Sunday, March 9, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 217: Edith Wharton, Autres Temps... (#217)

Edith Wharton, "Autres Temps..." (1911) from Edith Wharton: Collected Stories 1911–1937:

I didn't mean to read the whole thing standing here. It's a 30-page story about complicated social mores of the past, featuring less than five major characters, none of whom is particularly funny or interesting on their own:

  • the older (widowed?) Mrs. Lidcote who broke off her marriage to run away with another husband and has since been unwelcome in American high society--and has internalized that feeling till now she always expects people to cut her (socially, I mean--to avoid her); 
  • her daughter Leila who has just tossed over one husband and picked up with another, but who seems to have gotten away with it because times have changed and whose major personality trait is that she's happy; 
  • Franklin Ide, the suitor of Mrs. Lidcote who tries to convince her that times have changed and that they can now marry without any social problems;
  • assorted family members--Leila's new husband and her cousin-aunt-majordomo (a standard family position for an unmarried older woman, as the helper to someone with greater status/money);
  • and a bunch of society people, including the powerful and old-fashioned Mrs. Boulger (who can help Leila and husband get a post in Italy, near Mrs. Lidcote), and many others.

And yet, despite the fact that this has so little plot, with so much time spent in and around Mrs. Lidcote's head--as she tries to figure out whether times really have changed--I read the whole 30-page thing in one standing. (OK, I shouldn't make too much of this standing issue: I have a standing desk set-up on one of my bookshelves that I try to use every day. So really, I read this whole thing standing here because I'm supposed to be standing more.)

Or maybe I read it all in one go because it's such a slow, thoughtful piece about a period that's long gone. (Which is what the title refers to: "Other times, other manners" is both the reference in the French phrase "autres temps, autres mœurs" and also the original title to this piece in 1911; Wharton retitled it in 1916.) Because it doesn't really speak to our time in its particulars, we might be able to see how the general trend of it fits in with our lives.

Or let me put it this way: in Mad Men, there's a gay character (Sal) who is deeply in the closet--constantly talking about women, married unhappily, the whole sad nine yards. Then, a few years later, Sal meets a young up-and-comer who explains quite undramatically that he's gay. And the look on Sal's face--the "that's an option?" look--is pricelessly shattering.

I get a very similar feeling here, when Mrs. Lidcote (at first) can't quite get her mind around the fact that her daughter is really fine--that everyone in society is fine with her leaving her old husband, that her old husband is so fine with this that he's trying to help Leila's husband. And then, after Mrs. Lidcote makes that turn to understanding that maybe things are different, Wharton pulls the rug out from under us again: things have changed, but not for Mrs. Lidcote. And everyone else understands this thing that Mrs. Lidcote needs to figure out. It's a murder mystery story--but what's been murdered is Mrs. Lidcote's chance for happiness and just because she was born at the wrong time.

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