A Backward Glance, by Edith Wharton

Chapter 7

7.1.

We had now organized our summers at the Mount, and had acquired a small house — we used to say it was actually the smallest — in New York. I had grown very weary of our annual wanderings, and now that I had definite work to do I felt the need of a winter home where I could continue my writing, instead of having to pack up every autumn, as we had been doing for over fifteen years. Personally I should have preferred to live all the year round at the Mount, but my husband’s fondness for society, and his dislike of the New England winter cold, made this impossible; and a few years later, when he found even the climate of New York too trying, we decided to spend all our winters abroad. But meanwhile I had the amusement of adorning our sixteen-foot-wide house in New York with the modest spoils of our Italian travels, and my summers being quiet I did not so much mind the social demands of the winter. Besides, life in New York, with its theatres and opera, and its new interests of all kinds, was very different from the flat frivolity of Newport; and I was happy in my work, and in the new sense of confidence in my powers.

My literary success puzzled and embarrassed my old friends far more than it impressed them, and in my own family it created a kind of constraint which increased with the years. None of my relations ever spoke to me of my books, either to praise or blame — they simply ignored them; and among the immense tribe of my New York cousins, though it included many with whom I was on terms of affectionate intimacy, the subject was avoided as though it were a kind of family disgrace, which might be condoned but could not be forgotten. Only one eccentric widowed cousin, living a life of lonely invalidism, turned to my novels for occasional distraction, and had the courage to tell me so.

At first I had felt this indifference acutely; but now I no longer cared, for my recognition as a writer had transformed my life. I had made my own friends, and my books were beginning to serve as an introduction to my fellow-writers. But it was amusing to think that, whereas in London even my modest achievements would have opened many doors, in my native New York they were felt only as a drawback and an embarrassment. The literary life of New York had changed very little since my youth. The literary men foregathered at the Century Club, and continued to turn a contemptuous shoulder on society. Our most distinguished man of letters, William Brownell, led the life of a recluse, and though he became a dear friend it was chiefly by letter that we communicated, and only on rare occasions that I could persuade him to come to our house. I have always regretted that our friendly meetings were so rare, and so seldom occurred in a more sympathetic setting than his cramped and crowded office at Scribner’s. When he died in 1928 I tried to put into an article contributed to “Scribner’s Magazine” something of my deep admiration for the scholar and critic; but I found it difficult to convey the exquisite quality of the man. There was always an aloofness, an elusiveness in Brownell’s manner and personality, something shy and crepuscular, as though his real self dwelt in a closely-guarded recess of contemplation from which it emerged more easily and freely in writing than in speech; and indeed his letters to me, which were long and frequent, always brought him nearer than our actual encounters. As these letters concern only, or chiefly, my own works, their interest for the general reader would obviously be less than for their recipient; but to me they were a precious link with one of the rarest intelligences I have ever known.

In writing of Brownell after his death it was inevitable that I should associate with his name that of Edward Burlingame, for many years Brownell’s colleague in the house of Scribner, where he edited the magazine. I said of the two: “I do not think I have ever forgotten one word of the counsels they gave me,” and the assertion is as true today as it would have been in my youth. In Edward Burlingame also I found a devoted personal friend, as well as a literary advisor. During his editorship he raised “Scribner’s Magazine” to the highest level compatible with the tastes of the American magazine public — then apparently a higher one than now. Burlingame, who used to come and dine now and then with his wife, was far more sociably inclined than his colleague. He was a man of real cultivation, a good linguist, and genuinely interested in modern literature. It was thanks to him that Scribner had published Stevenson’s best prose, and Burlingame’s ambition was to keep his magazine on a level with the standard then established. He was a good-looking man whose quiet dignity of manner masked an acute sense of humour and a patient cordiality which many a young author must have had reason to bless as I did. I remember once saying to him (a propos of some young woman in straitened circumstances, whose manuscript he had reluctantly had to refuse): “How hard it must be to say ‘no’ in such cases!” But he answered quietly: “Not as hard as you think, because if one isn’t cruel at first one has to be so much crueller afterward.” Another of his wise answers was occasioned by my coming to him one day (in the new flush of my success) bearing with me, as it were, an armful of unwritten short stories. He listened patiently to my plans, and then said: “If I were you I wouldn’t be in such a hurry. You mustn’t risk becoming A MAGAZINE BORE.” Lastly I owe to him the neatest formulation I know of one of the first principles of every art: “You can ask your reader to believe whatever you can induce him to believe.” These axioms have remained with me as applicable not only to literature but to life: and Burlingame abounded in such wisdom.

