Few experiences are more annoying than a first meeting that does not come off

From Bernard Berenson’s Sketch for a Self-Portrait.  I always enjoy finding two of my favorite writers knew each other in some capacity I’d never imagined – like Edith Wharton taking Henry James on early motorcar tours and terrifying him with the speed.

Few experiences are more annoying than a first meeting that does not come off.  It leaves one exasperated, skinned, and skinned roughly, suspecting it is one’s own fault and wishing it had never taken place. I seldom get over such a failure. Only once did a rasping encounter that left me as if I had fought for hours through nettles and brambles with stinging buzzing flies tormenting and a blazing sun to parch one, only once did I get over such an introduction. And that was due to a ruse. It happened in this way

Years ago, years before the last war, our neighbour Henry Y, Cannon invited me to meet Mr. and Mrs. Wharton. I had heard of her as well as read her and looked forward to the meeting with curiosity, expectation and hope.  Placed next to her I tried in vain to get some human or even passably polite word out of her. She sniffed, she sneered, she jeered, she lost no occasion for putting in the wounding word, the venomous phrase. She left me exasperated and ashamed of my exasperation. I vowed never to see her again and no doubt reiterated this vow whenever her name came up among common friends.

Some years later in Paris, where l was seeing Henry Adams frequently, he invited me to dine with him one evening at Voisin’s. I arrived and instead of finding him at his usual table on the ground floor I was led upstairs. It was in July.  The room seemed full of acquaintances, but there was not enough daylight left to make out just who they were.  Adams led me up to a lady who was seated by a window. She had a  lack lace veil over her face I had no idea who she was. Her voice was pleasant. We fell into talk which got to interest me more and more. We seemed to share the some loves and hates in the realm of art. We agreed about the people whose names came up. I was wondering more and more who this delightful woman could be. Not a newcomer, surely. She was far too much in it for that. American no doubt but a foreign resident. It never occurred to me that she was what the electric light presently revealed, Edith Wharton.

She at once became a friend – a friend whose friendship soon got to be one of the most satisfactory of all my human relations No devoted sister could have been more concerned for my comfort, more eager for my happiness. As an elder sister she never hesitated to reprove and advise, and for that I loved her.  Yet all of a sudden he would begin to praise, to express her desire for the company of this or that person well known to her as being to me of unpleasant association.

One of these, peculiarly obnoxious, was notorious for his much trumpeted hate of Richard Wagner, Arthur Balfour and myself. I should have been flattered to make a third in such a trinity. Unfortunately Wagner was beyond his darts and Balfour beyond his reach, so I was left exposed to his slings and arrows. Edith Wharton knew this; and yet a naughty imp possessed her to tear the skin off a sore not yet healed over.

A humorous detached observer of the immense muddled variety show of life

From Edith Wharton’s The Eyes:

he [Mr. Andrew Culwin] had been, then and always, essentially a spectator, a humorous detached observer of the immense muddled variety show of life, slipping out of his seat now and then for a brief dip into the convivialities at the back of the house, but never, as far as one knew, showing the least desire to jump on the stage and do a “turn.”
He had always been possessed of a leisure which he had nursed and protected, instead of squandering it in vain activities. His carefully guarded hours had been devoted to the cultivation of a fine intelligence and a few judiciously chosen habits; and none of the disturbances common to human experience seemed to have crossed his sky. Nevertheless, his dispassionate survey of the universe had not raised his opinion of that costly experiment, and his study of the human race seemed to have resulted in the conclusion that all men were superfluous, and women necessary only because some one had to do the cooking.

His adjectives always embarrassed her: their unintelligibleness savored of impropriety

From another of Edith Wharton’s too-overlooked stories, The Mission of Jane.

“How smart you look! Is that a new gown?” he asked.


“I don’t know what you mean,” she said.

Since she never did, he always wondered at her bringing this out as
a fresh grievance against him; but his wonder was unresentful, and
he said good-humoredly: “You sparkle so that I thought you had on
your diamonds.”

She sighed and blushed again.

“It must be,” he continued, “that you’ve been to a dressmaker’s
opening. You’re absolutely brimming with illicit enjoyment.”

