‘The Mother’s Recompense’ is one of Edith Wharton’s later novels, published in 1925.
It tells the story of Kate Clephane, an American who lived in exile on the French Riviera. She had been unhappy in her marriage, trapped by a controlling husband, and so she fled with another man. He left her, but that wasn’t what broke her heart; losing her infant daughter did that. And so for more than twenty years Kate her life among the quietly alongside so many others who had broken society’s rules.
It was not easy to feel sympathy for a woman who had abandoned her daughter, but I did. Because Kate Clephane was a real, complex, human being, and she was as interesting as any woman I have met in the pages of an Edith Wharton novel.
She had accepted her situation; she had just one regret, and memories that haunted her ….
It was in France, at the start of the First World War, that Kate Clephane met the love of her life. Chris Fenno was a much younger man, and they were happy together until family ties, and practical matters, called him home to America. Kate was left to live alone again, in genteel poverty.
Two telegrams changed her life. The first told her that her mother-in-law, the formidable woman in whose lifetime Kate would never dare go home, was dead. And the second asked her to come home. Anne, the daughter who had grown up without her mother, wanted her to come. Kate was ecstatic, and she went without a moment’s hesitation.
Anne is as eager as Kate to build a mother/daughter relationship and soon they are devoted to each other. But they don’t really no each other, and they don’t talk about the most important things of all. Kate simply loves her daughter above anything else.
She sees that society has changed, but she quickly finds that she cannot talk about her past; the rules may be different for her daughter’s generation, but not for hers.
It was fascinating to watch, but the key point of the story was still to come:
Kate sees Chris Fenno again; and then she discovers that he is the man her daughter plans to marry.
She is shattered. She wants to prevent the wedding, but she knew she could not anyone even guess her reasons, because that could damage her relationship with her daughter irreparably. But without explaining her reason she has no grounds for insisting that Anne – who is as passionate as her mother and as stubborn as her grandmother – give up the man her heart is set on.
There was a hint of contrivance about the situation a and a dash of melodrama – but Kate’s dilemma was horribly real, and her emotions were complex. She was aware that she was growing older, that she feelings about her lost love were still strong, that the rules instilled in her could not be easily shaken off, that she wanted to do the right thing but she did not know if she could live with that.
So many themes that have been threaded through other books, and I found echoes of other characters and other stories in this one.
I don’t think it is Edith Wharton’s best work though; the story needed a little more space to breathe, the supporting characters needed a little more time to come to life, and because of that the story seemed just a little hazy in places.
It feels unfinished, unpolished, but it is still a very readable novel, and a much more interesting piece of work than I’d been lead to believe.
And the ending is perfect: uplifting and heartbreaking at the same time, and it highlights Kate Clephane’s character beautifully.
And that is what will stay with me ….