Edith Wharton’s characters are always getting into trouble at the theatre. In The Age of Innocence, it’s the place where Newland Archer first meets the disgraced Countess Olenska (and is mortified, because everyone sees her in his fiancée’s box), and where, during a production of Boucicault’s The Shaughraun, he’s drawn to her. There are rules, of course, unwritten ones, acknowledged only when broken, about how to arrive (‘in a Brown coupé was almost as honourable a way of arriving as in one’s own carriage’) and when (‘it was “not the thing” to arrive early’). A woman, married or unmarried, must go with a suitable companion or not go at all: ‘One knew what to make of a woman who was “alone at the opera”.’ In The Custom of the Country, the parvenue Undine Spragg, who loves the theatre, persuades her father to rent her a night’s use of a box, but society makes her nervous, and she becomes ‘no longer capable of following the action on the stage’.
So it was with me. Hermione Lee’s biography of Edith Wharton was published on 1 February. On 2 February, I sat behind Professor Lee to watch Happy Days at the National. In Wharton’s story ‘His Father’s Son’, a man stealthily purchases, ‘under the shadow of the balcony, a stall whence he could observe the Bankshire box without fear of detection’; my proximity had happened by chance. My seat was P19 to Professor Lee’s N20 or N21, not sufficiently close to whisper a greeting, but close enough to offer one if I raised my voice. Only I couldn’t raise my voice. It would sound strident, be gauche and conspicuous: ‘Yoo-hoo, Hermione!’ I tried to catch her eye so as to bestow a little smile. A wave, a small one, wouldn’t be inappropriate, I decided – she had supervised my graduate thesis – and I permitted myself a coughing fit. But she still hadn’t seen me before, tout bonnement, up went the curtain.
I worried: what if she had seen me, and thought my failure to acknowledge her rude? I certainly didn’t want to bother her, but perhaps I should make an approach at the intermission? Talking during performances is perfectly comme il faut in Wharton – why else go to a show if not to talk to one’s friends? – so while Miss Shaw, up to her bosom in dirt, went on about existence, I asked my female companion for advice. My female companion said: ‘Shut up.’
These are not the easiest of times to be an American abroad, and for one brought up on 19th and early 20th-century Anglo-American novels, and little else, how could a move to England not induce all manner of anxieties? One lives in fear of appearing stupid and vulgar, pushy and ungrateful, of being grouped with those whom the ever correct Mrs Costello, in ‘Daisy Miller’, calls the ‘sort of Americans that one does one’s duty by not – not accepting’. And then there’s the edifying fate of Daisy Miller herself. When the American girl, in her ‘indestructible innocence, her invulnerable new-worldliness’, encounters the Old World, she is most probably doomed. Before I left America for graduate school, the professor who taught me James, noticing that my scholarship would pay for the support of a dependent spouse, told me to beware of fortune-hunters. I think she was kidding, but a Jamesian truth was perhaps not so far to seek: it was widely rumoured at Oxford that admissions standards for foreign students, who pay tuition up to five times the rate of home students, were increasingly lax. According to a recent Guardian report, to prevent a revenue shortfall British universities have budgeted for the number of foreign students to increase by 20 per cent within the next three years. They wanted us for our money.
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