W.D. Howells was (partly, I believe, owing to his wife’s chronic ill-health) another irreducible recluse, and though I was in a way accredited to him by my friendship with his two old friends, Charles Norton and Henry James, I seldom met him. I always regretted this, for I had a great admiration for “A Modern Instance” and “Silas Lapham,” and should have liked to talk with their author about the art in which he stood so nearly among the first; and he himself, whenever we met, was full of a quiet friendliness. But I suppose my timidity and his social aloofness kept us apart; for though I felt that he was amicably disposed he remained inaccessible. Once, however, he did me a great kindness. I invited him to come with us to the first night (in New York) of Clyde Fitch’s dramatization of “The House of Mirth.” The play had already been tried out on the road, and in spite of Fay Davis’s exquisite representation of Lily Bart I knew that (owing to my refusal to let the heroine survive) it was foredoomed to failure. Howells doubtless knew it also, and not improbably accepted my invitation for that very reason; a fact worth recording as an instance of his friendliness to young authors, and also on account of the lapidary phrase in which, as we left the theatre, he summed up the reason of the play’s failure. “Yes — what the American public always wants is a tragedy with a happy ending.”

Still another friend from the world of letters (and a life-long intimate of all my husband’s family), was Judge Robert Grant of Boston, who, in his rare moments of escape from the duties of the Probate Court, used to come to New York on flying visits. I have always had a great admiration for his early novel, “Unleavened Bread,” which, with W.D. Howells’s “A Modern Instance,” was the forerunner of “Main Street,” of “Babbitt,” of that unjustly forgotten masterpiece “Susan Lenox,” of the best of Frank Norris, and of Dreiser’s “American Tragedy.” Howells was the first to feel the tragic potentialities of life in the drab American small town; but the incurable moral timidity which again and again checked him on the verge of a masterpiece drew him back even from the logical conclusion of “A Modern Instance,” and left Robert Grant the first in the field which he was eventually to share with Lewis and Dreiser.

But though there was little change in the attitude of the literary group, the merely fashionable were beginning to enlarge their interests. With the coming of the new millionaires the building of big houses had begun, in New York and in the country, bringing with it (though not always to those for whom the building was done) a keen interest in architecture, furniture and works of art in general. The Metropolitan Museum was waking up from its long lethargy, and the leading picture dealers from London and Paris were seizing the opportunity of educating a new clientele, opening branch houses in New York and getting up loan exhibitions. With the coming of Edward Robinson (formerly of the Boston Museum) as Director of the Metropolitan, and the growth of the Hewitt sisters’ activities in organizing their Museum of Decorative Art at the Cooper Union, the doctrines first preached by “The Decoration of Houses” were beginning to find general expression; and in many houses there was already a new interest in letters as well as art. Men like my friends Bayard Cutting and John Cadwalader, in addition to preparing the way for the great new Public Library, and taking an active part in its creation, were forming valuable libraries of their own; others were collecting prints and pictures, and several of the younger architects were acquiring the important professional libraries which have been one of the chief elements in forming American taste in architecture, and making it the foremost influence in modern building. A few men of exceptional intelligence, such as Egerton Winthrop, Bayard Cutting, John Cadwalader, Walter Maynard, Charles McKim, Stanford White and Ogden Codman, had at last stirred the stagnant air of old New York, and in their particular circle it was full of the dust of new ideas.

