From the New York Times
"Wharton Letter Reopens a Mystery" by Charles McGrath
Literary biography is never finished, Hermione Lee, the Goldsmiths’ professor of English at Oxford and author of acclaimed books about Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton, said the other day. New information keeps turning up. In the case of Wharton, what has just turned up is a letter that casts new light on the vexing question of what exactly happens at the end of her 1905 novel, “The House of Mirth.” Does Lily Bart, the novel’s heroine, kill herself or die of an accidental overdose?
The text is ambiguous. Lily, honorable but not always smart in her decisions, has so fallen from her perch in New York society that she is living in a boarding house, and so broke that she needs to work for a living. She has quit one job, as secretary to a tasteless social climber, and has failed miserably at another, sewing for the fashionable milliner Mme. Regina, and to get through the nights has become addicted to chloral hydrate.
On the evening of her death, lonely and depressed, a step away from prostitution, she packs away her few remaining gowns and carefully settles her accounts, writing a check that will clear her last remaining debt, and then deliberately takes a larger dose than usual.
“The action of the drug was incalculable,” she tells herself, “and the addition of a few drops to the regular dose would probably do no more than procure for her the rest she so desperately needed. “
Some critics have argued that the suggestion of mere risk-taking here, and not intentional overdosing, is simply a euphemism of the kind frequently employed in Lily’s world, where well-bred people never referred to suicide. In an e-mail message the novelist Roxanna Robinson, author of the introduction to the new Wharton anthology, “New York Stories,” said, “I think the reader knows on some deep level that the event was deliberate, that Lily Bart knew she’d exhausted her possibilities, and knew that going on would mean a life of unbearable ignobility.”
Ms. Robinson added, “If she doesn’t take action here, if her death occurs by chance (or if Anna Karenina had fallen under the wheels by mistake), the tragedy is drained of much of its power.”
Others have argued that it is precisely the careless, accidental nature of Lily’s death that is so tragic, because carelessness, a failure to think things through, is her great flaw, while her great strength is an ability to bounce back. Had she only lived through the night, according to this view, she might have married Lawrence Selden, her soul mate, and reclaimed her place in society.
The newly revealed letter, written by Wharton herself, seems to point to the suicide theory. It is dated Dec. 26, 1904, or just a month before “The House of Mirth” began appearing in monthly installments in Scribner’s Magazine, and is addressed to Dr. Francis Kinnicutt, a well-known society doctor who specialized in the mental ailments of the well-to-do. At the time of the letter, in fact, he was treating Wharton’s manic-depressive husband, Teddy, who was beginning to behave in ways — eventually embezzling her money, setting up a mistress in Boston — that would lead to the dissolution of their marriage.
The letter begins by resorting to the timeless disguise of the advice-seeker. “A friend of mine has made up her mind to commit suicide,” Wharton writes, “& has asked me to find out ... the most painless & least unpleasant method of effacing herself.”
Only on the second page does Wharton reveal that her “friend” is in fact a fictional character appearing in the pages of Scribner’s, explaining, “I have heroine to get rid of, and want some points on the best way of disposing of her.” Later she asks: “What soporific, or nerve-calming drug, would a nervous and worried young lady in the smart set be likely to take to, & what would be its effects if deliberately taken with the intent to kill herself? I mean, how would she feel and look toward the end?”
The letter was found stuck into a first-edition copy of “The House of Mirth,” along with a poem, dated 1906, by someone apparently besotted with Lily Bart. Stephanie Copeland, the president of the Mount, Wharton’s house in Lenox, Mass., which has been restored and turned into a museum, has speculated that the poet must have been a friend of Dr. Kinnicutt.
. . . .
Ms. Lee, who was shown the letter by Ms. Copeland, said earlier this week: “One of the things that’s so interesting is the reference to serialization. We think of Wharton as a 20th-century novelist, a master of form, and here she is writing like Dickens or Thackeray. The book is about to start coming out, and she hasn’t finished it yet. The other great thing is what the letter suggests about her practical meticulousness, the way she wants to get things right — her literary pragmatism, you could say.”
She added, “Does the letter prove that all along Lily intended to kill herself? I think it’s quite likely that in December 1904, Wharton was thinking that Lily was going to commit suicide, and that by the time she came to the ending, months later, she changed her mind, because of the way those last pages hold onto so many moral positions at once. I think that, as she went on, she decided that it would be more effective if she left the ending ambiguous. It’s actually a much greater book if we don’t know for sure.”
Another person who has seen the letter is the 90-year-old novelist Louis Auchincloss, who may have more Whartonian connections than anyone still alive. His grandmother knew Edith Wharton in Newport, R.I. His parents were good friends of Freddy and Le Roy King, New York lawyers who were Wharton’s executors and also, in her later career, when she was living in France, her advisers about contemporary American diction.
“They were the least American gentlemen I’ve ever met,” Mr. Auchincloss said recently. “That’s why in her late novels you get dialogue like ‘By Jove, I’ve had a beastly, fagging sort of day.’”
Mr. Auchincloss is himself the author of a Wharton biography, a book so fond and intimate that it sometimes reads as if he had known her. “While I was writing it, I sometimes thought I did,” he said, and then declared his position on “The House of Mirth” to be unchanged by the letter.
Taking down his own first edition, he read the concluding pages aloud in his Brahmin accent, and said: “I don’t see what the fuss is about. It’s perfectly clear what happens. Lily doesn’t mean to kill herself but risks death in a desperate bid for rest. Edith Wharton wrote to Kinnicutt because she needed to find a drug that wouldn’t disfigure Lily’s beautiful body. She didn’t want that dreadful Mme Bovary thing, with the arsenic. I mean, how can you have Lily Bart die a messy death?”
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