The Glimpses of the Moon
(Four Novels of the 1920s, A Library of America Volume)
Come with me to a favorite locale: Wharton country. There’s no reason you’d know that; supporting evidence isn’t exactly abundant.
I may even be overstating the case. A better, though dated, analogy might be a certain type of uptown resident who ventures repeatedly to the same boîte in the West Village without ever setting foot in any nearby eatery. Creature of habit that I am, Wharton country has mostly consisted of The House of Mirth; I must have purchased a half-dozen copies over the years.
I’m reasonably certain I read Ethan Frome, too. It just didn’t stick in my brain. I think of it as ‘the sledding novel’ because I’ve a vague recollection of a wintry accident in New England, but I may have made that up entirely. It could well be I’m confusing time spent in the Berkshires with a book set there.
But, I digress. Today we’re concerned with a less well-known novel penned by Edith Wharton in the 1920s. It was, in fact, the book she published immediately after The Age of Innocence. You’d be forgiven for thinking that latter title appeared earlier, given a setting much like Mirth’s. I certainly did, having discovered just now that The House of Mirth was Wharton’s second published novel.
Wharton country, I should note, is not so much a geographical locale as a state of being. To be sure, a particular geography exists, but only to draw together a certain cast of character types. Those characters all share a social class with Wharton.
That class–and, despite the American preference to avoid the word, class is what it is–are the ultra-rich of the Gilded Age. Wharton was born into this milieu and grew up firmly in its bosom. How firmly? Well, the rumour has always been that “keeping up with the Joneses” refers to the behaviors of Wharton’s birth family. So, pretty classy.
The present tale is set around 1920 and focuses on Nick and Susy Lansing, a newly wedded couple whom we meet as they honeymoon on Lake Como. Nick and Susy are familiar Wharton types, existing within the uppermost class even though they lack the means to do so. This makes for a particularly perilous situation since one is always dependent upon the kindness of others. There must be some recompense for the hospitality one receives; for Lily Bart, extraordinary beauty–a wasting asset–sufficed for a while. The Lansings aren’t quite so blessed.
Nick is an aspiring novelist who has been scratching a scrivener’s living, though he’s quite well-educated and can hold his own with–and even lend aid to–the more financially established who find themselves at sea among the better-educated, far more formal European elite. Susy, well, she ” …had the same standards as these people: she spoke their language,though she understood others, she required their pleasures if she did not revere their gods.”
I’ve seen this set-up before and if you squint you can see Lily Bart and Lawrence Selden–confidants without ever being intimates–lurking in the shadows. Nick and Susy are different, though. Their paths have crossed, their personalities–if not their hearts–have clicked, and they’ve entered a grand bargain.
Put simply, they’ll wed, and between Susy’s ‘management’ and just-short-of-shameless acceptance of any lodging offered, spend at least a year traveling about Europe. They enter this pact while in New Hampshire, where the Fulmers, a brood headed by an artist and a pianist, live. Like any contract, there is an out clause and both Nick and Susy agree that at any time they will release the other to pursue true ardor.
And so to Italy where we meet the couple rushing their departure from a small lakeside villa owned by Charlie Stretford, heir to a British title and fortune but inclined to run around having fun. The Lansings are off to Venice where they’ll stay in the palace of Nelson & Ellie Vanderlynn. Nelson is a banker, based in London and mostly absent, working.
Ellie lives large, shopping, travelling and, well, straying. The Lansings do get the palace to themselves; but they have to keep watch on Clarissa, the Vanderlynn’s teen-aged daughter, a fact learnt upon arrival. Likewise, Ellie asks a favor: post a series of letters at weekly intervals to Nelson. Ellie will be, ahem, off taking a cure.
Nick does not know of this request and Susy suspects he’d leave these grand quarters rather than participate. So she says nothing until the calendar turns, the Vanderlynns descend for 48 hours and the jig is up. Nick departs in a near rage as Susy hosts an already planned dinner for Stretford and others.
It’s no coincidence, I think, that all this happens in Venice. Forget the realities of rising sea levels and just consider the city as a metaphor. All wealth and power and solidity but all an illusion. Venice sits in the sea, subject to tides (that is, the moon), as fluid as its surroundings.
Now for the grand tour. Nick to Milan, then Genoa where he improbably meets the incredibly rich Hickses–seen in Venice only a short while ago. They have just arrived in their yacht–the Ibis, named after a tidal wading bird–which has somehow made a mad dash around the entire boot of Italy. This crossing of paths allows Nick to become first the guest of, then the travelling secretary and aristocracy consultant to the Hickeses, ultimately alighting in Rome.
Meanwhile, what of Susy? When Nick doesn’t return she heads to Paris, where she believes she can find a place to hide. A married woman, suddenly alone and not explaining why, as rumours of her husband’s Mediterranean travels float through their small set, she crosses paths with Stretford. Then, a disaster and Charlie is suddenly Lord Altringham, presenting Susy with the excuse she needs to exercise the out clause. She only needs Nick to agree to a divorce.
You’ll have to read the novel to find out if she gets it. I will say that the Fulmers reappear. Nat has been discovered and Violet Melrose, his patron, is parading him about and exposing him to art as Grace stays with the brood. Grace, though, seizes an opportunity and her music lends her some much-needed room to maneuver.
I think the Fulmers serve as a not terribly subtle stand in for the freedom that devotion to art can deliver. And that can spur devotion between like-minded souls. At a minimum they deliver a needed message, en famile, at exactly the proper moment.
That’s rather a change from the Wharton endings I’ve previously encountered. But I’m not complaining, it works.