This circle had happily always been mine, and I enjoyed its renovated air all the more now that I had found my own line in life; but though I liked New York well enough it was only at the Mount that I was really happy. There, every summer, I gathered about me my own group of intimates, of whom the number was slowly growing. Chief among the newcomers was a youth who, though many years my junior, at once became the closest of comrades. Walter Berry, who lived and exercised his profession, in Washington, first put me in touch with his young friend, George Cabot Lodge (always “Bay” to his intimates). We met in Washington, where I had gone on a short visit; and from that first encounter till the day of his death Bay and I were fast friends. Bay Lodge (the eldest son of Henry Cabot Lodge, the Senator from Massachusetts) was one of the most brilliant and versatile youths I have ever known. In what direction he would eventually have developed I have never been sure; his sudden death at the age of thirty-six cut short such conjectures. He believed himself to be meant for poetry and letters; and he wrote, and published, several volumes of poetry marked by a grave rhetorical beauty. Though I admired certain lines and passages, I felt, as did most of his friends, that they showed only one side, perhaps not the most personal, of his rich and eager intelligence, and that if poetry was to be his ultimate form he must pass beyond the imitative stage into fuller self-expression. But he had a naturally scholarly mind, and might have turned in the end to history and archaeology; unless indeed he was simply intended to be the most sensitive of contemplators, as he was the most varied and dazzling of talkers. In our hurried world too little value is attached to the part of the connoisseur and dilettante, and it never occurred to Bay’s family that he was not meant for an active task in letters. His fate, in fact, was the reverse of mine, for he grew up in a hot-house of intensive culture, and was one of the most complete examples I have ever known of the young genius before whom an adoring family unites in smoothing the way. This kept him out of the struggle of life, and consequently out of its experiences, and to the end his intellectual precocity was combined with a boyishness of spirit at once delightful and pathetic. He had always lived in Washington, where, at the time when he was growing up, his father, Henry Adams, John Hay, and the eccentric Sturgis Bigelow of Boston, whose erudition so far exceeded his mental capacity, formed a close group of intimates. Until Theodore Roosevelt came to Washington theirs were almost the only houses where one breathed a cosmopolitan air, and where such men as Sir Cecil Spring–Rice, J.J. Jusserand and Lord Bryce felt themselves immediately at home. But Washington, even then, save for the politician and the government official, was a place to retire to, not to be young in; and Bay often complained of the lack of friends of his own age. Even more than from the narrowness of his opportunities he suffered from the slightly rarefied atmosphere of mutual admiration, and disdain of the rest of the world, that prevailed in his immediate surroundings. John Hay was by nature the most open-minded of the group, and his diplomatic years in London had enlarged his outlook; but the dominating spirits were Henry Adams and Cabot Lodge, and though they were extremely kind to me, and my pleasantest hours in Washington were spent at their houses, I always felt that the influences prevailing there kept Bay in a state of brilliant immaturity. He was at his best when he came to stay with us at the Mount, where small parties of congenial friends succeeded each other through the summer, and he was brought in contact with minds as active as his own, but more unprejudiced.

Another friend of this time was young Bayard Cutting, the son of my old friend. He was then recently married, and already menaced by the illness which cut him off a few years later. Bayard was as different as possible from his contemporary, Bay Lodge, as quiet and retiring as Bay was brilliant and exuberant; and his main interests, had he lived, would probably have been political rather than literary, though he was a great reader, and a passionate lover of letters. He was extremely intelligent and eagerly responsive to all intellectual appeals, but his rarest quality was a sort of quiet radiance which sent its beam through the dark fog of weakness and pain enveloping the years that ought to have been his happiest.

During those years, so quickly consumed by suffering, I never once heard him complain. He never ceased to struggle against his malady, trying every country and every climate in the effort to throw it off, but at the same time he took life on the normal terms of a healthy man — doing his best to get well, yet behaving, talking, and apparently thinking, as if he WERE well. In his wanderings in the pursuit of health he and his wife once spent a summer at Lenox, and during those months I learned of how fine and delicate a substance he was made. We have always needed such men sorely in American public life, and Bayard Cutting’s death was a loss far beyond the immediate circle of his friends.

7.2.

