February 23, 2018

Edith Wharton and "Mrs. Manstey"

On this day in 1891, Edith Wharton's first published story, "Mrs. Manstey's View," was accepted by Scribner's Magazine. Wharton was twenty-nine years old, brought up in wealth and high society, and recently married to a prominent banker; she was as opposite to her destitute heroine as she was to being a struggling young writer, and her first story throws the write-about-what-you-know rule out the window.

A view from the back window of her New York rooming-house is all that Mrs. Manstey has. It does not offer much, but she has grown to treasure it:
    Mrs. Manstey, in the long hours which she spent at her window, was not idle. She read a little, and knitted numberless stockings; but the view surrounded and shaped her life as the sea does a lonely island. When her rare callers came it was difficult for her to detach herself from the contemplation of the opposite window-washing, or the scrutiny of certain green points in a neighboring flower-bed which might, or might not, turn into hyacinths, while she feigned an interest in her visitor's anecdotes about some unknown grandchild. Mrs. Manstey's real friends were the denizens of the yards, the hyacinths, the magnolia, the green parrot, the maid who fed the cats, the doctor who studied late behind his mustard-colored curtains; and the confidant of her tenderer musings was the church-spire floating in the sunset.
When a neighbor plans to build an addition and ruin Mrs. Manstey's view, she attempts to dissuade them, first through a polite appeal and then through arson.

"We cannot often use a sketch as slight as that which you have kindly sent us...," wrote the cautioning editor of Scribner's, but these would become the familiar Wharton topics -- money and society, home and garden -- in The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth, and three-dozen other books over a half-century career. Within a decade she would begin planning "The Mount," her spectacular home in Lenox, Massachusetts. Henry James described it during his first visit in 1904 as "a delicate French chateau mirrored in a Massachusetts pond." Probably not a place where Mrs. Manstey could feel comfortable, though she would agree with Wharton's imperative for the "inner house": "Make one's centre of life inside oneself, not selfishly or excludingly but with a kind of unassailable serenity -- to decorate one's inner house so richly that one is content there, glad to welcome anyone who wants to come and stay, but happy all the same in the hours when one is inevitably alone."

Wharton would eventually leave husband and home to live alone in a real French chateau, with a better view of the Paris that she loved: "the tranquil majesty of the architectural lines, the wonderful blurred winter lights, the long lines of lamps garlanding the quays--je l'ai dans mon sang [it is in my blood!]."

The estate and gardens of "The Mount" have recently been restored, and are open to the public. The bookshop there sells a birdhouse which has a roof made to look as if the cover of The House of Mirth, the sides made of pages of text, the front perch a fountain pen. Wharton's first book, The Decoration of Houses, was done with architect Ogden Codman and is regarded as a classic in the field. Codman did only limited work on "The Mount" and in his view it was in many ways a failure: "The Whartons know just enough to be very unhappy but not enough to get anything done right, they have always supposed they knew all they knew and all I knew too. Now they realize they don't."

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