Read Ethan Frome, Summer, Bunner Sisters Online

Authors: Edith Wharton

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Ethan Frome, Summer, Bunner Sisters

BOOK: Ethan Frome, Summer, Bunner Sisters
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EVERYMAN,

I WILL GO WITH THEE,

AND BE THY GUIDE,

IN THY MOST NEED

TO GO BY THY SIDE

THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF

First included in Everyman’s Library, 2008
Introduction Copyright © 2008 by Hermione Lee
Bibliography and Chronology Copyright © 2008
by Everyman’s Library
Typography by Peter B. Willberg

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Distributed by Random House, Inc., New York. Published in the United Kingdom by Everyman’s Library, Northburgh House, 10 Northburgh Street, London EC1V 0AT, and distributed by Random House (UK) Ltd.

US website:
www.randomhouse.com/everymans

ISBN: 978-0-307-26825-9(US)
978-1-85159-312-8 (UK)
eBook ISBN 978-0-8041-5293-8
A CIP catalogue reference for this book is available from the British Library

v3.1

INTRODUCTION
 ——

‘Bunner Sisters’ is the name of a shop, and it is the only thing written by Edith Wharton to have such a title. It is not what you expect if you associate her mainly with class, wealth, and snobbery. But the underside of society interests her, too, more than she has been given credit for. Because she made her name as an analyst of rich, leisured Americans in Old New York, Wharton’s strong strand of compassionate realism has tended to be undervalued. She is no Dreiser or Zola, but her writing life overlaps with theirs, and she is well aware of the economic and social inequities which underly the world she specializes in. She gives more thought than many of her fictional characters do to the lives of people who have to get up and go to work and struggle to make a living. In an early story called ‘A Cup of Cold Water’, a grim tale of urban struggle and despair, the central character looks out in the morning at the city going about its business: ‘That obscure renewal of humble duties was more moving than the spectacle of an army with banners.’ And he quotes one of Wharton’s favourite lines from
Hamlet
, ‘For every man hath business and desire.’ It is like Dorothea’s knowledge, in George Eliot’s
Middlemarch
, that she must rouse herself, after a night of personal anguish, to an involvement in ‘the involuntary, palpitating’ life of humanity. Wharton admired, and emulated, George Eliot’s seriousness and responsibility. She said in a letter of 1905 that she did not want
The House of Mirth
to be a superficial study of trivial people. On the contrary, she wanted to bring out the ‘tragic implication’ of a society with no ‘inherited obligations’, by concentrating on ‘what its frivolity destroys’.

The unemployed, the hard-up, the pauperized and the shabby-genteel, servants and workers, press in at the corners of her fictions. She makes you wonder what it would be like to see events from their point of view – as in ‘The Lady’s Maid’s Bell’ or ‘After Holbein’, where the servants have their say. How would Undine Spragg’s story read, in
The Custom of the Country
, from the point of view of Mrs Heeny, the masseuse
and manicurist who collects society clippings, part subservient social parasite, part malevolent gossip? What would Lily Bart’s story be like as told by Mrs Haffen, the charwoman she is so curt with, and who comes back to blackmail her, whose desperation and resentment burn off the page on which she appears? Lily Bart, slipping down the cold social surface she has tried to grip on to, reduced in the end to an incompetent milliner’s assistant and a supplicant to the working-girl Nettie Struther, shows us the underside of the social fabric, the place the despised Mrs Haffen comes from. Only very rarely does Wharton shift the vantage point altogether to that underside (other examples are ‘Mrs Manstey’s View’, ‘Friends’, ‘A Cup of Cold Water’ and ‘Bewitched’). But when she does, she gives the lie to critics who accuse her of not understanding the ‘real’ America.

Bunner Sisters
is the earliest, and by far the least well-known of her three superb novellas of poverty and deprivation, and it deserves to be as famous as
Ethan Frome
or
Summer
. Wharton’s editors at Scribner’s, Edward Burlingame and Charles Scribner, were nervous of its unflinching grimness. Wharton tried to get Burlingame to run it in
Scribner’s Magazine
in 1892 and again in 1893. It was early in her publishing career, when her confidence in her own work was not yet high – but she knew it was good. ‘Though I am not a good judge of what I write,’ she told him, ‘it seems to me, after several careful readings, up to the average of my writings.’ But
Bunner Sisters
would not be published until 1916 (the year that she was writing
Summer
), and Scribner did not want to publish it on its own because (he told her in July 1916) it was ‘just a little small for the best results in separate form’. So this realist masterpiece of thwarted lives was included in her war-time volume of stories,
Xingu
, and never had the impact it would have had if published separately.