About this time we set up a motor, or perhaps I should say a series of them, for in those days it was difficult to find one which did not rapidly develop some organic defect; and selling, buying and exchanging went on continuously, though without appreciably better results. One summer, when we were all engaged on the first volumes of Madame Karenine’s absorbing life of George Sand, we had a large showy car which always started off brilliantly and then broke down at the first hill, and this we christened “Alfred de Musset,” while the small but indefatigable motor which subsequently replaced “Alfred” was naturally named “George.” But those were the days when motor-guides still contained carefully drawn gradient-maps like fever-charts, and even “George” sometimes balked at the state of the country roads about Lenox; I remember in particular one summer night when Henry James, Walter Berry, my husband and I sat by the roadside till near dawn while our chauffeur tried to persuade “George” to carry us back to the Mount. The other day, in going over some old letters written to Bay Lodge by Walter Berry, I came on one dated from the Mount. “Great fun here,” the writer exulted; “we motor every day, and yesterday WE DID SIXTY-FIVE MILES” (in triumphant italics). In those epic days roads and motors were an equally unknown quantity, and one set out on a ten-mile run with more apprehension than would now attend a journey across Africa. But the range of country-lovers like myself had hitherto been so limited, and our imagination so tantalized by the mystery beyond the next blue hills, that there was inexhaustible delight in penetrating to the remoter parts of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, discovering derelict villages with Georgian churches and balustraded house-fronts, exploring slumbrous mountain valleys, and coming back, weary but laden with a new harvest of beauty, after sticking fast in ruts, having to push the car up hill, to rout out the village blacksmith for repairs, and suffer the jeers of horse-drawn travellers trotting gaily past us. My two New England tales, “Ethan Frome” and “Summer,” were the result of explorations among villages still bedrowsed in a decaying rural existence, and sad slow-speaking people living in conditions hardly changed since their forbears held those villages against the Indians.

A frequent excursion was to Ashfield, where Charles Eliot Norton spent the summer with his daughters in his little mountain farmhouse, and where there was always a friendly welcome, and the joy of long hours of invigorating talk. What I have said of the underrated value of the connoisseur and disseminator of ideas is even more applicable to a man like Charles Eliot Norton, whose long life proved what can only be regretfully surmised in regard to a career as short as Bay Lodge’s. Charles Norton of course led an active life of letters in conjunction with his teaching as Professor of Fine Arts at Harvard; but his animating influence on my generation in America was exerted through what he himself was, and what he made his pupils see and feel with him. Among those of my intimate friends who came under Norton’s influence at Harvard there was none who did not regard the encounter as a turning point in his own growth. Norton was supremely gifted as an awakener, and no thoughtful mind can recall without a thrill the notes of the first voice which has called it out of its morning dream.

In his prime Charles Norton, to be really known, had to be seen in the Shady Hill library, at Cambridge, where the ripest years of his intellectual life were lived. Against that noble background of books his frail presence, the low voice, the ascetic features so full of scholarly distinction, acquired their full meaning, and his talk was at its richest and happiest. But the rusticity of the Ashfield cottage, with its rocky slopes of orchard and woodland looking out to the blue distances of his beloved New England, formed an even fitter setting to his serene old age. It was there that I was oftenest in his company, for my most intimate friends were his friends also. One such pilgrimage is delightfully recorded in a letter written from the Mount by Henry James, and others were made with Walter Berry, Gaillard Lapsley, and divers devotees and disciples; memories radiant with the beauty of the long mountain drive from Lenox to Ashfield, with sunsets watched from the summit of “High Pasture” (where Norton always dreamed of building a house that should command the wide landscape), and the slow descent through the orchards at dusk, the lights twinkling under the eaves, a happy group gathered for high tea, and an evening of quiet talk about the fire. Charles Norton was not a great talker; he had none of the sweep and impetus of the born conversationalist; but he was one of the best guides to good conversation that I have ever known. Every word he spoke, every question he asked, was like a signal pointing to the next height, and his silences were of the kind which serve to carry on the talk.