She stared again, this time at the adjective. His adjectives always
embarrassed her: their unintelligibleness savored of impropriety.

What was the stanchest code of ethics but a trunk with a series of false bottoms?

I’m sad I waited so long to read Edith Wharton’s short stories.  I’d appreciated Age of Innocence but I doubt I’d have made it back to her if it hadn’t been for finding a stray copy of her Glimpses of the Moon in the civilized section of the Uffizi store last fall.  I still don’t know why it was there – where nearly everything else is specialty art and history – but blessings upon whoever wanted to fluff out their literary offerings.  This is from one of her earlier stories, A Cup of Cold Water.  It is not in the least original as an idea but the perfect aptness of the image is what I’m finding so appealing in her.

The desire to see Miss Talcott had driven Woburn to the Gildermeres’; but
once in the ball-room he made no effort to find her. The people about him
seemed more like strangers than those he had passed in the street. He
stood in the doorway, studying the petty manoeuvres of the women and the
resigned amenities of their partners. Was it possible that these were his
friends? These mincing women, all paint and dye and whalebone, these
apathetic men who looked as much alike as the figures that children cut
out of a folded sheet of paper? Was it to live among such puppets that he
had sold his soul? What had any of these people done that was noble,
exceptional, distinguished? Who knew them by name even, except their
tradesmen and the society reporters? Who were they, that they should sit
in judgment on him?

The bald man with the globular stomach, who stood at Mrs. Gildermere’s
elbow surveying the dancers, was old Boylston, who had made his pile in
wrecking railroads; the smooth chap with glazed eyes, at whom a pretty
girl smiled up so confidingly, was Collerton, the political lawyer, who
had been mixed up to his own advantage in an ugly lobbying transaction;
near him stood Brice Lyndham, whose recent failure had ruined his friends
and associates, but had not visibly affected the welfare of his large and
expensive family. The slim fellow dancing with Miss Gildermere was Alec
Vance, who lived on a salary of five thousand a year, but whose wife was
such a good manager that they kept a brougham and victoria and always put
in their season at Newport and their spring trip to Europe. The little
ferret-faced youth in the corner was Regie Colby, who wrote the _Entre-
Nous_ paragraphs in the _Social Searchlight_: the women were charming to
him and he got all the financial tips he wanted from their husbands and

And the women? Well, the women knew all about the men, and flattered them
and married them and tried to catch them for their daughters. It was a
domino-party at which the guests were forbidden to unmask, though they all
saw through each other’s disguises.

And these were the people who, within twenty-four hours, would be agreeing
that they had always felt there was something wrong about Woburn! They
would be extremely sorry for him, of course, poor devil; but there are
certain standards, after all–what would society be without standards? His
new friends, his future associates, were the suspicious-looking man whom
the policeman had ordered to move on, and the drunken woman asleep on the
door-step. To these he was linked by the freemasonry of failure.

Miss Talcott passed him on Collerton’s arm; she was giving him one of the
smiles of which Woburn had fancied himself sole owner. Collerton was a
sharp fellow; he must have made a lot in that last deal; probably she
would marry him. How much did she know about the transaction? She was a
shrewd girl and her father was in Wall Street. If Woburn’s luck had turned
the other way she might have married him instead; and if he had confessed
his sin to her one evening, as they drove home from the opera in their new
brougham, she would have said that really it was of no use to tell her,
for she never could understand about business, but that she did entreat
him in future to be nicer to Regie Colby. Even now, if he made a big
strike somewhere, and came back in ten years with a beard and a steam
yacht, they would all deny that anything had been proved against him, and
Mrs. Collerton might blush and remind him of their friendship. Well–why
not? Was not all morality based on a convention? What was the stanchest
code of ethics but a trunk with a series of false bottoms? Now and then
one had the illusion of getting down to absolute right or wrong, but it
was only a false bottom–a removable hypothesis–with another false bottom
underneath. There was no getting beyond the relative.

Xingu, of course…

From Edith Wharton’s Xingu, as a reading circle of society women host a fashionable author for a lunch talk:

 “You must excuse us, Mrs. Dane, for not being able, just at present, to talk of anything but [your book] ‘The Wings of Death.”’

