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.
Re-read this after a decade of letting it moulder in the memory banks. Truthfully, as I read, it was as if I’d never turned the pages before, everything brand new and fresh. Another great Wharton work, this one a bit more maudlin than Age of Innocence, as Lily Bart dies in the end (intentional overdose of the drug she used to sleep?). The book is a catalog of the wearing away of a charming and beautiful (yet unmarried) lady who must live by her wits since her allowance from her aunt doesn’t cover all the expenses of a modern girl (namely, her gambling debts from bridge and extravagant dress bills). The presence of Lawrence Selden through the book is supposed to work as an anchor, to bring her back to remembering that this life she’s chosen is hollow and meaningless, but she has no other choice, women had only one way to survive – through marriage to a rich man. She works against her best interests, luring rich Percy Gryce only to throw him away so she can sleep in (instead of going to church) and have an afternoon walk with Selden. She begins to borrow money from her friend’s husband, who thinks she owes him affection in return (scandal!). Gradually the invitations to friends’ houses decreases, and shockingly she is expelled from the Dorset yacht in Monte Carlo near midnight with nowhere to go (women not allowed to check into hotels, she must scurry to the protection of her cousin Jack, who reluctantly grants it). Lily is in possession of the means to take down Bertha Dorset (she purchased love letters that Selden had trashed but continues to protect him) but refuses, she is too much a lady to stoop to such secret blackmail. The Dorset expulsion causes her aunt to leave her with a fraction of the sum she had intended to inherit, and her options wane as she bounces from friend’s house to hotel to finally boarding house. She attempts to become a working girl, making hats, and is fired from that job. The night she dies, she receives the $10k from her aunt and promptly writes a check to pay off the debt to her friend’s husband, leaving her with nearly nothing again.
For fun, here’s my silly and short review from 2004.
The best book I’ve read this year, har har. In serio, an amazing work. For some reason, Wharton’s reputation is made up primarily of the wretched Ethan Frome, but this work is powerful and heart-wrenching stuff. When I finished, I clasped the book to my chest, closed my eyes and dwelled dreamily on the last lines, eventually re-reading them. She opts for the strong ending, avoiding the decent into maudlin, she sends Newland Archer back to his hotel room as an old widower who sat at the foot of the Countess’s windows and avoided the meeting he’d desired/shunned for 30 years. Most books end on a whimper or an afterthought. Wharton ends with a strong line: ” At that, as if it had been the signal he waited for, Newland Archer got up slowly and walked back alone to his hotel.” YES! Makes me want to revisit House of Mirth for a re-read after 10 years.
** Update ** After re-reading House of Mirth, I realized it’d be useful to add some plot points here to aid the memory. Newland Archer is fervently in love with his fiancee, May, until he meets her cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, who is fleeing a bad marriage in Europe. He becomes enraptured with the Countess, frantically travelling to the country where she is staying with friends, roaming to Boston when she’s there for a secret ferry ride and lunch. They never act on their passion, keeping it hidden (somewhat) from Archer’s now wife. Archer pops out a few kids, and it is with one of his sons that he is in Paris watching the windows of the Countess but not going in (despite May’s being dead).
Finished this one on the plane; I really enjoyed her words. There were parts of this that had me tearing up & actual tears rolled down my face. Lily gradually decends into poverty & futility, turning into a working girl (at a hat shop) after being on the heights of fashion for years. Her beauty works against her, and her gentle spirit that refuses to accuse Bertha Dorset of her crimes. Bertha cuts Lily in Europe, by throwing her off the yacht. This in turn causes all of Lily’s other friends to follow suit, since they sheepishly follow what the monied class does. Morbid look into the olden days when women were raised to look lovely and have no other skills or goals except marriage.
Continue reading “The House of Mirth”