Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Back to the Classics Challenge: Madame de Treymes and Three Novellas

It's been awhile since I posted something for the Back to the Classics Challenge, hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate. For the category of a classic novella, I read the novellas included in Madame de Treymes and Three Novellas by Edith Wharton:

The Touchstone (1900)

Stephen Glennard is in love with Alexia Trent but doesn't have enough money. He had a past relationship with the intensely private Margaret Aubyn, an author who is dead, but there is a great deal of interest about Aubyn's personal life. Glennard removes his name from the love letters and publishes them with the help of an acquaintance, Flemel. Glennard lies to Flemel and tells him the letters belong to a friend, and Glennard doesn't tell his fiancee about the letters. Meanwhile, the book of letters becomes a huge success. Everywhere Glennard turns, he can't get away from the success of the book. It provides the means to get married, but soon, Glennard is in the depths of despair about his betrayal of Aubyn, the deception of his wife, and his inability to sever ties with the manipulative Flemel.

I'm often amazed at how contemporary Edith Wharton's stories can seem in this day and age. I felt this way when I read Custom of the Country and had the same feeling with The Touchstone. It's a magnificently crafted story.

Sanctuary (1903)

Kate is engaged to Denis Peyton, who takes part in a deception involving an inheritance he received from the death of his brother. At first, Kate decides that she can't marry a man who finds it easy to mislead and lie, but in the end, she decides to go forward with the marriage in hopes that she can protect any children they might have from the influences of such a duplicitous father.

Years later, Kate's son, Dick, begins his career as an architect. His father died not too long after he was born after squandering the inheritance. Kate has been an overprotective mother, but this hasn't stopped Dick from becoming engaged to a superficial young woman or being faced with a decision he must make on his own involving a deception which could affect the future of his career. Is Dick more like his father than Kate realized?

The tension and pacing of this story made it impossible to stop reading. Wharton captures perfectly another timeless and universal situation where Dick faces a moral dilemma with everyone around him telling him to go ahead, but he must decide what is right. Also, there is a bit of a twist as Kate tries to help the situation go in the direction she wants it to. This is a powerful tale, deftly told.

Madame de Treymes (1907)

Set in Paris, John Durham wants to help Fanny Frisbee, who is now Fanny de Malrive, obtain a divorce so that John and Fanny can be married. Fanny knows that her husband's family will never agree to a divorce and allow her son to leave France. The only hope is for John to appeal to Fanny's influential sister-in-law, the mysterious Madame de Treymes. 

Wharton has created a subtle story, dealing with the social differences between America and France. The story illustrates how little power a married women in France had when the husband's family made all decisions and religion played such a large role in society. This story was a bit hard to follow at times. I found some of the language a bit stilted as well. This novella did not capture my imagination like the other novellas and was my least favorite. 

The Bunner Sisters (1916)

Ann Eliza and Evelina Bunner are the unlucky older sisters who live in their shabby millinery shop in a downtrodden neighborhood of New York City. For Evelina's birthday, Ann Eliza (the older sister) buys a clock from a nearby shop. Soon, the German clock maker, Herman Ramay, becomes part of their lives. Ann Eliza is interested in Ramay, but Evelina has always been the pretty one. It appears that Ramay fancies Evelina. With an impending marriage to one of the sisters, the naive ladies have placed their trust in Ramay far too easily, not realizing that he hides a damaging secret that will affect all their lives.

I was absolutely riveted by The Bunner Sisters. Wharton is so effective in writing about characters navigating the upper class of society, but she is equally effective in a setting where the characters are those less fortunate. Even though this was a heartbreaking story, it was my favorite of the novellas. 

This was my first experience in reading some of Edith Wharton's novellas. I highly recommend this collection, especially for those readers who love Edith Wharton's writing. There is a little something for everyone and a lot to like about this collection.

Earlier this year, Lark Writes . . . on books and life wrote an excellent post in which she talked about her thoughts on The Bunner Sisters and Madame de Treymes.

Have you read any of Edith Wharton's novellas, or are you new to them like me?


  1. Don't you love Edith Wharton?

  2. I haven't read Edith Wharton for a while. I'm interested to read about some of her lesser-known and shorter works. They definitely seem to be worth reading.

  3. Her novellas are new to me; the Bunner Sisters sounds good.