Reading in a Heat Wave: Edith Wharton’s “The Mother’s Recompense” & Jane Austen’s “Persuasion”

Edith Wharton

Saturday was the last  hot day.  That’s what  the Weather Channel said.  You’d think we’d accomplish a lot indoors when it’s 100 degrees outdoors – finish writing that novel, learn to play the guitar – but in fact there is a lot of lolling around.

I did, however,  reread two short novels, Edith Wharton’s The Mother’s Recompense and Jane Austen’s  Persuasion.

I wonder if Edith Wharton is still in fashion.  I don’t see her mentioned much online. The last time I saw an essay on Wharton was in The New Yorker in 2012, by Jonathan Franzen, who is never adverse to being obnoxious.  He said that Edith Wharton wasn’t pretty.  He adds, “Edith Wharton might well be more congenial to us now if, alongside her other advantages, she looked like Grace Kelly or Jacqueline Kennedy.”

I was exasperated by this non sequitur.  Actually, I think Wharton  is pretty enough, but what does it matter?  What do Grace Kelly and Jacqueline Kennedy have to do with it?  Would anyone have said of Henry James or James Joyce, “He isn’t pretty”? 

Before I go on to The Mother’s Recompense, let me say that my favorite Wharton heroine is Lily Bart in The House of Mirth.  Every time I reread it, I am indignant and distressed over her tragedy, as well as in awe of every elegant word Wharton wrote.  How can charming, intelligent Lily fall not just a few rungs, but right off the social ladder?  Lily is desperate: she believes she should marry a rich man to support her life-style, but bungles her chances because she doesn’t like the available bachelors.  The spell of drugs (laudanum) is her only relief as she falls into debt and deeper unhappiness.  Here’s what we learn from Edith Wharton:  No Prince Charming will save Lily Bart.  People like Lily – but not enough. The mystery of fiction is our identification with characters like Lily from Old New York.

I’ve made my way through most of Wharton’s work, and last week I took The Mothers Recompense (1925) off the shelf, because a writer in one of those short interviews at The Guardian or The New York Times called it an underrated classic.

The fact that I had read The Mother’s Recompense, and didn’t remember it, might have been a portent that I would not rate it highly.  If I were a Roman augur, I would have watched some chickens or examined an animal’s entrails and then announced:  “This is not a good day to read The Mother’s Recompense.”

But even though it is far from Wharton’s best, I was riveted by this slight, tragic novel. Plot-wise, it is a page-turner. The 45-year-old American heroine, Kate Clephane, has lived on the Riviera for years, ever since she ran away from her rich husband in New York with another man from whom she soon parted.  Kate has survived in comfort, living in slightly shabby hotels, and dividing her days into periods of aimless social life, taking long drives with the elderly Mrs. Minty, dining with friends at the casino, attending a Ladies’ Guild meeting at the American church, and buying new hats.  And she often muses about her second lover, Chris, a much younger man who eventually left her, but who was the love of her life.

Kate considers herself permanently severed from her family.  And then her daughter, Anne, sends her a telegram, inviting Kate  to return to New York and live with her.  Kate’s mother-in law, the dragon lady who had forbidden Kate to visit Anne for the last 18 years, has died. 

Kate’s reunion with Anne is touching, and their relationship almost perfect, until Anne announces she is engaged to Chris.  This is a tragedy for Kate, who doesn’t know what  a mother should do in this situation. Should she tell Anne about her own relationship with Chris? Can she scare Chris away from Anne?  Either Kate or Anne will break. 

Wharton is usually a great stylist, but here we simply race through the book, not noticing that it’s less elegant than some of her best work.

A good read, not a great book.

As for Jane Austen’s Persuasion, is it not her best novel?  It is less complex than Emma and Mansfield Park, but it is stunning.

These days I read this as a sublime comedy about loneliness and the reinvention of self.  Anne Elliott has lost her bloom:  she is a lonely woman in her late twenties, who some years ago refused  Frederick Wentworth’s proposal of marriage, because her mentor, Lady Russell, said it would be unwise to marry a navy officer with uncertain prospects. Anne has never gotten over the disappointment; she still loves Frederick.  When chance brings Captain Wentworth and Anne together during her visit to her very funny, hypochondriac younger sister, Mary, the two try to avoid each other. But Anne blooms in the admiration of others, and reinvents herself, and there is, of course, romance.

8 thoughts on “Reading in a Heat Wave: Edith Wharton’s “The Mother’s Recompense” & Jane Austen’s “Persuasion””

  1. Loved your post. Franzen has no literary taste. Wharton writes better prose and better novels than most of her contemporaries. As you said, her prose is so ‘elegant’, like many of her characters. House of Mirth is top tier – I think of her as ‘Silly Lily’. How could she get it wrong so often? Yet she had my sympathies. Must get The Age of Innocence off the shelf and sink into it again.

    1. Poor Lily! I keep hoping that by the act of reading I can change her.

      I do find Wharton so absorbing that I may have to reread The Age of Innocence, too.

      Jonathan Franzen and I have completely different world views.

    1. Thank God Edith Wharton is still taught! Excellent post, Ellen. I couldn’t bear to watch the new adaptation of Persuasion, much as I longed to enjoy it. I agree with you about the older film version.

  2. Persuasion is MY favorite Jane Austen novel, and the 1995 movie is a great bookend to it. Haven’t read that Edith Wharton, but will go find it now, although her endings are always a bummer.

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