The Reef, Edith Wharton’s eighth novel and published in 1912, is a book that couldn’t possibly have been written today. Its subject matter is so dated that I found myself quite exasperated with its central character, Anna Leath because I cannot imagine any contemporary 30-something woman getting so worked up about a suitor’s ‘past experience’. However, despite the disproportionate angst that forms the novel’s raison d’être, The Reef is a fascinating exploration of trust – how easy it is to lose, and how hard it is to restore…
The plot is minimal. Anna Leath is a wealthy expatriate Boston widow, mother to young Effie and step-mother to Owen who is of age (though he doesn’t act like it). George Darrow is a sophisticated and dashing American diplomat who takes out his resentment over Anna’s lack of passion for him by leaving a Very Significant Letter from Anna unread and having a fling with Sophy Viner instead. Sophy is a spirited young thing, with theatrical ambitions and not overly bothered by her penniless state – from which we are meant to deduce that she may not necessarily be of Good Character. (Writing this in 1912, Wharton can only hint at impropriety, and indeed her circumlocutions leave the issue of whether they did or they didn’t somewhat obscure. For most of the novel I was torn between wondering whether an illegitimate child from this liaison was going to turn up just to liven things up, or whether the whole thing was a storm in a hyper-moralistic teacup).
Time passes, and while Anna has obviously been dithering over the marriage, they eventually sort things out and Darrow comes to Givré, Anna’s estate near Dijon, to be presented to Anna’s mother for inspection. However, in his absence both Anna and Sophy are in ignorance of the other’s connection with him, and the classic love triangle arises when Anna through a mutual acquaintance hires Sophy as a governess. Yes, messy, but it gets considerably messier. When he finally arrives it’s to the minor domestic intrigues involved in persuading grandmother to accede to Owen’s choice of intended, because the girl has No Background (i.e. no fortune). Although Wharton takes a good while to get there, the reader intuits the added complication long before it is announced: the young woman that Owen has proposed to, turns out to be Sophy!
Of course there are the expected tense scenes:
- Sophy and Darrow’s first meeting and then further meetings as things get messier;
- Darrow and Anna when Anna finds out that he and Sophy have previously met and he lies; further meetings when she pesters him with naïve questions and then with her doubts; and after that, fraught meetings when her suspicions are well-and-truly aroused and she must have an answer to her questions!
- Owen and Anna when Owen’s suspicions explode into passionate denunciations.
Indeed, the only one who stays calm throughout is Grandma, and that is because society ladies do not get involved in vulgar displays of passion about anything.
So, on the one hand I felt like giving the characters a good shake:
- Anna Leath, for carrying on about this past indiscretion the way she did. It happened long ago, at a time when Darrow thought that things were all over between them and Sophy thought he was free of any entanglements. Anna also made herself ridiculous by treating Owen as if he were a fragile child rather than a man on threshold of marriage, and she used both Owen and Effie as a way of denying Darrow. (Givré BTW means frosted, i.e. frigid.)
- George Darrow, for being so casual about his relationships. Yes, Anna was testing the friendship with her inability to express emotion, and yes, Sophy was young and pretty and available, but I can’t be the only female reader of this novel to hiss when we learn that he had forgotten all about her.
- Owen, for behaving like an impulsive adolescent and putting his own desires ahead of everyone else’s .
- Sophy Viner, firstly for risking her future with Darrow in the first place and then refusing to admit to herself that he wasn’t worth it, secondly for agreeing to marry Owen when she didn’t love him and thirdly for being soooo self-sacrificing at the end, making the reader feel guilty for having suspected that she might be a cunning wench with her eye on the main chance.
But on the other hand, while Wharton is over the top in describing Anna’s horror over all this, (I mean, really, horror?! It’s not as if there’s any incest or even infidelity ) the novel does still have a contemporary resonance in the way that people can find it hard to move on and forgive betrayals, real or imagined. Darrow, while we might judge him for being careless with Sophy’s naïve attraction to him, can be excused for lying to cover his tracks – many people would if they thought that one past discretion was going to wreck a relationship that really mattered. And he really does love Anna: he persists with her because they are soul-mates. They share artistic and intellectual pursuits that bored poor under-educated Sophy, and he is fond of little Effie. He tries hard to smooth paths and make life easy; he puts off his own happiness for Owen’s sake and defers announcing their engagement when Anna asks him to. But Anna, for all that she envies Sophy’s capacity for feeling and despite her own rising passion for Darrow, can’t stop wondering about the crucial question, did they, or didn’t they? When his lies and evasions are exposed, distrust comes unbidden into her thoughts, and it sabotages the love she had for him.
It is this distrust, lurking beneath the calm atmosphere of Givré, that is the reef of the novel’s title. The calm quietude of Anna’s deportment, and the easy insouciance of Darrow is in peril from the hidden depths of Anna’s misdirected passion.
There are heaps of reviews of The Reef at GoodReads, so it’s obviously still widely read despite the datedness of the plot at a superficial level! I particularly liked this review at Billevesées, but make sure you also visit the comprehensive set of reviews at Laura’s Musings.
I like Edith Wharton. I’ve only read The Age of Innocence (ages ago, in 1996) but I really enjoyed it and will read more of this author. This audio book edition was particularly good: the narration by Eleanor Bron is excellent.
Author: Edith Wharton
Title: The Reef, unabridged, 8 CDs
Narrated by Eleanor Bron
Publisher: BBC Audio Books, 2009
Source: Kingston Library
Nobody seems to be stocking this particular edition. Both the Book Depository (The Reef) and Fishpond (The Reef) have a Blackstone Audio edition narrated by Kristen Underwood, but I can’t vouch for the narration.
If I were going to buy a print version I’d buy the Virago edition with an introduction by Marilyn French, indeed I am almost tempted to anyway because I’d love to see French’s feminist take on this novel.