Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Reef, by Edith Wharton

I've been a devout Edith Wharton fan for decades, so when a fellow book blogger recommended The Reef as Wharton's finest novel, it caught me off-balance. I thought I'd read all her best novels, and I'd never even heard of this one.  I rushed over to Gutenberg and downloaded it.

Now I wish I could remember which blogger had recommended it so passionately, because I'd like to leave a message: Are you mad?  

This is certainly not a bad novel, but it's far from Edith Wharton's best.  The prose falls a bit flat and the plot lacks intensity when compared to her major works, and I find the abrupt ending verging on bizarre.

In the New York City of  The Age of Innocence, the upper-crust's social strictures are palpably oppressive. When Countess Olenska returns to New York from abroad and causes scandal with her trivial missteps, one gets the sense that Europe had ruined her, that New Yorkers disdained Europe as a den of iniquity, or at least impropriety.

The characters in The Reef, set in London and France, are equally stifled and ultimately undone by the prevailing social mores; they're hardly flitting around like carefree Bohemians.  George Darrow meets the recently widowed Anna Leath at a dinner party. He had courted her years before, but she elected to marry another man. She now lives in her late husband's large and somewhat gloomy estate house in rural France with her mother-in-law, their small daughter, and her adult step-son, Owen Leath.  Finding her single, Darrow courts Anna once more. And once more, he struggles to navigate the mesh of mixed messages, unspoken feelings, terse telegrams and maddeningly subtle gestures and hints.

He is about to board the English Channel ferry to visit Anna when he receives a telegram from her, asking him to postpone his visit without proffering a reason.  Frustrated, as he's already taken leave from his work, he boards the ferry regardless, resolved to have a small holiday on his own in Paris. On the ferry, he meets a young woman with whom he'd been slightly acquainted in London, Sophy Viner. Miss Viner's trunk may or may not have made it onto the ferry. Whereas Anna is the picture of dignified elegance, Sophy wears her heart on her sleeve. She makes no secret of the fact that everything she owns is in the missing trunk, and she is distraught thinking that it may be left behind on the pier. Darrow gallantly offers to help her sort the matter of the trunk, and he takes her under his care in the meantime. Sophy does not come from a wealthy background, and misfortune has led her to investigate a new career in the theatres of Paris.

With her own trademark gentility of phrase, Wharton makes it clear that Darrow finds Sophy refreshing. He seems to enjoy her excitement upon seeing Paris for the first time, and he revels in the role of guide as he takes her out to dinner, the theatre, museums and galleries. He intentionally delays her meeting with a family with whom she hopes to stay.

Months later, he finally travels to Anna's estate and finds her as desirable as ever. They seem to have reached the understanding that they will marry and move to South America, where Darrow has accepted another consular post. There are only two matters that Anna feels must settle beforehand. First, she must ensure that she has a reliable governess for her small daughter, Effie. Second, her stepson, Owen, appears to be in love with someone deemed unsuitable, and his grandmother is apoplectic about it. Darrow is dumbstruck to learn that the object of Owen's affections is the current (and much cherished) governess -- Sophy Viner. Sophy is no less rattled to meet Darrow again.

Here begins the intricate quadrille between Darrow, Anna, Sophy and Owen -- all decent, well-intentioned people, very unlike the vicious characters who wreak emotional violence upon each other in The Age of Innocence. Whether Darrow and Sophy had a sexual dalliance is of course never specifically stated, but that detail is all but immaterial -- when their Paris interlude becomes common knowledge, Darrow's insistence that his interest in Sophy was (and still is) avuncular and compassionate does little to mitigate Anna's jealousy and hurt. She is too well-mannered to rant, of course, but she obsesses about the restaurants and museums they visited together and cannot reason her way out of her pain.

Far from being vindictive, Anna tries to maneuver Owen and Sophy to safe places, as well, either together or  individually. In a classic Wharton moment, Anna concerns herself with appearances, only belatedly glimpsing beneath their surface.
She noticed that the girl's unusual pallour was partly due to the slight veil of powder on her face. The discovery was distinctly disagreeable. Anna had never before noticed, on Sophy's part, any recourse to cosmetics, and, much as she wished to think herself exempt from old-fashioned prejudices, she suddenly became aware that she did not like her daughter's governess to have a powdered face. Then she reflected that the girl who sat opposite her was no longer Effie's governess, but her own future daughter-in-law; and she wondered whether Miss Viner had chosen this odd way of celebrating her independence, and whether, as Mrs. Owen Leath, she would present to the world a bedizened countenance. This idea was scarcely less distasteful than the other, and for a moment Anna continued to consider her without speaking. Then, in a flash, the truth came to her: Miss Viner had powdered her face because Miss Viner had been crying.
Although Darrow and Anna make a couple of abortive attempts to carry on, both realising that they love each other deeply, Anna cannot let go of his association with Sophy. In the what passes for an altercation in Wharton's world, Darrow finally confronts Anna with the fact that human perfection does not exist, and her insistence upon it will leave her very much alone on her pedestal.
Finally she brought out: "I don't think I understand what you've told me."
"No, you don't understand," he returned with sudden bitterness; and on his lips the charge of incomprehension seemed an offense to her.
"I don't want to -- about such things!"
He answered almost harshly: "Don't be never will..." and for an instant they faced each other like enemies.
Then the tears swelled in her throat at his reproach. "You mean I don't feel things -- I'm too hard?"
"No: you're too high...too fine...such things are too far from you."
When I see people today behaving badly in public, I think of Edith Wharton's dignified, refined characters. As I finished The Reef, I think dignity, like everything else, can be overdone. 

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