Queries Update: Reply to “Did Edith Wharton Read James Joyce?”

An unpublished Edith Wharton story, “The Children’s Hour,” recently appeared in The Times Literary Supplement (#6129:18 Sep 2020). The writing employs her humane and bitingly humorous skills equally, and it’s a triumph of a story. A sense of the story’s being incomplete struck me at first, but a rereading reveals it to be all there, and veering toward the postmodern. Another aspect is a vivid Joycean tone in dealing with the Catholic subject matter, and one could argue that the story is derivative of (or inspired by) The Dubliners. 

This led me to wonder about whether Wharton, who did read Joyce, had written any diary entries or essays about him, and indeed if she knew Joyce or ever corresponded with him. 

This entry was posted in Queries on October 21, 2020 by Donna Campbell

Wharton read James Joyce’s work and called Ulysses ‘schoolboy pornography’, famously comparing the prose to the raw ingredients of a pudding. In her 1923 letter to Berenson she wrote ‘I shall never believe that the raw material of sensation and thought can make a work of art without the cook’s intervening’. 

However RWB Lewis notes that she responded more positively towards his earlier work, and acknowledged that it had considerable merit (Lewis,1975: 520). 

The final section of ‘The Children’s Hour’* is quite arresting in its shift in style and subject matter,  and this type of poetic incongruity, which offers more questions than answers, is also present, I believe, in the endings of some of her other short stories, which have an almost modernist quality in their conclusions, or rather, lack of a single clear conclusion. I would recommend (re)reading Wharton’s ‘A Journey’(1899) and ‘After Holbein’ (1928) and looking at the final sentences. I certainly found their open-endedness intriguing, and their effect felt rather like the protomodernist ‘note of interrogation’ Adrian Hunter argues Woolf found in Chekov’s short stories. 

*Interestingly, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a popular poem entitled ‘The Children’s Hour’ which was first published in 1860. It refers to the time at the end of the day when children spent some time with their parents before going to bed. I wonder if Wharton had the work in mind when she wrote this story. 

Sarah Whitehead