Edith Wharton: Madame de Treymes (1907) Novella with Parisian Setting

Madame de Treymes (Penguin 60s)

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.

22 thoughts on “Edith Wharton: Madame de Treymes (1907) Novella with Parisian Setting

  1. I read this a few years ago when I was on my Wharton spree. Liked it very much indeed. My favourite Wharton is Custom of The Country. I think it’s ‘different’ for Wharton, but then I haven’t read everything she wrote.

    Funny isn’t it how the ‘newish’ money doesn’t understand the power and prestige of old and shabby elegance.

    • I’m on a spree now, I guess. You mentioned Custom of the Country, true. That has never been on my radar so far. I will probably first read summer and then The House of Mirth.

  2. I’ve ordered her ‘French ways and their meaning’ (translated by “Les moeurs françaises et comment les comprendre”). I’m really curious to see.

    Madame Malrive : is she on the wrong bank of the Seine? or wrong on this bank of the Seine?

    It’s frightening to see things haven’t changed that much. I dislike upper-classes Parisians with their dark-blue-red-dark-green uniforms. Mocassins et serre-tête à carreaux. (I don’t know how to say that) You see what I mean? Madame doesn’t work, despite her diplomas, to take care of the 2 to 4 children. Monsieur works for a big firm and usually stays in the office really late.

    I’m reading La Fille aux yeux d’or, out of curiosity. The comments on Guy’s blog intrigued me and it’s a short book.
    The description of the society is also very up-to-date. Discouraging.

    • I agree with you, and know what you mean. I liked to go for walks in Parc Monceau… The only place you see them “in the wild” as they would never take the métro. Malrive… excellent, it didn’t even strike me as meaningful but you are so right… She is wrong on this bank. I was actually wondering how this could happen that her husband got married to her in the first place. The money, I guess… Maybe I should re-read La fille auxyeux d’or. It is really one of balzac’s very roantic ones. As much as I like this normally, in its dark variation, that is, I didn’t like it at all.
      Her “French ways….” You mean Wharton wrote a book about France? She travelled a lot. Also during WWI, to the front line. I would be curious to read “In Morocco”.

      • I’ve lived in Saint-Cloud for 3 years, another place where you can see them “in the wild”.

        La Fille aux yeux d’or is Romantic. Reminds me of The Confession of a Child of the Century so far. And of Marivaux and Molière. (Strange mix, I know)It sounds like another Balzac I’ve read recently, La Fausse maîtresse.

        Wharton wrote articles about France for American magazines during WWI and they were gathered in a book in 1919. I suppose she’s talented enough to avoid clichés. I don’t have it yet, it’s in the post somewhere.

        • Yes, my comment was somewhat awkward. I meant parcs and elegant streets and restaurants in general, it sounded as if they were only “in the wild” in Parc Monceau… Like a zoo… It’s a very traditional society. I haven’t read La fausse maîtresse. Let’s see what you think of La fille aux yeux d’or once you finished it. I liked Marivaux and Molière.

          • I think she is one of those writers whose biography would be worth reading. At least I would be interested. When you read Mme de Treymes carefully you can’t say really that she is taking sides. She portrays them equally well, shows the shortcomings of both sides and there is a certain comical element in this clash. The values are so different.

  3. I have to admit that I have never heard of Edith Wharton, I heard of the age of innocent before…I think it was a movie.

    I am a bit lost reading this. What is Parisian?

    • People who live in the city of Paris. If you are ever curious to see what the book is like, my picture directs you to the book and you can read the first few pages… Just to give you an idea. The movie is based on her novel. They are quite similar.

  4. I read Ethan Frome and remember it to be depressing. I can’t imagine how fun the House of Mirth would be. But it can’t be any worse than Thomas Hardy. Somebody buy that guy a flower.

    • Ethan Frome is very depressing, I agree, and nothing like what I have read from her otherwise. I think I haven’t read any Thomas Hardy but I know he isn’t said to be cheerful.

  5. I love Edith Wharton. I went through a binge when I was younger, though it was her shorter works that I read–I’ve yet to read some of her more famous books. I have read The Age of Innocence twice and think you can’t get much better than that when it comes to a really good novel. Not only was she the perfect chronicler of her class but she could skewer them pretty well, too.

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