Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Lily Bart's Death: Suicide or Accident?

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?”

Click on this link to go to the full article.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Glimpses of the Moon, a new musical adaptation

We invite members of the Edith Wharton Society and friends to attend the world premiere of the new musical adaptation of Edith Wharton's 1922 novel, GLIMPSES OF THE MOON. This sparkling Jazz Age musical will be presented at the famed Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan on Monday evenings, starting on Jan 14, 2008 .

Glimpses of the Moon is one of Wharton's rare comedies, though not without its share of heartaches. Popular but penniless, Suzy Branch and her friend Nick Lansing devise the ultimate fund-raising scheme: to marry and live off the wedding gifts while they help each to find suitable millionaires. The plan works perfectly-- until they fall in love.

This new adaptation written by Tajlei Levis & John Mercurio, and directed by Marc Bruni, features a cast of six actors, three musicians and special guest appearances by popular cabaret artists. Marc Bruni is currently the Associate Director of Legally Blonde and Grease on Broadway.

Levis and Mercurio previously collaborated on an adaptation of Dawn Powell's 1942 novel A Time to be Born, which had a sold-out run at the Lucille Lortel Theatre as part of the New York International Fringe Festival. The New York Times called that production "an elegant adaptation…full of catty wit and jitterbugging. The jazzy score - full of catchy numbers - made the running time fly by." Composer John Mercurio is a Jonathan Larson award winner whose musical Diva Diaries played to packed houses at the Broward and Tampa Bay Performing Arts Centers and the Lakeshore Theatre in Chicago.

Shows are at 8pm Monday evenings, January 14- March 3, 2008.

The Algonquin Hotel is located at 59 West 44th Street, between 5th and 6th Avenue, in Manhattan.
For reservations, please call the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel at 212-419-9331 or email GlimpsesMusical @ Gmail dot com.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Public Lecture (from The New Yorker)

Tenement Museum Shop, 108 Orchard Street

How the OTHER Other Half Lives

Learn how New York City shaped novelist Edith Wharton’s writing. Join us for a panel discussion with Wharton scholar
Hildegard Hoeller and Roxana Robinson, editor of the new collection The New York Stories of Edith Wharton.

About the panelists:

Hildegard Hoeller is associate professor of English at the City University of New York, where she teaches 19th and early twentieth century American literature. She is the current president of the Edith Wharton society and has worked on Wharton since the late 1980s. Her first book, Edith Wharton's Dialogue with Realism and Sentimental Fiction (2000), focused on Wharton's response to these literary traditions.

Roxana Robinson is the author of three novels, three short story collections, and a biography. She has been published in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The New York Times, Vogue, and many other publications. She is a trustee emeritus of American PEN and currently teaches at the New School. Newsweek has compared her fiction to that of Edith Wharton’s.

F to Delancey; B/D to Grand
FREE and open to the public