restricted access Edith Wharton, and: Edith Wharton's Letters from the Underworld: Fictions of Women and Writing (review)
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Reviewed by
Katherine Joslin. Edith Wharton. New York: St. Martin's (Women Writers Series), 1991. 156 pp. No price given.
Candace Waid. Edith Wharton's Letters from the Underworld: Fictions of Women and Writing. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1991. 237 pp. $29.95 cloth; pb. $10.95.

Edith Wharton, once marginalized by critics who dismissed her as a pale imitation of Henry James, has received renewed critical attention in the past two decades. Both Katherine Joslin in Edith Wharton and Candace Waid in Edith Wharton's Letters from the Underworld demonstrate familiarity with recent Wharton scholarship, finding it to be helpful in situating their own very different projects. It is, however, unfortunate that neither Joslin nor Waid has read Dale M. Bauer's Feminist Dialogics: A Theory of Failed Community (1988), which includes a brilliant chapter on Wharton's The House of Mirth, particularly because both authors considered here devote a chapter to that key novel.

Katherine Joslin's feminist study begins with a brief biography of Wharton and an overview of her fiction. Four chapters follow, each focusing on one of Wharton's novels, including The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country, The Age of Innocence , and The Mother's Recompense. The last chapter discusses Wharton's critical reception, providing succinct and accurate summaries of the scholarship she treats. Joslin also includes a primary bibliography and a selected list of critical works.

Joslin might have subtitled her book "The Closure of Community" because she emphasizes the inability of Wharton's characters in the first three novels to transcend the "customs, manners, and culture of their social group." Linking community to the incest theme in The Mother's Recompense, Joslin argues that "incest represents the powerful pull of the initial community, parents and family, on the individual." She also briefly examines the "Beatrice Palmato" fragment in the context of community.

Interestingly, Joslin traces Wharton's feminism to her friendship with Violet Paget, a British scholar who wrote under the name of "Vernon Lee" and who reviewed Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Women and Economics for The North American Review. Joslin posits that Gilman's work influenced Wharton while she was writing The House of Mirth which, in Joslin's view, centers on the "Woman Question." Katherine Joslin's lucid book should be helpful to readers unfamiliar with Wharton's fiction and with feminist criticism. [End Page 465]

Acknowledging her considerable debt to R. W. B. Lewis, Candace Waid offers analyses of selected Wharton texts as she uses the myth of Persephone as a "touchstone" for her readings. In the introduction, Waid asserts that Persephone is for Wharton not only a figure for the woman writer but also a representative of those who leave the pastoral world of Demeter to live in the "underworld" of experience. She describes her study as concentrating on two areas: "a self-conscious attention to writing and the conditions of art and a deeply ambivalent preoccupation with women and the conditions of female identity." Within this framework, Waid examines in depth The House of Mirth, Ethan Frame, Summer, The Custom of the Country, The Touchstone, and Ghosts.

The first chapter draws heavily on the Persephone-Demeter myth, with Waid casting Bertha Dorset as Persephone because she is sexually experienced. According to Waid, the plot turns on Lily's burning of Bertha's love letters to Selden. Letters per se, however, are not the only pieces of writing that receive detailed attention. In fact, no reference to, description of, or attempt at writing is overlooked; for instance, thank you notes and the two letters "Ll" in the Reynolds portrait of Mrs. Lloyd take on extreme significance. Waid concludes that Lily's inability to embrace the world of either Persephone or Demeter demonstrates that Wharton could imagine no tenable place for the woman writer.

In the next chapter, Waid links Ethan Frame to Wharton's Artemis and Actaeon and Other Verse, particularly those poems dwelling on instances of sexual fulfillment in which physical pain and mutilation are integrally connected. Comparing poems and novel, Waid concludes that the novel focuses on female barrenness, that Zeena and Mattie image infertility, and that Ethan...


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