Monday, June 18, 2012

The Mother’s Recompense by Edith Wharton

There are times when I accuse myself of searching for moral and political significance in novels that I like simply because of the stories they tell and the skill with which they are written. There is no doubt that Edith Wharton wrote beautiful, sometimes even entrancing, prose. But she was a very rich woman who never renounced her wealth, and although she served in courageous ways during World War I, and after the war brought to the attention of the artistic world many writers and painters who were very poor and sometimes homeless, her political views were in most ways as conservative as those of the class from which she came and from which she never quite managed to extricate herself.

That said, I think Wharton is a feminist whose awareness of sexism deepened with age, and whose later works present female lead characters not simply as tragic castoffs from so-called high society, but as strong and principled women who refuse to play the roles society has dictated for them and who in most ways prefer their relative impoverishment to the moneyed lives they might have lived had they succumbed to class pressure.

In particular, I want to talk today about one of her late novels, The Mother’s Recompense, that was published in 1925 when Wharton was sixty-three and just eight years before her death. I hate to give away significant features of plot when I review books, but it is next to impossible to talk about The Mother’s Recompense without giving away one crucial feature of the plot. I don’t think giving away this part of the book will ruin it for serious readers, and at any rate, Wharton, herself, gives it away about a third of the way into the book.

Kate Clephane, the lead character in the book, has been ostracized from the wealthy New York society into which she had married, because she in desperation escapes from that woeful marriage and from the web of social constraints that were asphyxiating her. Even worse than the simple desertion, she left behind an infant daughter, Anne, whom she deeply loved. The desertion of husband is enough to outlaw her forever from this society, and while the desertion of the daughter is much worse, she knows had she attempted to take her young daughter along, she would certainly have been hounded down by the authorities and probably jailed. She could not have her daughter and leave her marriage, and so finally abandons both.

We readers are introduced to Kate many years later living on a very small income on the Riviera among a group of other outcasts (gamblers, alcoholics, and women with pasts). Kate is unaware that her ex-mother-in-law, a stern and unforgiving woman, has died and that her now grown daughter is finally free from the domineering grandmother who has presided over her life and fortune.  A grand change is about to happen in Kate’s life with the arrival of a simple telegram: “New York. Dearest mother, I want you to come home at once. I want you to come and live with me. Your daughter Anne.”

Despite Kate’s concerns that there may be no way for mother and daughter to live harmoniously together after her desertion, Kate and Anne seem at once not only to get along, but to quickly establish a deep and lasting connection. Unlike Wharton’s usually tragic women characters, it appears Kate has been rescued and the love she has for her daughter rekindled. Even the convention-bound, rigid society that had cast her out now seems to have forgotten her past sins and to welcome her back into a more forgiving and freer community, engineered in part by the younger generation who openly flaunt the old strictures.

Alas, we readers know that a significant event in Kate’s past, indeed the one and only love of her life, has not been discovered by the society to which she returns. Years after her original exile, Kate fell in love with and carried on an affair with a man, Chris Fenno, who was ten years younger than she. The affair begins during the war and ends before the war ends; somehow, war fever and Kate’s European life have kept this affair under wraps.

Anne has inherited the strength and intellect of her mother as well as the iron will of her grandmother; she seems less interested in men and marriage than in her life as an artist, and now that the forbidding and controlling grandmother is gone, she can devote herself to her newfound relationship with her mother and her art. Two strong women living together with no need of a man.

But just as Kate finally feels loved and safe, she discovers that there is, after all, a man who is important in her daughter’s life, although, private woman that her daughter is, only a select few seem to be aware of her relationship. Who could it be? Long before the reader is actually told of his identity, the clues mount up, and yes, Anne has fallen for the one man Kate cannot (personally or morally) accept into her daughter’s life, Chris Fenno.

But what to do in this moral dilemma? She knows that her daughter does not fall in love easily, and she discovers slowly that the iron will of the grandmother has been inherited by Anne. Should she tell her daughter the truth? That would surely end the relationship with Chris Fenno, but would it not also destroy the budding love between mother and daughter? And furthermore, even when Kate confronts Chris and seems to have successfully headed him off, threatening to tell all if continues with plans to marry Anne, her daughter tracks Chris down and demands and explanation.

I’m not about to give away the end of the book, but I will say that just as I deeply admired Lily Bart in Wharton’s The Age of Mirth, I admire Kate Clephane in this novel, but for different reasons. Lily Bart, an extraordinarily beautiful and accomplished woman, ultimately refuses to accept any of the wealthy men she might have married, and even as she begins to age and her beauty begins to fray, she proudly refuses the salvation possible via marriage. From a somewhat privileged background, but having no financial resources of her own, her life spirals downward and she is finally left a poor woman and an outcast from the only society she has known. I see Lily as a feminist hero precisely because she refuses to barter away her dignity as a person—refuses to use her beauty and talents as a way to snare a man. The novel is meant as a tragedy, but a tragedy with a real hero, Lily Bart. Kate Clephane, too, represents to me a proud and strong woman who refuses to be bought off with money and position. Her own dignity, in more modern terms, her authenticity, demands that she give up her life of luxury to return to her previous rather Spartan existence. But she is not a tragic figure. Nor, indeed, does Wharton present her as such. Unfortunate perhaps, but not tragic. I see Wharton’s women characters as progressively stronger and more admirable as she matures as both author and feminist.

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