He was too old, when I began to know him intimately, to care to travel. He often promised to come to the Mount, but I cannot remember that he ever did, though his daughter Sally was so beloved and frequent a visitor. I never failed, however, when I was in Boston, to make the pilgrimage to Shady Hill, or to go to Ashfield in summer; and in the intervals between our meetings we wrote to each other, or kept in touch through my correspondence with Sally. He never ceased to interest himself in my work, or to encourage me to go forward, although the more I developed the more, in literary matters, our points of view diverged. He was obviously disturbed by my increasing “realism,” my exclusive interest, as a novelist, in the life about me, which seemed to him so devoid of the stuff of romance; he would have been happier if I had never come any nearer to the nineteenth century than I did in “The Valley of Decision.” But no friendly pressure, even from the critics I most esteemed, could turn me from the way I seemed meant to follow; and with a magnanimity unusual in a man of his age Charles Norton accepted this, and kept me in his heart.

In the intervals between our meetings we wrote to each other, and, though our actual hours together were not many, I had to the end the warm enveloping sense of his friendship, and the last letter he ever wrote (or dictated, for he was past writing) was addressed to me.

One of Charles Norton’s great friends, Edward Robinson, came often to the Mount with his wife. Since he had given up the directorship of the Boston Museum, and been placed at the head of the Metropolitan, I had naturally more frequent opportunities of seeing him; and he was welcome not only on his own account but as a link with other Boston friends, the Nortons, Robert Grant, Barrett Wendell, and many others. Edward Robinson, tall, spare and pale, with his blond hair cut short “en brosse,” bore the physical imprint of his German University formation, and might almost have sat for the portrait of a Teutonic Gelehrter but for the quiet twinkle perceptible behind his eyeglasses. He had, indeed, an extremely delicate sense of humour, combined with the boyish love of pure nonsense only to be found in Anglo–Saxons. He was one of the people for whom I used to hoard up my best stories, but his own were generally better, for his professional experiences gave him many humorous sidelights on human nature, and no one could rival the dry pedantic manner in which he poked fun at pedantry. I remember particularly one story, not especially relevant to this, but which has remained with me because of its strangeness, and Robinson’s dramatic way of telling it. The young Heir Apparent of a Far Eastern Empire, who was making an official tour of the United States, was taken with his suite to the Metropolitan, and shown about by Robinson and the Museum staff. For two mortal hours Robinson marched the little procession from one work of art to another, pausing before each to given the necessary explanations to the aide-de-camp (the only one of the visitors who spoke English), who transmitted them to his Imperial master. During the whole of the tour the latter’s face remained as immovable as that of the Emperor Constantius entering Rome, in Gibbon’s famous description. The Prince never asked a question, or glanced to right or left, and this slow and awful progress through the endless galleries was beginning to tell on Robinson’s nerves when they halted before a fine piece of fifteenth century sculpture, a Pieta, or a Deposition, with a peculiarly moving figure of the dead Christ. Here His Imperial Highness opened his lips to ask, through his aide-de-camp, what the group represented, and Robinson hastened to explain: “It is the figure of the dead God, after His enemies have crucified Him.” The prince listened, stared, and then burst into loud and prolonged laughter. Peal after peal echoed uncannily through the startled galleries; then his features resumed their imperial rigidity and the melancholy procession moved on through new vistas of silence.

Edward Robinson’s presence in New York helped to centralize the growing interest in art and architecture, and he was one of the most sympathetic among the group of friends who used to gather in my small New York drawing-room, or join in our adventurous motor trips at the Mount. If I have dwelt chiefly on the homely familiar traits of his character, the fun, the irony, the gentle malice, leaving it to others to praise his scholarship and recount his public services, it is because in trying to tell the story of my life I have found that it is these little personal characteristics (and above all others, the ironic sense of the pity and mystery of things) which have always created the closest ties between myself and my friends.

