Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 6, 2019

Glimpses of the Moon, by Edith Wharton

It’s only a week or so since I watched the film based on Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth and I was conscious of its chilling ending as I turned the pages of the last few chapters of Glimpses of the Moon, wondering how Wharton was going to resolve the conundrums of its failing marriage.  Improbably, I had become fond of the characters…

The House of Mirth and Glimpses of the Moon have a theme in common: how to live amid high society and flamboyant wealth when you have no money.  Money—the absence of it, and the need to get and keep it, has long been in a theme in literature, and the social novelists of the 19th and 20th centuries tackled it in a variety of ways.  Catherine Helen Spence in Mr Hogarth’s Will wrote  about the structural reasons why middle-class women wanted to be financially independent but could not earn a dignified living if they did not marry, while hordes of British writers had concerned themselves with the problem of younger sons and the inheritance laws.  Wharton—coming from great wealth herself—seems to have been on a mission to expose with a sympathetic eye the parasites who sponged off the wealthy because they had no alternative but an uncongenial poverty. The House of Mirth (1905) shows the invidious position of women in a morally corrupt American society: it tells the story of an intelligent and self-aware unmoneyed socialite called Lily Bart.  At 29 she has been brought up to marry into money but she wants to marry for love.  Glimpses of the Moon, (1922) however, features an unmoneyed couple: Nick Lansing, a man of culture and literary ambition and his socially-ambitious wife, Susy—for whom the four cornerstones of existence were money, luxury, fashion, pleasure.  This later novel shows that men could be unwilling parasites too.

The plot is deftly summarised by the blurb:

Nick Lansing and Susy Branch are young, attractive, but impoverished New Yorkers. They are in love and decide to marry, but they realise their chances of happiness are slim without the wealth and status that their more privileged friends take for granted. Nick and Susy agree to separate whenever either encounters a more eligible proposition. However, as they honeymoon in friends’ lavish houses, from a villa on Lake Como to a Venetian palace, jealous passions and troubled consciences cause the idyll to crumble.

In this beautiful novel, Edith Wharton perceptively describes the seductions and temptations of high society with all her trademark wit and irony.

As the novel begins, the couple are honeymooning at Lake Como, in one of five homes offered to them by their generous friends.  They could have stayed at Violet Melrose’s place at Versailles, an aunt’s villa at Monte Carlo, Fred Gillow’s unspecified moor, or a flat in Chicago, and when their sojourn at the lake concludes, they are off to Nelson Vanderlyn’s palace in Venice.  It is all very congenial and Wharton writes vividly about the world of luxury that she knew so well.  However, Lucy and Nick soon discover that accepting that generosity comes with a price, and in negotiating unwelcome and compromising obligations, they discover that their moral principles are not quite the same.  Both of them also have a niggling worry that the other might too soon find a more congenial proposition than their current peripatetic dependency on others: they had started out with a fantasy that with Susy’s skills at ‘managing’ their hosts, they could at least have a blissful year together before other opportunities arose.   Fate, however, ensures that both of them encounter the attention of wealthy others and a series of misunderstandings ensues.  (Wharton keeps the reader on the hook over 300+ pages, leading to my anxiety about an ending like The House of Mirth!)

This nicely packaged Pushkin Press edition* doesn’t state the date of its first publication so I read the entire book not quite able to place it in time.  There is mention of travelling in motors, there are photogravures on the walls, but unless I missed it, there was no mention of phone calls.  Although there is mention of ermine cloaks and fashionable hats, the dress styles seem deliberately vague.  I didn’t notice any mention of political events or momentous happenings to date it at all.  Most significantly, although the book—set in Europe—was published in 1922, (two years after Wharton won the Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence), there is no mention of WW1, or its aftermath, neither the dearth of young eligible men nor the profound national grief about the casualties.  Wharton (who was living in France since her divorce from Edward Wharton) was awarded the French Legion of Honour for her indefatigable war work, so there is no question that she knew and cared about its effects.  So why the curious absence of WW1 from a novel published in 1922?  Was it written before the war but not published until after the Pulitzer win, or was it written after the war but consciously set in a vague period at the turn of the century so as to avoid writing about it?  Or was Wharton obliquely making the point that wealthy Americans in postwar Europe were oblivious to the sufferings of Europe and the UK?

All day he wandered, avoiding the fashionable quarters, the streets in which private motors glittered five deep, and furred and feathered silhouettes glided from them into tearooms, picture-galleries and jewellers’ shops.  In some such scenes Susy was no doubt figuring: slenderer, finer, vivider than the other images of clay, but imitating their gestures, chattering their jargon, winding her hand among the same pearls and sables.  He struck away across the Seine, along the quays to the Cité, the network of old Paris, the great grey vaults of St Eustache, the swarming streets of the Marais.  He gazed at monuments, dawdled before shop-windows, sat in squares and on quays, watching people bargain, argue, philander, quarrel, work-girls stroll past in linked bands, beggars whine on the bridges, derelicts doze in the pale winter sun, mothers in mourning hasten by taking children to school, and street-walkers beat their weary rounds before the cafés. (p.285, Italics mine)

Some scholar will know, I expect, but it certainly intrigues me..