Bunner Sisters
is a poignant and cruel story of two sisters who, at the start of the novella, are making ends meet with a bit of sewing and a shabby-genteel basement shop that sells hat-trimmings, artificial flowers and other knick-knacks, in a run-down side-street in New York. They are a fretful pair, the older one, Ann Eliza, self-martyring and anxious, the younger,
Evelina, spoilt and dissatisfied. Into these dismal lives comes a seedy German clock-mender, Mr Ramy, who makes up to them both. When Ann Eliza, who has always indulged her younger sister, begins to fall for Mr Ramy, the narrator tells us: ‘She had at last recognized her right to set up some lost opportunities of her own.’ But
Bunner Sisters
only allows a brief vision of hopes and possibilities before it settles, implacably, for renunciation, loneliness, and disappointment. Evelina, obtusely and permanently unaware of her sister’s feelings, marries Mr Ramy and is taken away to a fate which turns out, on her eventual return, to be as bad as any of Ann Eliza’s worst imaginings. A sympathetic upper-class lady, who has troubles of her own, makes occasional visits to the Bunner sisters’ shop, but we never find out her story, or even her name, and like everyone else in the story, she cannot be of any help to the sisters. Ann Eliza comes to feel that there is no God, ‘only a black abyss above the roof of Bunner Sisters’. Wharton tells the story with a painstaking, Balzacian exactness and a scrupulous interest in these compressed lives. She shines a light which is at once harsh and compassionate on every detail – the district, the neighbours (who provide some subdued humour), the sisters’ home-life, a Sunday outing to Central Park, or a ferry-crossing to Hoboken to visit Mr Ramy’s friend the German washerwoman Mrs Hochmüller (a soft, tender piece of urban pastoral, unlike anything else in Wharton). But there is nothing soft or tender in the dialogue between the sisters. Any hint that the older sister’s love for the younger might sentimentalize the story is bleakly made away with:

‘Don’t you talk like that, Evelina! I guess you’re on’y tired out – and disheartened.’

‘Yes, I’m disheartened,’ Evelina murmured.

A few months earlier Ann Eliza would have met the confession with a word of pious admonition; now she accepted it in silence.

‘Maybe you’ll brighten up when your cough gets better,’ she suggested.

‘Yes – or my cough’ll get better when I brighten up,’ Evelina retorted with a touch of her old tartness.

‘Does your cough keep on hurting you jest as much?’

‘I don’t see’s there’s much difference.’

At the end, Ann Eliza, horribly alone, sets out on a spring morning into the great city, which ‘seemed to throb with the stir of innumerable beginnings’. But not for her.

*

In all three of these stories, a window of hope and love is opened onto a narrow, thwarted life, only to be closed shut again. The most startling example of this is
Ethan Frome
(1911) which became the best-known of all Wharton’s works, frequently reprinted and adapted for stage and screen. This famously American, provincial novella began life around 1907 – amazingly enough, as a formal exercise in improving her French, written in the grand Paris setting of the Faubourg St-Germain. She told her friend Bernard Berenson that it amused her to do ‘Starkfield, Massachusetts’ and ‘Shadd’s Fall’ in the rue de Varenne. A few years later, at the darkest point of her own marital crisis, she returned to this French exercise and turned it into a great work of art.

For readers more familiar with
The House of Mirth
or
The Custom of the Country
,
Ethan Frome
comes as a shock, and this is not just because of the dramatic switch from her usual territory to the remote hills and poor farmers’ lives of nineteenth-century New England. What is just as startling is its quietness, what Henry James admiringly called its
‘kept-downness’
.
Ethan Frome
is a story of silence and speechlessness. Voices and feelings are all ‘snowed under’.(The first French translation, which she oversaw, was titled
Sous la neige
.) The characters live inside ‘dumb melancholy’ and ‘secretive silence’, broken by sudden outbursts of long-repressed emotion. The gravestones by the farm gate seem more articulate than the living (‘We never got away – how should you?’ they say). Their deep quiet, in the end, may be preferable to any words.

Ethan was a frustrated figure long before the crash which dooms him to a slow lifetime of silent misery. The first sighting of him, a ruined giant, is of someone who seems to be dragged back persistently by ‘the jerk of a chain’. As one neighbour puts it: ‘You’ve had an awful mean time, Ethan Frome.’ This grim figure of endurance once had potential and aspirations. A sensitive young man with intellectual curiosity, he had
interests in physics, astronomy, and geology. Though ‘grave and inarticulate’, he had an appetite for ‘friendly human intercourse’. He looks after other people; he is kind and honourable and has a sense of duty. (His box-room ‘study’, with its home-made bookshelves, its engraving of Abraham Lincoln, and its calendar with ‘Thoughts from the Poets’, suggests his qualities.) But his father’s accident and breakdown, his mother’s illness and his confinement on the farm have doomed him: he cannot escape ‘the long misery of his baffled past’. ‘The silence had deepened about him year by year.’

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