Twilight Sleep is a title very carefully chosen by Wharton to describe what she saw as blindness and amnesia in the wealthy class of which she and her family were members. In obstetrics, the term applied to a form of anesthesia administered to women so that they could have nearly painless childbirth and then forget the traumatic event. “An amnesic condition characterized by insensitivity to pain without loss of consciousness, induced by an injection of morphine and scopolamine, especially to relieve the pain of childbirth. This combination induces a semi-narcotic condition which produces the experience of childbirth without pain, or without the memory of pain.” Just so, her lead characters attempt through drugs, alcohol, occult therapies and a whirl of social activity to live life painlessly and without conscience, without memory of the real consequences of their lifestyles.
Mrs. Manford, Pauline, the matriarch of the clan finds no contradiction in being a spokeswoman for both contraception and for getting women out of the workplace and restoring them to hearth and home. Her daughter-in-law Lita, who has had a twilight sleep birth, complains of the boredom of life as a mother and of existence in general. Nona, her sister-in-law scolds Lita, “You’d be bored anywhere. I wish [someone] would come along and tell you what an old cliché being bored is.”
An old cliché? Why shouldn’t it be? When life itself is such a bore. You can’t redecorate life! And if you could, what would you begin by throwing into the street? The baby?
And so it goes with this almost wickedly satirical novel—Wharton’s most sustained critical commentary on the rich. When Lita’s husband is told by his doctor that he is overworking and needs a nerve tonic and a change of scene, his Dr. counsels, “Cruise to the West Indies, or something of the sort. Couldn’t you get away for three or four weeks? No? Well, more golf then, anyhow.”
Wharton as narrator continues: “Getting away from things; the perpetual evasion, moral mental, physical, which he heard preached, and saw practiced, everywhere about him, except where money-making was concerned."
While Mrs. Manford seeks relief via spiritual advisors, moving from one to another with ease, despite their utter incompatibility, her daughter and daughter-in-law seek surcease from boredom via dancing and drinking the nights away.
While there is humor on almost every page of this novel, and Wharton’s beautiful prose delights the reader, the social commentary is dead serious. I have to wonder if this book, hugely successful at the time of its publication in the so-called jazz age, went out of print for so long precisely because of its precision commentary on the shallow lives of the upper crust.
The household sixteen-year-old Portia finds herself in is an absolutely loveless one. Her step-brother’s wife, Anna, is extraordinarily shallow; she openly courts a number of young and not so young men, apparently with the knowledge and acquiescence of her husband. Portia is seen by Anna as at best an annoyance. She sneaks into Portia’s room to read her diary, and then is enraged to discover how Portia portrays her in the private diary. Some of the older men callers remark on what a beautiful ‘child’ Portia is, and Anna manages not to notice the lecherous leer in their eyes and remarks.
Not surprisingly, Portia becomes infatuated with one of the young men who calls on Anna, since he at least takes notice of her, and he unscrupulously invites her infatuation, managing even to visit Portia when she is sent to Anna’s old governess who lives by the sea. The governess, too, turns a blind eye to the inappropriate behavior of the young man, leaving Portia to discover his total lack of regard for her.
The novel is divided into three sections, The World, The Flesh, and The Devil. And while the death of Portia’s heart is due to the callous seduction of her by the young man, it is in fact a slow death brought on by the icy disregard shown her by her step-brother and the incredibly shallow lives of the London gallery of friends he and his wife entertain. No wonder that finally, realizing that her love for the young man is not returned, and unable to make herself return again to the emotionally frigid London home, she runs to one of the older suitors of her sister-in-law, Major Brutt, begging him to let her live with him. Ironically, it is Major Brutt, alone among the many heartless people in the circle of friends, who takes pity on Portia and refuses to take advantage of the helpless girl’s desperate situation. But his refusal does nothing to alleviate her loneliness and despair. She is left finally with nowhere to turn; the death of the heart brought about by the same sort of blindness and selfishness that Wharton describes in her novel.
These are two wonderfully written novels exploring the heartlessness of the rich and the destruction wrought by their actions and omissions. Humorous and satirical, but displaying the wonderful hearts of the two authors as they describe lives they know well but have rejected.