Sunday, 8 February 2009
Bibliotherapy: What to read when you don't have a Valentine
The timing of next week’s Valentine Day may seem particularly cruel, if you are feeling loveless and forlorn on Saturday night, when others have true love and roses. It is at moments such as these that one needs a kindred spirit; and Edith Wharton has always seemed to me to provide that companionship, however bleak her stories of love and loss.
Her fiction is filled with characters that have their hopes crushed, and passions betrayed – and parallels are therefore often drawn with Wharton’s own life (an unhappy marriage to an unstable man, followed by a love affair with a bisexual, faithless bounder). Yet for all the unhappiness she suffered, interspersed with episodes of ill health, Wharton escaped from her claustrophobic past, prospering as a thoroughly independent, brilliantly successful writer. And nowhere is her brilliance more dazzling than in ‘After Holbein’, published in 1928, which tells the story of an aging New York socialite named Anson Warley. He is the type of man who would never spend a Saturday evening alone – or indeed any other night of the week – and prides himself on his unshakeable social status. “It was still a privilege, a distinction, to have him to dine”; and those who sought him at their tables “had to offer very special inducements in the way of cuisine, conversation, or beauty. Young beauty; yes, that would do it. He did like to sit and watch a lovely face, and call laughter into lovely eyes.”
But on the wintry night of the story, Anson Warley forgets where he is supposed to be dining, and ends up at the mansion of Evelina Jaspar, an elderly lady ‘who was gently dying of softening of the brain [but] still imagined herself to be New York’s leading hostess… and still came down every evening to her great shrouded drawing-rooms, with her tiara askew on her purple wig”.
‘After Holbein’ suggests that youth and beauty fade, and social hierarchy crumbles; that in the end, we are alone, united only by inescapable death. It might seem a bit sombre a message for Valentine’s Day, but there’s something to be said for Wharton’s icily cold blast of fresh air, to dilute the pervasive fug of perfumed romances.