers and discovered her erotica, than it might have when Wharton had to come into literature on the arm of her bachelor friend James. It is about time for her to come into literature with a more extended set of references.