For some reason I’ve never ventured past Edith Wharton’s prime time novels (House of Mirth, Age of Innocence), but Twilight Sleep was mentioned in a book I read last week so I figured I’d take it for a whirl. Pub’d in 1927, you’re immersed in the dazzling world of wealthy pre-Depression NYC, and immediately confronted by the complex character of Pauline Manford. This middle-aged matron has a schedule that does not stop: “7:30 Mental uplift. 7:45 Breakfast. 8 Psychoanalysis 8:15 See cook. 8:30 Silent meditation. 8:45 Facial massage. 9 Man with Persian miniatures 9:15 Correspondence. 9:30 Manicure. 9:45 Eurythmic exercises. 10 Hair waved. 10:15 Sit for bust. 10:30 Receive Mother’s Day deputation. 11 Dancing lesson. 11:30 Birth Control meeting…”
From this, you can see that she’s bursting with contradictions, praising motherhood and yet supporting birth control, attempting to find peace through meditation and yet cramming it into a hectic schedule. Later, she’ll start giving the speech she prepared for the Birth Control group to the mothers, only to catch herself in time and say that this is what “they” say about mothers. Pauline is a divorcee on friendly terms with her first husband, Wyant, from whom she has a son, Jim (who’s married to Lita). Pauline also has a daughter Nona by Manford. Lita does her duty and pushes out a baby boy, with the help of drugs during the birthing process that render “Twilight Sleep”… “Of course there ought to be no Pain… nothing but Beauty… It ought to be one of the loveliest, most poetic things in the world to have a baby.” Jim adores the baby and “Lita hadn’t minded in the least.”
But there is trouble in paradise, amid the bustle. Pauline’s husband Manford has fallen in love with Lita, or at least it’s quite obviously hinted at throughout, not declared outright. There was something missing in this treatment of the “affair” – it just didn’t sit right. Manford describes himself as having a fatherly feeling about Lita, but gets enraged when he sees a risque picture of her in a magazine and squanders a large part of his wife’s fortune trying to keep a handsome ne’er do well from arriving to lure Lita to Hollywood.
Nona is in love with her married cousin, and it comes to naught. She also is accidentally shot by her father who finds a “burglar” in Lita’s room (was it a burglar? who knows). The book ends with her dreaming of joining a convent of atheists, soured on the unraveling marriages around her.