Edith Wharton and the Marriage Plot


Wharton was not lucky in love. Her parents had little confidence in her feminine wiles, thinking her too shy and intelligent, and thus undesirable for marriage. (Lee, 58)  Her engagement to Henry Leyden Stevens was announced in August of 1882 when she was twenty and publicly broken in October of that same year in the publication Town Topics. The piece said, “The only reason for the breaking of the engagement…is an alleged preponderance of intellectuality on the part of the intended bride.” (Lee, 61-62) While there is little evidence to confirm or dismiss Edith’s romantic feelings for Stevens, it is obvious that the failed engagement was a source of mortification for both Edith and her family. The public exposure of the couple’s split coincides with the failure of her father’s health, and it can be inferred that embarrassment at least hastened his decline. This humiliation also partially explains Edith’s rushed marriage to Edward Wharton. (Lee, 63)

In the summer of 1883, Wharton met Walter Van Rensselaer Berry, for whom she cherished an intellectual love. She describes her first few weeks with him as, “a fleeting hint of what the communion of kindred intelligences might be.” (Lee, 64) Though the couple was never engaged, they maintained a close and loving friendship after Wharton’s marriage to Teddy Wharton, one that is somewhat tinged with regret. In a letter to Wharton from Berry, he intimates, “Well, my dear, I’ve never ‘wondered’ about anyone else, and there wouldn’t be much of me if you were cut out of it. Forty years of it is yours, dear. W” (Lee, 65) It is perhaps this relationship that informs the impossible loves of some of her protagonists especially that of Lily Bart and Lawrence Selden in The House of Mirth.

Their budding romance was cut short, however, by the bewildering disappearance of Walter Berry that summer, which allowed Wharton’s future husband, Teddy to enter the scene. Teddy Wharton had none of the intellectual appeal of Walter Berry; however, he was attractive and from a decent family. Edith was certainly vulnerable after her failed romances with two men, and still stinging from the public humiliation of a broken engagement. It is therefore not surprising that Wharton accepted Teddy in all of his masculine, sporty glory. She was also twenty-four, nearing the age beyond which it would become increasingly difficult to be married. (Lewis, 52) It is not a stretch to compare Lily Bart’s consideration of Rosedale with Wharton’s acceptance of Teddy. Both women were older and in need of a husband, vulnerable from failed romances with men they loved.

Their marriage was not a particularly happy one, causing Edith to seek other relationships outside of her marriage. In addition to her intimate correspondence with Walter Berry, Wharton also began a passionate affair with Morton Fullerton, a friend of Henry James, in 1907. Wharton had limited sexual experience, thus this relationship was her awakening to her own sexual feelings. Though the affair was short lived, Wharton’s surviving letters to Fullerton reveal the fervent infatuation she felt for him, though it is unclear how Fullerton actually felt about her. After the disappointing conclusion to their relationship, Wharton’s disappointment and heartbreak is clear despite her obvious efforts to conceal it. In a letter after their split she writes:

My Dearest Love,

I am writing to this because, this afternoon, I passed by the dear old crooked church of Creil, where I spent such a happy hour with you a year & a half ago…

Before that, I had no personal life: since then you have given me all imaginable joy.

Nothing can take it from me now, or diminish it in my eyes, save the discovery that what has set my whole being free may gradually, in perceptively, have become a kind of irksome bondage to you. (Lewis and Lewis, 189)

Edith seems to have seen herself as a burden to Fullerton, as evidenced in her letter. It’s possible that Wharton’s affair is idealized in the tragic unconsummated love between Ellen Olenska and Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence. There are similarities between the affairs, which suggest that her fictional account of an affair was at least affected by her own personal experience.

Wharton’s disappointing love life certainly is visible in her fiction. Unlike Henry James, whose relationships are somewhat forced and unrealistic, Wharton manages to capture the human essence of failed love. Her unfulfilled, yet idealized romance with Walter Barry draws effortless parallels with the consistent misunderstandings and wrong turns experienced by Selden and Lily in The House of Mirth. The idea of marriage as a necessary, yet not necessarily loving union appears in much of Wharton’s fiction, particularly The Age of Innocence in regard to Newland and May’s union. This negative notion of marriage also appears frequently in The House of Mirth, particularly in Lily’s search for the ‘right’ husband. Finally, Wharton’s extramarital affair with Morton Fullerton is idealized in The Age of Innocence using the adulterous relationship between the Countess Olenska and Newland Archer as a vehicle. While Wharton’s novels are not biographical, the picture of married love in comparison to unmarried and adulterous love is vastly different, married love acting as a passionless business transaction, while unmarried and adulterous love remains ironically pure.