Glimpses of the Moon is included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.

Update, later the same day: see also Guy’s review at His Futile Preoccupations.

Author: Edith Wharton
Title: Glimpses of the Moon
Publisher: Pushkin Press, 2018, 328 pages, first published 1922, RRP $21.99 AUD
ISBN: 9781782274469
Review copy courtesy of Allen and Unwin Australia.


Responses

  1. Could ‘mothers in mourning’ be a reference to women widowed by WW1? And, if so, the date is probably closer to 1918-19, as women would only wear mourning clothes for a year at most.

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    • Hi Teresa:)
      Yes, could be. I didn’t know that women only wore mourning for a year… I thought it was longer than that, though LOL I think that was based on Mammy’s outrage when Scarlett sloughed off her mourning too soon, and of course that was well before the setting of this story. When I was a teenager Greek and Italian women here in Melbourne were still wearing mourning for long periods of time…

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  2. It bugs me when I can’t tell when or where a novel is set. I forget about the story and go searching for clues. His Futile Preoccupations says that it is in the Jazz Age, ie. that it is set at the time it was written

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    • Thanks for this, I’ve just found his review, and yes he does say it’s set in the jazz sage but I’m still not entirely convinced. If I had a bio like Jill Roe’s bio of Miles Franklin, I could just look it up…

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  3. I’m so glad you’ve written about this as it’s a Wharton that doesn’t seem to get much coverage, certainly compared to Mirth, Innocence or Ethan Frome. I think you may have persuaded me to add it to my wishlist!

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    • I thought it might have something to do with the end of 75year copyright in the US, but the review at His Futile Preoccupations is dated 2013, so that can’t be the reason…

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  4. Not a novel I’d heard of before and another to add to the list, as Jacqui says. Venice and Paris were destinations for the idle rich since The Grand Tour (and earlier), so I think your suggestion about the lack of reference to WWI sounds plausible

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    • Simon, you are just the person to research it for us and find out!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I was preparing work for classes tomorrow on Victorians, but lost interest and returned to your question about the WWI hiatus in Glimpses; maybe this will help – from Ch 14.4 of her autobiography, A Backward Glance (1934):
        My spirit was heavy with these losses, but I could not sit still and brood over them. I wanted to put them into words, and in doing so I saw the years of the war, as I had lived them in Paris, with a new intensity of vision, in all their fantastic heights and depths of self-devotion and ardour, of pessimism, triviality and selfishness. A study of the world at the rear during a long war seemed to me worth doing, and I pondered over it till it took shape in “A Son at the Front.” But before I could settled down to this tale, before I could begin to deal objectively with the stored-up emotions of those years, I had to get away from the present altogether; and though I began planning and brooding over “A Son at the Front” in 1917 it was not finished until four years later. Meanwhile I found a momentary escape in going back to my childish memories of a long-vanished America, and wrote “The Age of Innocence.” I showed it chapter by chapter to Walter Berry; and when he had finished reading it he said: “Yes, it’s good. But of course you and I are the only people who will ever read it. We are the last people left who can remember New York and Newport as they were then, and nobody else will be interested.”
        I secretly agreed with him as to the chances of the book’s success; but it “had its fate,” and that was — to be one of my rare best-sellers! I still had the writing-fever on me and the next outbreak came in 1922, when I published “The Glimpses of the Moon,” a still further flight from the last grim years, though its setting and situation were ultra-modern. After that I settled down to “A Son at the Front”; and although I had waited so long to begin it, the book was written in a white heat of emotion, and may perhaps live as a picture of that strange war-world of the rear, with its unnatural sharpness of outline and over-heightening of colour.

        So I think you were right: she was deliberately avoiding painful memories of the war.

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        • Simon, you are a gem! “A flight from the last grim years, though its setting and situation were ultra-modern”. Exactly so! Thank you so much for setting that straight:)
          Clearly I must read A Son at the Front.
          (But not quite yet. I think we all need a rest from WW1 for a while).

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          • A Son at the Front was free online a few months ago on Library of America site; don’t know if it still is. I downloaded it, haven’t read it yet. A B Glance is also a free online text – that’s where I copied the quotation from – University Adelaide site. Glad to help!

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            • That University of Adelaide has some gems, I’ve found:) I’ll have a hunt for A Son at the Front, but I must admit I’d rather read a proper book if I can.

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  5. […] The Constable Edith Wharton edition that I’ve just read contains both Ethan Frome and Summer, but I am reviewing them separately because whether or not Edith Wharton considered them ‘inseparable’ as claimed in the default description at Goodreads, they were published six years apart in 1911 and 1917 respectively; one is a short story and the other is a novella; and I read them separately too, with other books in between.  Both are included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, along with The House of Mirth (1905), Bunner Sisters (1916), The Age of Innocence (1920, which won the Pulitzer Prize), and Glimpses of the Moon (1922, see my review). […]

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