Robert Minturn, of New York, whom I had known slightly all through my girlhood, was now frequently at the Mount, or at our house in New York. He and I belonged by birth to the same “old New York,” and I hardly know what had kept us so long from becoming friends, unless perhaps the somewhat austere Minturn milieu (with its Boston–Abolitionist affiliations) regarded mine as incorrigibly frivolous. At any rate, as soon as I went to live in New York and began to see more of this grave young man, whose pensive dusky head was so like that of a Titian portrait, we found that we were meant to be friends — and often have I grieved that we had not discovered sooner, for Bob Minturn’s was one of the affections I am proudest of having inspired. Once, as a child, I was severely rebuked for saying of a dull kindly servant, whom my father was defending because he was “so good”: “Of course he’s good — he’s too stupid to be bad.” The rebuke was no doubt very salutary; yet experience has shown me that there was a grain of truth in my comment, for the intellectually eager and enquiring are seldom serenely and unquestioningly good. But Robert Minturn belonged to the happy few who have found a way of harmonizing the dissecting intellect with the accepting soul, and whose daily life reveals the inner harmony “through chinks that grief has made.”

Bob Minturn’s grief was his health; it was already menaced when our friendship began, and during his last years he was an invalid, accepting infirmity and facing death with complete serenity. One by one he had given up the activities and enjoyments of a young man’s life; but he never allowed these renunciations to dull his appreciation of what remained — the love of art and letters, the love of nature, and above all, exquisitely vigilant and tender, the love of his friends. If he had kept his health he would no doubt have taken an active part in political and municipal life, for he had a lively sense of civic obligation and a natural interest in public affairs; but his activities, deprived of this outlet, had canalized themselves in an exquisite culture. He was an accomplished linguist, widely read in certain lines, a sensitive lover of words, indefatigable in the quest of their uses and meanings, handling them as a gardener does his flowers, or a collector precious jewels or porcelain, and deploring above all their barbarous misuse by our countrymen. Linguistic problems had such a fascination for him that even the letters to me which he dictated in the last months of his life, when he was too ill to write, are full of eagerly propounded etymological questions. To the last his interest in all the worthwhile things kept his poor worn body aglow, and if ever a craft went down with colours flying it was that which bore the shining soul of Bob Minturn.

7.3.

Another visitor of a very different type, but highly endowed with the sense of humour common to most of our group, was the popular playwright, Clyde Fitch. Though I had not escaped the novelist’s usual temptation to write for the stage I had never taken my dramatic impulses very seriously, and after the appearance of my second novel, “The House of Mirth,” I thought no more of the theatre — indeed, as nothing in the way of drama between the examples of Racine’s “Phedre” and “The Private Secretary” has ever given me much pleasure, I went to the play as seldom as possible.

Once “The House of Mirth” had started on its prosperous career I was of course besieged with applications for leave to dramatize it; but I refused them all, convinced that (apart from the intrinsic weakness of most plays drawn from books) there was nothing in this particular book out of which to make a play. Great was my surprise, therefore, when I heard that Clyde Fitch, then at the height of his career, was eager to undertake the task, though he had never before consented to adapt any one else’s material. I did not know Clyde Fitch, and had seen, I think, only one of his plays; but I had read a number of them, and though they were all disappointing, yet I thought him more gifted than was generally supposed. His sense of the theatre was keen, but that interested me less than his sense of the irony of life, his happy choice of the incidents by means of which he threw light on the human predicament. I still think the first act of one of his plays (I forget its title), in which the scene is laid in the rotunda of the Apollo Belvedere, at the Vatican, one of the most humorous exhibitions of human vacuity that I know of; and if he had written for a more sensitive and critical public, and been less tempted by easy success, he might have gone far in both mirth and pathos. As it was, he was the playwright of the hour in America, and being naturally flattered by his proposal I accepted it.

He stipulated that I should write every word of the dialogue, and as I was too much of a novice not to need continual guidance in interpreting his scenario, this led to many meetings, and to his coming several times to stay. His visits laid the foundation of a real friendship, and my husband and I both became very much attached to the plump showily dressed little man, with his olive complexion, and his beautiful Oriental eyes full of wit and understanding.

The work was longer and more difficult than he had probably foreseen. We were both fastidious, and both frank in our criticisms of each other; and one day I burst out, rather despairingly: “I can’t see how you could ever have thought there was a play in this book!”

“But I never did!” he exclaimed, his beautiful eyes wide with astonishment.

“You DIDN’T? But they told me you wanted so much to do it.”