The heartbreaking romance between Lily and Selden in Wharton’s The House of Mirth surpasses (in my opinion) or at least rivals the tragedy of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. This romance also has uncanny connections with the relationship between Walter Berry and Edith Wharton. Lily Bart, an unmarried twenty-nine year old socialite who suffers the affliction of being “horribly poor—and very expensive” (The House of Mirth, 10) seems to be physically dependent upon money, evidenced by scenes in which she has a physical reaction to wealth.

The glow of the stones warmed Lily’s veins like wine. More completely than any other expression of wealth they symbolized the life she longed to lead, the life of fastidious aloofness and refinement in which every detail should have the finish of a jewel, and the whole form a harmonious setting in her own jewel like rareness. (The House of Mirth, 71-72)

While Lily seeks a marriage that will provide her the status and financial security she needs, she falls in love with Lawrence Selden, a middle class lawyer, like Berry, who can provide neither.

The love between Selden and Lily is similar to that described by Wharton and Berry. In one of the few surviving letters from Berry to Wharton, Berry writes to Wharton in 1923:

Dearest—The real dream—mine—was in the canoe and in the night, afterwards,—for I lay awake wondering and wondering,—and them, when morning came, wondering how I could have wondered,—I, a $less lawyer (not even that, yet) with just about enough cash for the canoe and for Rodick’s [the big Bar Harbor hotel] bill—And then, later, in the little cottage at Newport, I wondered why I hadn’t—for it would have been good,—and then the slices of years slid by. (Lee, 63)

Hermione Lee in her biography of Wharton writes, “The lost dream; the missed chance, and the “long run” of disappointment and compromise that follows it; the by-passing of the one true intimacy, the stifled lifelong longing: these are Wharton’s subjects, and Walter may have inspired them.” (Lee, 63) Wharton, though significantly younger than Lily at age twenty-one, was also nearing the age where she would be regarded as unmarriageable. There is a sense of urgency for Lily to find a husband, just as Wharton’s family would have been pressuring her to find one. Though Wharton and Lily found a suitable companion in Berry and Selden, the timing simply seemed not to work out. Just as Selden misunderstood Lily’s fleeing from Gus Trenor’s house, Wharton could have misinterpreted Berry’s flight that summer. Perhaps if Wharton would have held out a little longer, she could have married Berry. But, the beauty in Whartonian love affairs is that they are, alas, impossible.

Selden and Lily are an example of a loving unmarried relationship. Their tragic love can be recapitulated in this scene:

“Do you want to marry me?” she asked.

He broke into a laugh. “No, I don’t want to—but perhaps I should if you did!”

“That’s what I told you—you’re so sure of me that you can amuse yourself with experiments.” She drew back the hand he had regained and sat looking down on him sadly.

“I am not making experiments,” he returned. “Or if I am, it is not on you but on myself. I don’t know what effect they are going to have on me—but if marrying you is one of them, I will take the risk.”

She smiled faintly. “It would be a great risk certainly—I have never concealed from you how great.”

“Ah, it’s you who are the coward!” he exclaimed.

She had risen, and he stood facing her with his eyes on hers. The soft isolation of the falling day enveloped them: they seemed lifted into a finer air. All the exquisite influences of the hour trembled in their veins and drew them to each other as the loosened leaves were drawn to the earth.

“It is you who are the coward,” he repeated, catching her hands in his.

She leaned on him for a moment, as if with a drop of tired wings, he felt as though her heart were beating rather with the stress of a long flight than the thrill of new distances. Then, drawing back with a little smile of warning—“I shall look hideous in dowdy clothes; but I can trim my own hats she declared.” (The House of Mirth, 58-59)

This scene reveals the tenuous and doomed love of the couple. Initially, Selden refuses to say he wants to marry Lily. He only says he would only want to if she did. This illustrates Selden’s continual lack of initiative in courting Lily. He then calls Lily a coward twice, even though it was he who was afraid to state his desires plainly initially. This is consistent with Selden’s constant misjudgment, misunderstanding, and criticism of Lily’s actions. He is always content to judge and blame without allowing her a chance for defense. The climax of the scene occurs between these two accusations with images of breath and veins, the sustenance of life. In this moment it seems that perhaps love can sustain Lily; she does not need jewels to “warm [her] veins.” (The House of Mirth, 71) Then Selden once again calls her a coward, taking the air out from under her metaphorical wings. The fact that her heart is beating from “the stress of a long flight” rather than “the thrill of new distances” suggests that they have not really gone anywhere; Selden has not trusted Lily to sacrifice her social status for love, and thus Lily falls. She then follows with the tragic line that she “can trim [her] own hats” an assertion that is to be proven false in Book II. This phrase is said, as she is “drawing back with a smile of warning.” Her reluctant body language combined with this phrase suggests that this is her romantic ideal, and not something that is possible in reality.

