If you had, like a medieval scholar, spent years in the intensive study of the works of Aristotle, you would remember, if you remembered nothing else, the line with which the great philosopher opened so many of the tightly-reasoned things he wrote: “The beginning is more than half.” If you had not studied Aristotle you might still have a sense of how important, how essential, the beginning is if you had read Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. Published in 1905, it was her ninth novel and the first to become a great popular success, with 140,000 copies in print within the three first months it became available. The first paragraph reads:
“Seldon paused in surprise. In the afternoon rush of the Grand Central Station his eyes had been refreshed by the sight of Miss Lily Bart.” Then, a few lines later: “There was nothing new about Lily Bart, yet he could never see her without a faint movement of interest: it was characteristic of her that she always roused speculation, that her simplest acts seemed the result of far-reaching intentions.”
Toward the end of the page, the first page of the novel, Edith Wharton adds that Seldon had rarely seen Miss Bart more “radiant,” that she had, “against the dull tints of the crowd…regained the girlish smoothness, the purity of tint, that she was beginning to lose after eleven years of late hours and indefatigable dancing. Was it really eleven years, Seldon found himself wondering, and had she indeed reached the nine-and-twentieth birthday with which her rivals credited her?”
When Edith Wharton was a very young child, a child who had not yet learned how to read but was, as children were in the middle of the 19th century, surrounded by books, she would hold a book in her hand and tell a story of her own invention as if she were reading it from the printed pages of the book she was often holding upside down. After she learned to read, she learned to write, and, born with a story-teller’s genius, she thought about how a novel should be written, a study continued through most of her long, and eventful, life; a study by which she became, along with her friend, Henry James, one of the very few serious novelists to write something worth reading about writing. In the middle of her autobiography, A Backward Glance, in a chapter entitled, “A Secret Garden,” she explains why she wrote The House of Mirth, and why what is written on the first page is more than half the story.
There are two rules which a novelist must alway follow. The first is that he “should deal only with what is within his reach, literally or figuratively.” The second is that “the value of a subject depends wholly on what the author sees in it, and how deeply he is able to see into it.” Edith Wharton thought it her misfortune that the only subject she knew well was New York, fashionable New York, “a society of irresponsible pleasure-seekers,” a subject “too shallow to yield anything to the most searching gaze.” Then, suddenly, as it were, she saw something she had not seen before, that “a frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys. It’s tragic implication lies in its power of debasing people and ideals.” The answer to the question what could be made of New York and all its “flatness and futility” was “my heroine, Lily Bart.”
This seems to suggest that Edith Wharton interested in a situation: the way in which the fashionable New York of the late nineteenth century corrupted people and their ideals, but it was not that at all. Lily Bart was the source of the story. Literally. Edith Wharton’s own created character told her the story she, Edith Wharton, had to tell. This happened all the time. Suddenly, “a character will stand up, coming seemingly from nowhere. Again, but more breathlessly, I watch; and presently a character draws nearer, and seems to become aware of me, and to feel the shy but desperate need to unfold his or her tale.”
Lily Bart not only told her the story she should write, but speaks out loud the story, her part of the story, while Edith Wharton, listening, does nothing but write it all down. The “elusive moment when these people who haunt my brain actually begin to speak within me with their own voices…I become merely a recording instrument, and my hand never hesitates because my mind has not to choose, but only to set down what these stupid or intelligent, lethargic or passionate people say to each other in a language, and with arguments, that appear to be all their own.”
Every writer, every serious writer, every writer who writes every day for hours and thinks scarcely any time at all has passed, will know exactly what Edith Wharton means. There are things that, when you read them, seem to have been written especially, or even only, for you; at least one author who, reading Edith Wharton’s description of simply recording what her characters are saying to one another, thought he was reading something he had written himself.
Lily Bart suddenly appears and makes herself known; but only, it must be said, after Edith Wharton had spent a great deal of time observing the world around her, the fashionable New York world, bright, charming, and hollow at the core. Then, once it happened, once she knew the story she had to tell, she had to decide how to do it. The first question, which seems so obvious as to be all but irrelevant, is who is going to tell it. “Who saw this thing I am going to tell about? By whom do I mean it shall be reported?”
