Set in Paris, Wharton’s 1907 novel explores the theme she and Henry James so often examined; the conflict between American innocence and corrupt Europe.
Even a short novel like Madame de Treymes (just 80 pages long) shows you what a masterful writer Edith Wharton was. This is the oldest of her novels that I have read so far. It came out after her enormous success The House of Mirth (1917) which I want to read very soon as well. The Age of Innocence (1920) and Ethan Frome (1911), both books that I have read, are later ones. Another one that I have found in my hopelessly overstuffed book shelves is Summer (1917).
Madame de Treymes has a Parisian setting which always appeals to me, as sentimental as this may be. It is a cruel little book and a very surprising one. All in all there is not a lot of description of the city itself, the novel rather offers an analysis of the society. It is interesting to see how Americans perceived the Parisian society and the differences in their respective values.
John Durham knew Mme de Malrive when she was still called Fanny Frisbee. Once a lively young American woman, she has become but a mere shadow of herself. She married into the Faubourg St Germain society, meaning Parisian upper-class. Stuffy, traditional and very unwelcoming to outsiders. She lives separated from her husband as he has cheated on her. She would like a divorce but is afraid to lose her son and doesn’t want to move him from Paris. Durham always liked Fanny and intends to marry her and, if needed, stay with her in Paris.
The only person Fanny trusts is Mme de Treymes, her sister-in-law, who disapproves as much of her brother as Fanny herself. Durham turns to her for help and what follows is a tragedy of manners, if I may say so.
This little story, as beautifully written as it is, made feel quite chilly. I am surprised to see that the Parisian upper-classes (to which I never belonged but am fairly familiar with) haven’t changed that much.
The differences between the American and the Parisian way of life is nowhere to be seen so well as when Durham and his sister visit Fanny at her house. The house, a rundown old mansion in a poky street, causes the follow exclamation from his sister:
“Well, if this is all she got by marrying a Marquis”.
Wealth meets status and it is funny to see how those down-to-earth rich Americans are absolutely not impressed with the shabby elegance they encounter. On the other hand, they were not aware of the power of ancestry and heritage which reignes in the society into which Fanny has married.
Durham felt, as he observed them, that he had never before known what “society” meant; nor understood that, in an organized and inherited system, it exists full-fledged where two or three of is members assembled.
But Wharton doesn’t only dissect the French society she also lays bare the lack of culture of some of the Americans.
To Mrs Durham, with her gentle tourist’s view of the European continent, as a vast museum in which the human multitudes simply furnished the element of costume, the Boykins seemed abysmally instructed, and darkly expert in forbidden things (…)
As the title indicates, Mme de Treymes is the central figure, the most complex character, much more than you can deduce from this post. She is also married to the wrong man and lives a scandalous life, having a lover, yet she would never even think about leaving her husband. This would be too open a rebellion against the society of which she is a much more integral part than Durham and Fanny realize.
Mme de Treymes is a wonderful example of what an adept writer can achieve even in such a short form as the novella.
The topic of the American in Paris is interesting and would certainly be worth exploring further. Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and many more come to mind who wrote about it.
I think that to this day Paris is the city Americans are mostly likely to visit if they have to make a choice. At least that is what I have been told lately by different Americans. Maybe we could call this the “mythical Europe”.
Should you like to read another review of one of Edith Wharton’s books, Guy Savage just reviewed The Old Maid which rekindled my interest in Wharton that had unfortunately been dormant for a while. As soon as I get a chance I will continue with Summer and The House of Mirth. She is such a wonderful writer and one of a few where I could imagine reading everything she has written.
Which is your favourite Edith Wharton novel? I remember I liked The Age of Innocence a great deal.