When I was talking to Pat Ryan of the New York Times about this wonderful piece in that newspaper (commemorating Mrs. Wharton’s 150th birthday on January 24), I remembered Wharton’s marvelous series of novellas called Old New York, and realized I needed to read them again.
My clearest memory was of the first, which involves the sensitive eldest son of a domineering businessman. Lewis Raycie is sent to Europe for a Grand Tour in the 1840s, entrusted with $5,000 to buy pictures for what his father wants to call the “Raycie Gallery.” Charged with purchasing work from the Italian Renaissance, Lewis (under the influence of John Ruskin) buys instead works by Giotto, Mantegna, Piero della Francesca. His homecoming is disastrous. This story is called “False Dawn,” and like the others, it involves some shifting of time-frames; by the end of the story, the paintings are worth five million dollars and have been sold to buy pearls and a Rolls-Royce. From the 1840s we go to the 1850s, to the longest tale which is called “The Old Maid.” (Yes, it’s the source of the 1939 movie with Bette Davis.) Let’s just say it involves several perennial Wharton themes, including the conflict between the security of a bourgeois life and the urge for adventure. This one’s very moving. Wharton never had children but she wrote over and over again about thwarted mothers and complex familial arrangements, always taking into account the tricky weave of emotions surrounding maternity. By contrast, “The Spark” is a simpler thing, set in the 1890s but with the key action — which we as readers never see directly; interesting choice — occurring during the Civil War. It’s basically a portrait of a stolid society man, Hayley Delane, who fascinates the narrator because of some inexplicable core of generosity that seems to surprise Delane himself. Finally, set in the 1870s comes “New Year’s Day,” which starts with the marvelous line, “‘She was bad… always. They used to meet at the Fifth Avenue Hotel,’ said my mother.” The “she” under discussion is Lizzie Hazeldean and as is usual with Wharton, she’s neither as bad as the mother thinks nor as good as the narrator believes at one point.
Of course New York is a character in all of these stories. Wharton grew up an awkward, clever society girl in a tight-knit world that she returned to repeatedly in her writing. She managed to break away, but her most famous novels, like The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence, keep circling around the question of how the individual fits into her community and what is gained or lost by that embrace. She often uses physical settings to underline action. Take the business with the Fifth Avenue Hotel in “New Year’s Day” — a hotel is full of transients, people who don’t belong. (The word “promiscuous” was sometimes used in those days to describe the social mix.) So when Lizzie Hazeldean of Old New York is seen exiting the hotel on New Year’s Day (a day traditionally spent with family), in the company of a man she isn’t married to, and the hotel is on fire — well, that hammers home Wharton’s point about potential social conflagrations when people don’t stay fixed in their circles.
Old New York was published by Appleton & Co. in 1924 and it must have been successful, for it was followed by three more “Old…” city books, all in the same attractive illustrated format. Unfortunately, none was as good as this. In 1931 Appleton published Old New Orleans by Frances Tinker, and in 1933, Old San Francisco by Ruth Comfort Mitchell. E.F. Benson contributed Old London in 1937 but it’s not as good as the “Lucia” novels. I’ve always wondered whether Wharton was commissioned to write Old New York by some clever editor with the extended series in mind, or whether the other collections followed Wharton’s success. This book is by far the best of them.