“Yes,” said Miss Van Vluyck, with a sudden resolve to carry the war into the enemy’s camp. “We are so anxious to know the exact purpose you had in mind in writing your wonderful book.”

“You will find,” Mrs. Plinth interposed, “that we are not superficial readers.”

“We are eager to hear from you,” Miss Van Vluyck continued, “if the pessimistic tendency of the book is an expression of your own convictions or—”

“Or merely,” Miss Glyde thrust in, “a sombre background brushed in to throw your figures into more vivid relief. Are you not primarily plastic?”

“I have always maintained,” Mrs. Ballinger interposed, “that you represent the purely objective method—”

Osric Dane helped herself critically to coffee. “How do you define objective?” she then enquired.

There was a flurried pause before Laura Glyde intensely murmured: “In reading you we don’t define, we feel.”

Otsric Dane smiled. “The cerebellum,” she remarked, “is not infrequently the seat of the literary emotions.” And she took a second lump of sugar.

The sting that this remark was vaguely felt to conceal was almost neutralised by the satisfaction of being addressed in such technical language.

“Ah, the cerebellum,” said Miss Van Vluyck complacently. “The club took a course in psychology last winter.”

“Which psychology?” asked Osric Dane.

There was an agonising pause, during which each member of the club secretly deplored the distressing inefficiency of the others. Only Mrs. Roby went on placidly sipping her chartreuse. At last Mrs. Ballinger said, with an attempt at a high tone: “Well, really, you know, it was last year that we took psychology, and this winter we have been so absorbed in—”

She broke off, nervously trying to recall some of the club’s discussions; but her faculties seemed to be paralysed by the petrifying stare of Osric Dane. What had the club been absorbed in? Mrs. Ballinger, with a vague purpose of gaining time, repeated slowly: “We’ve been so intensely absorbed in—”

Mrs. Roby put down her liqueur glass and drew near the group with a smile.

“In Xingu?” she gently prompted.

A thrill ran through the other members. They exchanged confused glances, and then, with one accord, turned a gaze of mingled relief and interrogation on their rescuer. The expression of each denoted a different phase of the same emotion. Mrs. Plinth was the first to compose her features to an air of reassurance: after a moment’s hasty adjustment her look almost implied that it was she who had given the word to Mrs. Ballinger.

“Xingu, of course!” exclaimed the latter with her accustomed promptness, while Miss Van Vluyck and Laura Glyde seemed to be plumbing the depths of memory, and Mrs. Leveret, feeling apprehensively for Appropriate Allusions, was somehow reassured by the uncomfortable pressure of its bulk against her person.

Osric Dane’s change of countenance was no less striking than that of her entertainers. She too put down her coffee-cup, but with a look of distinct annoyance; she too wore, for a brief moment, what Mrs. Roby afterward described as the look of feeling for something in the back of her head; and before she could dissemble these momentary signs of weakness, Mrs. Roby, turning to her with a deferential smile, had said: “And we’ve been so hoping that to-day you would tell us just what you think of it.”

Osric Dane received the homage of the smile as a matter of course; but the accompanying question obviously embarrassed her, and it became clear to her observers that she was not quick at shifting her facial scenery. It was as though her countenance had so long been set in an expression of unchallenged superiority that the muscles had stiffened, and refused to obey her orders.

“Xingu—” she said, as if seeking in her turn to gain time.

The full 25ish page story is here.  I do not believe it is a coincidence the clever one is the only one sipping Chartreuse…

They don’t know it – but how much they’re missing!

From Edith Wharton’s Roman Fever (pg. 15 of Roman Fever and Other Stories).

“I was just thinking,” she said slowly, “what different things Rome stands for to each generation of travellers.  To our grandmother, Roman fever; to our mothers, sentimental dangers – how we used to be guarded! – to our daughters, no more dangers than the middle of Main Street.  They don’t know it – but how much they’re missing!”

This brief passage feels pregnant with far more meaning than its obvious value in the titular story – akin to the social and generation commentary via the hotel room in Forster’s A Room With a View, only skewing differently in its final value.