Nestled into her chateau in St. Brice, France, during the summer of 1924, Edith Wharton wrote in her diary, “The secret of happiness is to have forgotten what it is to be happy.” As a writer, I interpret this sentiment as being so absorbed in work that no feelings register at all. Whether she meant it this way or not, I’ll never know, of course. The statement could certainly have had implications for her as a woman given all that I understand of her story, but for the sake of today’s post, I’ll stay with the writer’s perspective.
The Secret of Happiness
I found the caveat one autumn day in New Haven as I was going through Wharton’s papers at the Beinecke Library. I was thinking about her path toward expat the next morning—a rainy, windy Saturday had dawned and I was reluctant to get out of bed in my lovely room at The Study at Yale. I had been scribbling in my writer’s notebook to record how happy I was to have explored her world through her papers, as I’d just written four sonnets to further a book project along. Seeing her looping handwriting on her journal pages the day before had made me feel as if I’d grown closer to her in some way.
Ten years after her secret to happiness entry, in the same notebook she had by then dubbed her “Gist of Me” Diary, she proclaimed she had reached page 166 of her novel The Buccaneers, which would be her last. She then penned this question: “What is writing a novel like?” Her answer was threefold: “1. The beginning: a ride through a spring wood. 2. The middle: the Gobi Desert. 3. The End: a night with a lover.” She followed this with, “I am now in the Gobi Desert.”
It became clear that the rain was not going to let up so I decided it was time to wrench myself from bed and make my way out into the world. I trekked to the Yale Bookstore to find a highlighter and then stopped at a small café for lunch. I had been making my way through the final chapter of The Sexual Education of Edith Wharton by Gloria C. Erlich since I’d arrived, and I loved knowing that much of the research she had done for the book was conducted at the Beinecke. The chapter title was “Final Adjustments” and it covered her last decade of life, which Erlich correctly identifies as remarkably productive.
The Quest for Happiness Through Writing
“At the age of sixty-six, although disheartened and ill, she completed a best-selling novel (The Children) and began the first of several long works, including three novels and a memoir. In 1928, the year of Teddy Wharton’s death in New York and the year following Walter Berry’s death in Paris, she started work on her chaotic two-volume artist story, Hudson River Bracketed and The Gods Arrive. The major works of her final period move from the specious serenity of her memoir to the genuine serenity of The Buccaneers, her last novel.”
Erlich notes that in the memoir Wharton presented herself through a magisterial persona, that of a grande dame reviewing her well organized and purposeful life. “The transformational work running through her life and career needed revision to meet the emotional demands of old age,” Erlich added. “The writings of her last decade were shaped by these exigencies; they enabled her to connect the course of her life to her present and future needs. They helped give meaning to her life as she prepared for death. They served as a life review reorganizing her past and as a valorization of herself as a woman of letters—no small triumph for a writer with lifelong gender problems.”
I was enthralled by the author’s premise that by writing her way through Weston’s quest [the protagonist of Hudson River Bracketed and The Gods Arrive], Wharton would transform her early deprivations into the preconditions of her own artistic triumph. “By setting primal Mothers as the goal of Weston’s quest, Wharton found a way to link her own identity themes to larger mythic ones. This distancing enabled her to convert the rejecting mother of her childhood into the maternal image she needed to conclude her life peacefully.”
There was so much resonance for me in this last point that I found myself staring out into the rain-soaked afternoon, my mind whirling with the fact that someone intuited another writer doing what I have found myself doing in my writing life. I continued along Erlich’s train of thought with enrapt fascination: “Wharton moves closer to unifying her feminine self and her artistic self. But first she had to transform the negative memory of her actual mother into a more generalized mythic image of the eternal feminine, a mother image good enough to be the foundation of her artistic self.”
An Author’s Posterity
Wharton knew what all of us who spend our days putting words on the page and decide not to have children know: that when her life closed, only her books would remain for posterity. Because she had no flesh-and-blood children, she needed to regard the library and all that it symbolized as her own legitimate realm, the realm of a woman of letters. “She had repeatedly tried to reconstruct her inner mother,” Erlich contends, “not only to repair damage to this image but to adapt it to the requirements of successive phases of her life.”
I made my way back to the hotel in a distracted haze that matched the drippy weather, closing my hotel room door knowing I was in for a reflective afternoon. I tossed the book on the bed, slid off my shoes and was about to crawl under the covers when I noticed all that was scattered about on the linen duvet. These were the contents of my true love—a MacBook Air, the book filled with yellow highlights and bent orange sticky tabs crinkling from so many of the pages, pens, paper, bookmarks, my journal and sundry other accoutrements of the writing life. This gathering of things, it turns out, seemed to be saying the love of my life, in the end, will be writing.
This made me wonder if I was witnessing the price of devoting oneself to a writer’s life; a cost that, in the end, means the material produced is the closest thing one has to a lasting relationship. The dedication had served Wharton well given she won both a Pulitzer Prize and a Legion of Honour (and many other accolades) but was the levy worth it for her as a woman?
She left within her papers at the Beinecke notes for a story that she never completed. I opened the folder containing the material with great anticipation, as I’d read about its contents in Erlich’s book. It was highly charged sexually, the phrases jumping from the page to bring the eroticism its heat poetic: “nipples as hard as coral,” “a tender gluttony,” and the “old swooning sweetness.” It’s interesting to me that she didn’t destroy the drafted story, which scholars date to either round 1919 to 1920 or to 1935. That’s a broad sweep of her life as a woman—if it’s the former, she would have written it at 57, and if it’s the latter, she would have been 73.
This all goes to show that regardless of the papers a writer leaves behind, particularly a fiction writer, it’s impossible to know what is fact and what is not. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to see first-hand, through another female writer’s papers, that I am not alone in my push to discover what it means to experience happiness, as the two sides of my life rub up against each other in challenging ways—the social side and the pensive life of the writer within. I also wonder whether this dichotomy will be resolved before my final memoir is written or whether resolution is even possible. – October 4, 2014, New Haven, CT
The Modern Salonnière and The Secret of Happiness © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist whose books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.
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