It is impossible to know the details of the romance between Wharton and Berry because Wharton destroyed nearly all of their letters. However the existing letters do give evidence of the regret of an impossible romance. (Lee, 65) Interestingly the destruction of letters also appears in The House of Mirth. Lily destroys Selden’s letters to Bertha Dorset in order to protect his reputation. “When she rose he fancied that he saw her draw something from her dress and drop it in to the fire but he hardly noticed the gesture at the time.” (The House of Mirth, 241) It’s possible that Wharton did the same, worried that their love letters would one day be published. (Lee, 65)

With the similarities between the Selden-Lily, and Berry-Wharton relationships, one notices similarities between Rosedale and Teddy Wharton.  Rosedale is by no means the love of Lily Bart’s life, but an escape route from ruin. He is vulgar and nouveau riche, however these shortcomings can be overlooked when regarding his pocketbook and protection from scandal.  While Lily does not actually marry Rosedale, she does seriously consider it, at one point even accepting his proposal. “I do believe what you say, Mr. Rosedale…and I am ready to marry you whenever you wish.” (The House of Mirth, 198) While Lily’s reputation was in shatters, leading to Rosedale’s tactful refusal of her acceptance, “My dear Miss Lily, I’m sorry if there’s been any little misapprehension between us—but you made me feel my suit was so hopeless that I had really no intention in renewing it,” (The House of Mirth, 198) Wharton still had a chance at marriage and retaining her standing. Though she had been shamed by her first engagement, she was still a Jones, and therefore remained a desirable match. (Lee, 61) Teddy Wharton’s family did not have nearly the amount of money that the Edith’s family did, however Edith’s age and previous scandal from her failed engagement combined with her vulnerability after losing Berry made her an attainable bride. (Coolidge, 57) Thus began the unhappy marriage of Edith and Teddy Wharton.

Teddy and Edith Wharton were “unmatched emotionally, physically, and intellectually,” (Price and McBride, 664) and shared few interests and commonalities. Teddy wanted to live in Newport; Edith did not. Edith was incredibly intellectually inclined, while Teddy was much more interested in sports. The two certainly did not dislike each other, yet as a couple they did not mesh. (Colidge, 57) The nature of her marriage to Teddy likely informed her pessimistic depiction of marriages in her novels and short stories. The marriage of May and Newland Archer in Wharton’s The Age of Innocence has some similarities with that of Edith and Teddy. While initially Edith believed herself to be in love with Teddy, she soon realized that he was a very dull man. While Archer seeks intellectual companionship, May is more interested in athletic activities, which hold little interest for Archer:

But in reality traveling interested her even less than he had expected. She regarded it (once her clothes were ordered) as merely an enlarged opportunity for walking, riding, swimming, and trying her hand at the fascinating new game of lawn tennis; and when they finally got back to London (where they were to spend a fortnight while he ordered his clothes) she no longer concealed the eagerness with which she looked forward to sailing.  (The Age of Innocence, 119)

Archer’s description of his marriage to May is also shockingly familiar when read with the Wharton’s marriage in mind. “He had married (as most young men did) because he had met a perfectly charming girl at the moment when a series of rather aimless sentimental adventures were ending in premature disgust; and she had represented peace, stability, comradeship, and the steadying sense of inescapable duty.” (The Age of Innocence, 126)

It is nearly impossible to find a happily married couple in Edith Wharton’s fiction. The business of marrying is discussed in terms of monetary and social value. There is little talk of love and matrimony. When Lily is trying to coax a proposal from Percy Gryce, a man whose greatest passion is his Americana rather than in women, Lily’s best friend, Judy Trenor says to her, “We could none of us imagine you putting up with him for a moment unless you meant to marry him.” (The House of Mirth, 60) It is in adulterous relationships and impossible courtships that Wharton finds passion rather than in married ones.

Wharton’s affair with Morton Fullerton provided the romantic fulfillment Wharton had craved her whole life. While they were sexually intimate, much of the passion between them stems from the painful impossibility of their being together. (Price and McBride, 663) For Fullerton, there may have been a safety in the fact that Wharton was married.  She was unavailable, thus he could remain uncommitted. (Erlich, 97) Wharton’s disapproving and concerned friends referred to Fullerton as, “an elegant seducer,” a “libertine,” and a “middle-aged mustached Lothario.” (Erlich, 98) Wharton was entirely taken under his spell, and though their affair was not permanent, Wharton was permanently sexually liberated. (Erlich, 98)

The only record we have of their affair is one sided. Wharton destroyed her Fullerton’s letters to her and begged him to do the same with hers. He refused; thus we have Wharton’s side of their correspondence. (Erlich, 98) When reading through these letters, it is impossible to deny the striking connections between their affair and that of the Countess Olenska and Newland Archer.