He gave a sigh of understanding. “Oh, I see! That’s exactly what they told me about YOU. They said you wanted me to dramatize your novel, and had refused the rights to everybody else in the hope that I could be induced to do it.”

We sat and stared at each other, seeing that we had been tricked into collaboration by an unscrupulous intermediary. Then we both burst out laughing. “I was so flattered — ” I gasped.

“So was I!” he echoed; and we laughed again.

The play was written, the actors were bespoken, and it was too late to withdraw; but I don’t think either of us had a moment’s illusion as to the ultimate result. Clyde Fitch was leaving the Mount that afternoon; under my laughter he probably detected my annoyance at having been thus misrepresented to him, and the next day he sent me one of the kindest letters that one human being ever wrote to another. He told me how sorry he was to have taken up so much of my time on false pretenses (as though I had not taken up as much of his!), and begged me to believe that, whatever befell the play (and in theatrical matters, he reminded me, one could never foretell), he would always be grateful for the accident which had brought us together, since our collaboration had given him so much pleasure, and taught him so much, that the possible failure of the play mattered nothing in comparison. From an experienced playwright to an amateur no words could have been more generous; and he confirmed them by working over the staging and rehearsing as hard as if nothing had happened to disillusionize us.

In spite of his loyal efforts, and of Fay Davis’s valiant and beautiful acting, the play failed; but I felt, as he did, that in the attempt I had gained a friend, and that nothing else greatly mattered.

Clyde Fitch was one of the most amusing story-tellers I ever met, and his rich treasures of observation and unfailing enjoyment of the human situation made him a delightful talker. I remember, in particular, one tale which delighted us. He had built himself a country house in Connecticut, probably, like his town house, rather over-ornate and too full of rococo Italian furniture. After a while he decided to sell it furnished, and a newly-rich Western couple having asked to visit it, his secretary was delegated to receive them. They liked the house; but the husband had never heard of the sette cento (or perhaps of Italy) and was puzzled and put off by the furniture, and his remarks were so disparaging that his wife was obviously distressed. In one bedroom there was a delicately carved and gilded four-poster, hung with old brocade, its tester decorated with amorous allegories. This was the show room of the house, but the husband said he’d never seen a bed like that, and what the devil could anybody do with it? The scandalized secretary replied that Mr. Fitch had brought it back from Venice, and considered it his best piece; and the wife, to disguise her husband’s ignorance, hastily remarked: “Why, I think it’s a perfectly lovely bed! Can’t you just see one of those old monks in it?”

My theatrical contacts having been so few, I had better record them all here, though the next antedates by many years the production of “The House of Mirth.” It must have been shortly after my marriage that my husband and I encountered in Paris an old friend of his family’s, Arthur Dexter, a finished specimen of the contemplator-and-appreciator type. He had always been interested in the theatre, and was intimate with several of the great actors of the Theatre Francais — in particular with Got, Coquelin the elder and Delaunay. Delaunay had, I think, already retired, but I had an exquisite recollection of his last performances in the Musset comedies (in which I think he succeeded Bressant), and in the last plays of his modern repertory. My father, who was very fond of the theatre, often took me to the Francais when I was a girl of eighteen (the year before his death), and I then saw, in the last faint light of their setting, the great stars of the old group: Madeleine Brohan, Delaunay, Got, with their juniors, Reichemberg, Baretta, Worms and Coquelin.

When, therefore, Arthur Dexter asked me if I would like to go to one of Delaunay’s dramatic classes at the Conservatoire, I could hardly believe my luck. It was not easy to obtain permission to assist at any of these classes, and to be admitted to Delaunay’s was particularly difficult; but being much attached to Dexter he had consented to make an exception in my favour. I don’t believe he often did so; that day, at any rate, no one was present in the dreary salle but the young students, men and girls, and the mothers (seemingly authentic) of the latter — for in those days even budding actresses were chaperoned when they went to their classes! They all looked so surprised at our intrusion that shyness overcame me; but I forgot this as soon as one of the pupils mounted to the stage, and Delaunay sat down facing it. It was all so long ago that I recall but few details; but at the moment I had the sense of assisting at something masterly. Delaunay was very small, very withered, very old and rheumatic, and the golden voice was cracked; but the old fire still burned in him. One episode interested me particularly. A young man had prepared a scene (from Corneille’s “Menteur,” I think) in which his dropping his handkerchief formed an important episode. For some time the would-be comedian failed to drop the handkerchief to Delaunay’s satisfaction: the gesture was not charged with all the significance the master thought it should contain. Delaunay explained his point carefully, gave his reasons, took the stage himself to enact the dropping of the handkerchief, and finally clenched his exposition by saying: “We know that this was the way in which it has always been dropped since the play was first acted” — giving the names of the actors by whom the tradition had been handed down unbroken since the seventeenth century.