There are several different ways to do this. Joseph Conrad, as she acknowledges, often had one of the novel’s characters tell the story. Anyone who has read Conrad will immediately think of Marlowe, the veteran sea captain asked by others to tell what he knows about some rumor of a vaguely remembered tragedy in some far away exotic place. When the one who tells the story is part of the story, when, for example, the narrator tells what he or she has gone through, what has happened to them, the reader is drawn closer and the story becomes more a confession, something shared, not with any of the other characters, but with the one person who has agreed to turn the pages and follow the author’s account. Edith Wharton did not do this; she chose instead the anonymous, omniscient narrator, who knows everything and tells everything: what her characters say, what they think, and what they do. Her friend, Henry James, did this as well, but did it in a way that far more intimate. In his great novel, Portrait of a Lady, the narrator is always ‘I,’ as in “I am far from wishing to say.” But instead of telling the story to a vast, anonymous audience of unknown readers, he tells it to you and you alone. When he writes, “we have already perceived that she had desires which had never been satisfied,” the reader is almost tempted to look at James and nod his agreement. James and his reader, his confidant, listen together to what the characters not only say, but think, and, together, explore the antecedents, the histories, of the people whose lives they are following and beginning to understand. This is how, when it is done well, fiction, far more than non-fiction, can get at the truth of things.
Edith Wharton made her choice; we know who is going to tell the story. But how should the story be told if it is to hold the reader’s interest through three or four or five hundred pages? The start, for Edith Wharton, is to make the story, the whole story, implicit on the very first page. This can be done only if, before the first page is written, the last page is known, and, more than that, deeply considered.
“Nietzsche said it took genius to ‘make an end,’ – that is, to give the touch of inevitableness to the conclusion of any work of art.” This is particularly true of the novel. The “failure to end a tale in accordance with its own deepest sense must deprive it of meaning.”
The end of the story, in other words, has to be known before the beginning of it can be written. A “note of inevitability should be sounded at the very opening of the tale, and…my characters should go forward to their ineluctable doom….” The mystery is what happens in between, how what in retrospect will appear to have been inevitable is constructed. Though she knows from the beginning what is going to happen to each of her characters, knows that “their fate is settled beyond rescue,” they somehow “walk to it by ways unrevealed to me beforehand.” Their speech, their action, “seems to be their very own,” so much so that she is “sometimes startled at the dramatic effect of a word or gesture which would never have occurred to me if I had been pondering over an abstract ‘situation,’ as yet uninhabited by its ‘characters.’”
The characters, those entirely fictional inventions of Edith Wharton’s extraordinary mind were, for her, “as real and as tangible as my encounters with may friends and neighbors, often more so, though on an entirely different plane.” Which is the reason why Lily Bart, the central character of The House of Mirth becomes, in the reading, as real, and as tangible, as anyone we have actually known. And we know her on the very first page, when we see her, as her sympathetic friend Seldon does, the girlish smoothness still there after eleven years of late hours and indefatigable dancing; eleven years the best looking young woman in New York society, a young woman, by her own description, “horribly poor – and very expensive. I must have a great deal of money.”
Marriage is the only way Lily Bart can have what she thinks she needs, but the wealthy men – and there are quite a lot of them – are as dull and superficial, as bound to the narrow prejudices of their class as they are rich beyond all imagining. She would have married Seldon, if Seldon had had money; and Seldom would have married her, if money had not made her ignore the damage she was doing to her reputation by her apparent indifference to a hypocritical morality by which the wealthy covered their own moral failings. Eleven years, and instead of a woman every rich man wants to marry, Lily Bart has become the woman every married woman thinks is the paid for mistress of her husband. She is not what they think. She has a greater sense of honor than any of them, which no one – no one except Seldon – recognizes, and which only helps make her so poor that she is reduced to working, or trying to work, for wages. She no longer stands out “against the dull tints of the crowd;’ she has become part of it. Seldon, who discovers too late how honorably she has behaved, brings the story to its inevitable conclusion. Lily Bart has gone to her “ineluctable doom.” She has killed herself, something that, we now understand, was implicit on the very first page of Edith Wharton’s unforgettable novel. And we understand that because Edith Wharton was willing to pass on to other serious writers the secrets she had learned.