Sanctuary by Edith Wharton


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.

Had Sanctuary ended then it would have been a striking short story, leaving behind much to ponder. But it went on.

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.

14 responses

  1. Excellent review! Too bad it didn’t live up to its potential. The character of Kate sounds a bit like Anna in The Reef, which I will be reviewing on Tuesday.

  2. I’m a Wharton fan, too, but have not heard of this novella. Sorry it was a disappointment, but your review is excellent. That opening quote is amazing!

  3. I was looking at this book in the bookstore last week. I am a huge fan of Edith Wharton and a few years ago read many of her books but I missed this one. I was thrilled, therefore, to see your review! The first half of the story sounds captivating. How disappointing that the second half is rushed and doesn’t fulfill the wonderful writing ability of Wharton. The open lines certainly stopped me in my tracks.
    Thanks for a great post

  4. I want to read more Wharton this year. Based on your review, I’ll avoid this one, though! The Custom of the Country is being serialized on Radio 4 and the extracts I’ve heard sound very good.

  5. Laura – That’s wonderful. I don’t have The Reef – I’ve been waiting for the VMC edition to turn up.

    JoAnn – I still love Edith Wharton, it just seems that maybe the novella is not her format. Or at least it didn’t suit this concept. And thank you so much for the award!

    Aarti – A few books get a lot more coverage than others. Wonderful though those are I do think that some of the less know books have concepts that are as good, if not better.

    Amy – It wasn’t terrible, just not as wonderful as the rest of Edith Wharton’s work. It is worth the time, but there are others you should read first.

    Nicola – I’d be inclined to say stick to the longer books or the short stories. The Custom of the Country is a book I loved and I can imagine it would dramatise well.

  6. Thanks for the thoughtful review. I read my first Wharton novels in 2009 – Age of Innocence, House of Mirth, and Ethan Frome- and loved them all. I’m looking forward to reading my way through the rest of her work.

  7. I have enjoyed the ones that I have read of Wharton’s: Ethan Frome and House of Mirth. I haven’t ventured any further than those two but looks like I didn’t miss anything by not reading this one.

  8. That’s fascinating. I haven’t read Sanctuary yet, but that sense of continuing a story that then falls flat in the later half is the same reaction I had to Wharton’s The Reef.

  9. I haven’t read any Wharton yet. I intend to rememdy that this year but I’m not sure yet where I’ll start. Probably with whatever the library has!

  10. This sounds so good–and then so disappointing! Grr. Frustrating. But it sounds like it introduces some interesting concepts.

    I read a novella for the Circuit too (The Touchstone), and I too thought the first half was stronger than the second, with the end a bit too tidy. Like, Wharton is great at introducing huge issues and then seems to want to wrap it up unrealistically.

    I still enjoyed what I read, so maybe I’ll still give this one a try! Thanks for joining the Circuit!

  11. I enjoyed your review. I read Wharton’s Writing of Fiction where she talks about the difference between a novel and a short story. In this case it sounds like she should have taken her own advice and made this a short story. On the other hand, maybe what she said in The Writing of Fiction (published 1925) was what she learned after writing her novellas.

  12. Pingback: Saturday Review of Books: January 16, 2010 : Semicolon

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