Near the beginning of their affair, Wharton writes a letter to Fullerton suggesting that they meet privately:

Do you want me to lunch with you tomorrow…I find myself put-off by Rosa…—so I can slip off beautifully—if you have time & are free…I should like it to be somewhere at the end of the earth…where there is bad food, & no chance of meeting acquaintances.—If you tell me where, I’ll come—or better, meet you at the Louvre at one o’c, in the shadow of Jean Gorgon’s Diana. (Lewis and Lewis, 134)

The fact of their meeting at a museum seems too coincidental when compared with the following scene from The Age of Innocence:

“Tomorrow I must see you—somewhere where we can be alone,” he said in a voice that sounded almost angry to his own ears.

She wavered and moved toward the carriage.

“But I shall be at Granny’s…”

“Somewhere where we can be alone,” he insisted…

“In New York? But there are no churches…no monuments.”

“There’s the Art Museum—in the Park.” (The Age of Innocence, 185)

The connections between these two scenes do not stop at the idea of meeting in public places to be alone, specifically art museums.  Wharton’s reference to Jean Gorgon’s Diana connects to Archer’s wife, May who is consistently compared to the virginal warrior goddess. The last name of the artist, Gorgon is also a female Greek mythological creature that turns figures into stone. (The Age of Innocence, 173) When Ellen Olenska and Archer are in the carriage discussing their affair, Newland says to Ellen, “The Gorgon has dried your tears.” (The Age of Innocence, 175) Though the significance of these allusions are unclear, it is possible that Wharton was quietly and subtly connecting her own meeting with Fullerton with her fictional representation of a love affair.

The end of the Wharton-Fullerton affair could not be more vastly different from the conclusion of the Olenska-Archer one. While Fullerton gradually lost interest in the affair, moving on to his next lover, Wharton could not help but feel a sense of anti-climax and betrayal. (Erlich, 98) Because they shared mutual friends, they still attended the same social events, at which they were forced to interact. It is these mundane exchanges, which seem to disappoint Wharton the most. Wharton writes this letter soon after their split:

Are you coming to dine tonight? And am I not wrong in asking you when I know how stupid, disappointing, altogether “impossible” you found me yesterday?—Alas the long isolation has made me inarticulate & yet I wasn’t meant to be!…

Think of me, Dear, in the old way, the only way in which I may be a little worth while–& don’t, above all, feel obliged to try to make me think what isn’t! Please! (Lewis and Lewis, 176)

Reading Wharton’s fiction, it is safe to assume that she would have preferred a fervent and tragic ending to her affair, instead of the casual ending she experienced. Perhaps Wharton’s way of coming to terms with the affair was to write the ending that she wished she had.

Then he tried to see the persons already in the room—for probably at that sociable hour there would be more than one—and among them a dark lady, pale an dark, who would look up quickly, half rise, and hold out a long thin hand with three rings on it…

“It’s more real to me here than if I went up,” he suddenly heard himself say; and the fear lest that last shadow of reality should lose its edge kept him rooted to his seat as the minutes succeeded each other. (The Age of Innocence, 217)

In creating the fictional romance of Ellen Olenska and Newland Archer, perhaps Edith Wharton was providing the ending to her affair that she would have preferred. As the affair had ended on Fullerton’s terms, this could have been Edith’s means for gaining solace and closure.

Edith Wharton’s love life was full of heartbreaks and disappointments. While the men she loved, Walter Berry and Morton Fullerton were never truly attainable, she was forced to spend the majority of her life with a man with whom she had little in common. When compared to Henry James who had no sexual or romantic experience, it is clear that Wharton gained romantic wisdom through heartache. While Henry James writes about erotic love in a surreal slightly bizarre way that reveals both his sexual repression and inexperience, Wharton writes about it in a manner that is both realistic and remains literarily pleasing. Wharton’s own tragic love life gave her the experience that allowed her to create some of the most beautiful and tragic romances written. Though I so wish Edith had found love and companionship for her own sake, it is unlikely her stories about love would be as resonant or as true if she had lived in a content, conventional marriage. Fullerton’s prediction that Edith, “should write better for this experience of loving,” certainly seems to have come to fruition. (Price and McBride, 663)


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