29 OCTOBER 1988, Page 41

. . . who only New England know

Miranda Seymour

THE LETTERS OF EDITH WHARTON edited by R. W. B. Lewis and Nancy Lewis

Simon & Schuster, £16.95, pp.654

Edith Wharton achieved her long- standing ambition to meet Henry James on equal terms in 1903. James had humi- liatingly overlooked her at two earlier encounters in Paris and Venice; now, he had not only paid kind tribute to her first novel, a ponderous but well-researched Italian romance, but he had expressed a ready enthusiasm for the idea of a meeting in London.

It was, of course, a huge success and it led the anglophile Edith Wharton into that charmed circle of expatriate New England- ers which became the safe port in her furious peregrinations as 'an incorrigible life-lover & life-wonderer & adventurer.'

The circle centred on Qu'Acre, the home of Howard Sturgis on the edge of Windsor Great Park. I am sorry to see this again appearing as the ancestral home of the Sturgis family. It was not and, indeed, could not have been since it was built by Basil Champneys in the 1870s. The house was the comfort-seeking choice of a middle-aged bachelor after his parents' death, although the confusion may arise from the fact that Henry James had, as a shy young American cowering in London in the rented rooms of Mr Lazarus Fox, been a grateful guest at the homes of Howard Sturgis's parents. He drew on old Russell Sturgis and on his house, Mount Felix, for his portrait of old Mr Touchett in The Portrait of a Lady: Howard Sturgis had now taken over his father's role at Qu'Acre, feeling at times like the manager of a large hotel for his vast circle of American friends and relations.

This circle, into which Edith Wharton was so readily drawn, was of New England- rs who positively rejoiced in the sense of being displaced, but who drew immense solace from their sense of a shared herit- age, a common understanding.

We are none of us Americans, [Edith wrote to a Bostonian friend].We don't think or feel as the Americans do, we are the wretched exotics produced in a European glass-house . . . You see in my heart of hearts, a heart never unbosomed, I feel in America as• you say you do in England — out of sympathy with everything. And in England I like it all — institutions, traditions, mannerisms, conservatisms, everything but the women's clothes and the having to go to church every Sunday . . .

A heart never unbosomed? That, cer- tainly, was the image Edith Wharton liked to convey and, in her letters as in her manner, she often succeeded so well as to be judged a brusque, proud and very intimidating woman. Her public attitude to her writing was one of amused detach- ment; she spoke and behaved as though writing was an amusing hobby to be squeezed in between social engagements and doing up new homes (nobody knows our Edith who has not seen her in the process of building a habitation for her- self,' said James, always ready to pretend that he was thoroughly overwhelmed and alarmed by the luxury), and she was, while awesomely businesslike, never on more than courteous terms with her publishers. Only to the closest of her circle, Lapsley, James, Sturgis, Berry and, later, Bernard Berenson, yet another New Englander, would she own unfeigned delight of their appreciative tributes. Only to them would she admit her concern when, late in life, she lost the esteem of the critics by what seemed to be an increasingly commercial tendency in her writing.

Much of the fascination of this copious collection of letters — a mere 400 of the 4,000 she wrote — lies in the contrast between the crushingly self-reliant and quite awesomely grand Mrs Wharton who disdainfully posed for her publicity photo- graphs and who dressed for dinner to such a degree that one timid young guest entirely failed to recognise his hostess of teatime, and the hapless, lonely wife who compared herself to a frustrated Emma Bovary, whose life 'was as cold as a garret whose windows face north, and boredom like a spider spun its web in the shadows, to all the corners of her heart.' (She copied Flaubert's lines into her notebook, and underlined them.)

The letters tell us little about Teddy Wharton, but readers of Professor Lewis's biography will remember that the marriage was not an easy one. Teddy could always manage a joke — saw you riding in a butcher's cart yesterday,' a Newport par- venu once said to him. 'I wouldn't do that if I were you.' I wouldn't do that if I were you, either,' Teddy responded — but he suffered from what we now call manic depression and he did not, as a Southerner, relish being the paid consort of a successful and strong-minded wife. For love, Edith Wharton had to look elsewhere. The Qu'Acre circle could offer comfort, entertainment and congenial con- versation, but it was not until she was in her mid-forties that she met a younger member of the group who had moved to Paris, a womanising, dandified charmer with religious tendencies, soulful eyes and truly remarkable moustaches, a man whom James described as one 'who had the ex- quisite art in him of not bringing it off.'

What was true of Morton Fullerton's dismally unfulfilled career as a writer and

journalist applied still more to his career with women. But we should be grateful to him for having failed to bring off the promised act of burning his mistress's letters. These, which surfaced only a few years ago, are the real revelation of this

collection. To read the American reviews of the Letters when they were published earlier this year, one would think Mrs Wharton had written no others but these.

Fullerton came into Edith Wharton's life in 1907 as a possible translator into French

of The House of Mirth, but the affair did

not begin until her return to Paris the following year. She asked him to a play (unsubtly hinting that her husband would not be with them). Two months later, the relationship had become dramatic enough for Mr Wharton to retire to New England in a state of nervous trauma and for James, over on a visit, to find himself in the unpleasing role of the gooseberry or being packed off to parties alone while his hostess rushed off for a tryst with her beloved. Fullerton was never a man to stick with one woman when he could have two or three, and Edith Wharton's letters to him over the three years of their tempestuous relationship (the tempests, one suspects, were all on her side) veer from the passionate — 'You can't come into the room without my feeling all over me a ripple of flame' — to the anguished - `The one thing I can't bear is the thought that I represent to you the woman who has to be lied to.' And Fullerton did lie to her, about his engagement to his adopted sister, about the mistress who was blackmailing him over his bisexual affairs, about every- thing except that he found her an attractive and exciting woman, more attractive still when she remembered not to expect too much.

There is always some discomfort in reading intimate letters which the author had wished never to be known, but these do enlarge our sense of respect for her, rather than diminish it. She was, as many of these letters show, a woman of enduring friendships, and Fullerton remained a friend, if not a lover, for life.

New friends like the Kenneth Clarkes came into Edith Wharton's life as she settled into ruling over her last French homes and welcoming into them such unlikely guests as the young (and in her view, quite awful) Scott Fitzgerald, but the letters increasingly bear testament to her sense of herself as one of a dying breed

who, when The Age of Innocence was to be staged, felt the need to remind the director of how, once, things were properly done.

Errors are few in what is a well-edited and, on the whole, helpfully annotated selection of the letters of a witty, forceful, intelligent and often admirable woman.