Saturday, November 10, 2018

The Mission of Jane

Edith Wharton (1862–1937)
From Edith Wharton: Collected Stories 1891–1910

The Reading Lesson, c. 1901, oil on canvas by American artist Mary Cassatt (1844–1926). Courtesy of the Dallas Museum of Art.
One of Edith Wharton’s earliest literary influences was the popular—and then-famous—French novelist Paul Bourget, whom she met in 1893 when he and his wife stayed at Land’s End, her summer home in Newport, Connecticut. Bourget had come to the United States to write a series of commissioned articles on American life for The New York Herald and Le Figaro. As Wharton later wrote in a memoir of Bourget for a French weekly, when they met she was “a young woman impassioned with literature, but not having even a dream of the possibility of herself joining the illustrious brotherhood of writers.”* Her friendship with the Bourgets deepened at the end of the decade, when she toured Italy in their company. She would dedicate her first novel to the Bourgets and he, in turn, dedicated one of his stories to her.

Bourget’s newspaper articles were collected in a book in 1895 under the title Outre-Mer: Impressions of America. The chapter on “Society: Women and Young Girls” catalogs a series of American types (as he perceived them), one of which has received particular attention from literary scholars. Bourget describes, in contrast to the “physical tomboy”:
the more serious face of the intellectual tomboy; the girl who is up to the times, who has read everything understood everything, not superficially, but really, with an energy of culture that could put to shame the whole Parisian fraternity of letters. The trouble is that nine times out of ten this mind, which is capable of assimilating everything, is incapable of tasting anything. . . . Though like all the others she gets her gowns from the best houses of the Rue de la Paix, there is not a book of Darwin, Huxley, Spencer, Renan, Taine, which she has not studied, not a painter or sculptor of whose works she could not compile a catalogue, not a school of poetry or romance of which she does not know the principles. She subscribes impartially to the Revue des Deux Mondes and the gazettes of the latest coteries of the Latin Quarter or Montmartre. Only she does not distinguish between them.
For years many critics assumed that Bourget’s profile of an “intellectual tomboy” was inspired by Wharton herself, but more recent biographers have expressed mixed reactions to this assertion. While R.W.B. Lewis believes it “obvious that Edith Wharton was the model for Bourget’s portrait,” Hermione Lee is ambivalent (at 31 years old, Wharton was “rather old for a tomboy, and too discriminating for this type”) and Shari Benstock is adamant that the description was “not a portrait of Edith Wharton.”

Wharton did read Outre-Mer when it first appeared, and there is no evidence she recognized herself in Bourget’s caricature. Instead, the book was instrumental in shaping her view of character development; she noticed “how the smallest details of this life of lazy ladies and gentlemen interested him.” Bourget’s influence on Wharton at the start of her career can hardly be overstated. As she recalled in her memoir, A Backward Glance, he was “one of the most stimulating and cultivated intelligences I have ever met.” She added, “[he] was always rebuking me for my apathy in continuing a life of wearisome frivolity, and telling me that at the formative stage of my career I ought to be with people who were thinking and creating.”

Wharton’s contemporaries explicitly recognized her debt to Bourget; in fact, many reviewers on both sides of the Atlantic lumped together the trio of Wharton, Bourget, and Henry James. Her stories, wrote one critic in 1899, “concern themselves with problems far beyond the range of the girl—even of the American girl as M. Paul Bourget drew her in Outre-Mer.” The painter Mary Cassatt wrote that she did not care for Wharton’s fiction—“such an imitation of Bourget, a writer I cannot endure.”

More recently, Wharton scholar Carol J. Singley looked specifically at Wharton’s seriocomic satire, “The Mission of Jane” and remarked that Bourget’s description of the intellectual tomboy type “is uncannily like Wharton’s portrait” of the title character. Yet Singley also noted that Jane is a bit like Wharton herself, with parents “nonplussed by their daughter’s precocious intelligence.”

As with Bourget’s intellectual tomboy, the model for the portrait of Jane (assuming there was one) must remain ambiguous. When the story appeared, one reviewer wrote that its effectiveness “may be due to the uncertainly in the reader’s mind as to whether the writer is telling a good story, merely, or offering a ‘character study,’ or deliciously satirizing the hackneyed forms that short stories are apt to take—or all of these.” Moreover, because the story of Jane’s life is told from the unreliable and detached perspective of a reluctant adoptive father, readers can only speculate and debate how intelligent or accomplished Jane really is and who Wharton may have been mocking with her barbed comments on a young woman’s social and intellectual development.

* As translated by Millicent Bell in The Cambridge Companion to Edith Wharton.

Note: On page 419 Wharton refers to Correggio’s Night-piece, referring to Nativity (Adoration of the Shepherds), a sixteenth-century painting by Antonio da Correggio.

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