Still more interesting was the great love scene from “Phedre,” in which the unhappy Queen declares (shades of the Mississippi Valley clergyman!) her unholy passion for her stepson. The young girl who played Phaedra was beautiful, and had a good voice; but the famous apostrophe which should have poured from her like lava — “Oui, Prince, je brule, je languis pour Thesee,” and all the rest of it — failed to become incandescent on the actress’s inexperienced lips. Patiently, repeatedly, Delaunay tried to ignite her with the sacred flame, but it was like striking a succession of damp matches; she remained blankly lovely and uncomprehending. At last he took the stage again, pushed her quietly aside, and saying in a sad but unreproachful voice: “Que voulez-vous, Mademoiselle? Vous etes trop jeune pour comprendre l’inceste,” proceeded to transform himself into the guilty Queen avowing her desperate desire to its loved and hated subject. I saw Sarah Bernhardt afterward in “Phedre” — and she could not woo and cajole, and taunt and curse and rave, like the old Delaunay.

My other experiences of the stage were few and fleeting. I was once asked — though how it came about I no longer remember — to make a play out of “Manon Lescaut” for that delightful actress, Marie Tempest. It must have happened very long ago, for I have forgotten who the intermediary was, or how Miss Tempest happened to think of me. There is no doubt that I did the play, however, for the manuscript still exists; and I remember, as the chief result, a very pleasant little supper after the theatre, at Miss Tempest’s house near Regent’s Park, for the purpose of talking the matter over. Soon afterward her manager notified me that she had decided to renounce “costume plays” for modern comedy, a resolve I could not but applaud; and that was the end of that.

Oddly different was the end of my last theatrical venture, which, like the others, was thrust on me and not solicited. A good many years after “Manon” — at the time when we were living in New York — Mrs. Patrick Campbell asked me to translate for her Sudermann’s new play, “Es lebe das Leben,” of which she had acquired the rights. I admired Mrs. Campbell’s acting greatly, but after reading the play I felt obliged to tell her that I did not see how a tragedy based on the German “point of honour” in duelling, a convention which had so long since vanished from our customs, could be intelligible or interesting to English or American audiences. However she insisted, and the translation was made and delivered. I told her that the German title (“Long Live Life,” in its most bitterly ironic sense) was virtually untranslatable; but some one persuaded her that it meant “The Joy of Living!” I protested vehemently, not wishing the dramatic critics to accuse me of such a flagrant error; but I was overruled, the play was brought out under that comic title, and in spite of Mrs. Campbell’s brilliant acting, it promptly failed — not without the critics having seized the occasion to remark that, if the accuracy of the rest of Mrs. Wharton’s translation was on a par with that of the title, etc., etc . . .

But the odd conclusion was that, the Scribners having, to my surprise, proposed to publish my translation, that work, with its absurd title (which they said it was then too late to change), and its unintelligible discussions on the technical why-and-why-not of duelling, has gone on selling steadily in America ever since (a matter of over twenty-five years); indeed it figured as usual, on a modest scale, in my last royalty returns a few months ago. I have often, but always vainly, asked for a credible explanation of this phenomenon, which I am sure is as unintelligible to my publishers as to me — though they are too polite to tell me so.

In spite of the ill-success of this experiment I enjoyed my brief association with Mrs. Campbell; and in fact my experience of the stage has left me none but kindly memories of the theatre-folk with whom I had to do, though in each case the doing rendered them so little service.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wharton/edith/backward_glance/chapter7.html

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30