I’m delighted to welcome back The Classics Circuit.
Delighted too that Edith Wharton is the subject of this tour. She was one of the first American greats I learned to love. Her novels, set in New York Society at the beginning of the 20th century introduced me to an extraordinary world, and I was won over by her writing style and her wonderful use of dramatic irony.
And the opening line of Sanctuary stunned me.
“It is not often that youth allows itself to feel undividedly happy; the sensation is too much the result of selection and elimination to be within the awakening clutch of life.”
It’s a sad view of the world. And maybe a reminder of just how much the world has changed in the last hundred years or so.
Kate Orme is happy though. She is in love, and all her hopes and dreams are built around one person: her fiancé, Denis Peyton. But there are things she doesn’t know. Things that her elders believe should not be discussed in front of the young.
But Kate finds out. That Denis has done something terribly wrong to protect his family’s position in society. Kate begs him to do the moral thing, to put things right, but he will not. The engagement is broken.
Then she learns that Denis’s family understand and support his actions. And that similar things have happened in her own family.
Kate searches her soul and decides that, although she no longer loves him, she must marry Denis and try to remove the character taint which his yet to be conceived son risks inheriting.
It’s an extraordinary decision. Hard to understand today, but entirely natural given Kate’s moral instinctive moral code- where did that come from I wonder – and the strictures of the society she lived in.
The story is picked up several years later. Kate is a young widow, with a son. She does her best for her son, but the time comes when he is faced with a moral dilemma. What what will he do? Well the clue’s back in that opening line.
It’s much too neat and the second half of the story is rushed and not nearly as accomplished as the first half.
Maybe Sanctuary should have been developed into a novel. With a broader sweep, more depth and more room for character development the results could have been interesting.
As a novella, sadly, it doesn’t quite work.