Mrs. Whipple and her nameless son, referred to only as “He” and “Him,” emphasizing his paradoxical nature at the center of his mother’s life and at the margins of it: she loves him and endangers him, she dotes on him and blames him, she is most of all concerned with how the family looks in other people’s eyes, and how his simple-mindedness is affecting her family’s standing. I don’t know what it is about Porter stories that don’t grab me by the throat, or by any other parts. Her stories so far have been a struggle to read, like poorly written legal briefs even though there’s nothing wrong with Porter’s style.
The hyper-sensitive Mrs. Lidcote is returning from Florence to New York to see her daughter, whom she fears is repeating her own error. We never know quite what Mrs. Lidcote’s error was. She scandalized Old New York and had to go into exile for 18 years in more tolerant Florence, probably with another man. Her daughter Leila appears to be going down the same path, but a friend of Mrs. Lidcote she meets on board ship, the seemingly good and kind Franklin Ide, tells her not to worry: New York has changed. Leila will be fine, whatever her choices. They’re in new York Harbor by now. Franklin is making subtle advances. Mrs. Lidcote doesn’t reject them.
“There’s no old New York left, it seems,” she realizes. As she does her diminishing place in the world: “Yes, yes; I’m happy. But I’m lonely, too—lonelier than ever. I didn’t take up much room in the world before; but now—where is there a corner for me?” And : “Where indeed in this crowded, topsy-turvey world, with its headlong changes and helter-skelter readjustments, its new tolerances and indifferences and accommodations, was there room for a character fashioned by slower sterner processes and a life broken under their inexorable pressure?” Franklin makes his proposal more explicit, but we don’t know if it’s a proposal of marriage or merely of an affair. But it reawakens in Mrs. Lidcote the urge, the verve and impulse that had caused her to elope in her younger years, this time seemingly at no cost to her reputation:
If the old processes were changed, her case was changed with them; she, too, was a part of the general readjustment, a tiny fragment of the new pattern worked out in bolder freer harmonies. Since her daughter had no penalty to pay, was not she herself released by the same stroke? The rich arrears of youth and joy were gone; but was there not time enough left to accumulate new stores of happiness? That, of course, was what Franklin Ide had felt and had meant her to feel. He had seen at once what the change in her daughter’s situation would make in her view of her own. It was almost—wondrously enough!—as if Leila’s folly had been the means of vindicating hers.
She had had what she wanted, but she had had to pay too much for it. She had had to pay the last bitterest price of learning that love has a price: that it is worth so much and no more. She had known the anguish of watching the man she loved discover this first, and of reading the discovery in his eyes. It was a part of her history that she had not trusted herself to think of for a long time past: she always took a big turn about that haunted corner. But now, at the sight of the young man downstairs, so openly and jovially Leila’s, she was overwhelmed at the senseless waste of her own adventure, and wrung with the irony of perceiving that the success or failure of the deepest human experiences may hang on a matter of chronology.
Her daughter is suspiciously over-solicitous, patronizing, almost dismissive of her mother, and ultimately segregating: Leila sends the insufferable Susy Suffren to keep Mrs. Lidcote company and serve her tea, but really to keep her from coming downstairs among Leila’s friends. Suffren infantilizes Mrs. Lidcote as if she were old enough for Donald Hall: “When a woman writes to the newspaper, approving of something I have done,” he wrote in Essays After Eighty, “she calls me “a nice old gentleman.” She intends to praise me, with “nice” and “gentleman.” “Old” is true enough, and she lets us know that I am not a grumpy old fart, but “nice” and “gentleman” put me in a box where she can rub my head and hear me purr. Or maybe she would prefer me to wag my tail, lick her hand, and make ingratiating dog noises. At a family dinner, my children and grandchildren pay fond attention to me; I may be peripheral, but I am not invisible. A grandchild’s college roommate, encountered for the first time, pulls a chair to sit with her back directly in front of me, cutting me off from the family circle: I don’t exist.”
That’s pretty much how Suffren treats Mrs. Lidcote. But Wharton’s superb descriptions of the dynamic between the two women, of Lidcote’s forceful, nearly unspoken rejoinders and rejections of Suffren’s imprisonment, restore Lidcote’s dignity, to the reader’s cheers–only for Leila to resume the assault, and win, her mother feeling too indulgent toward her daughter to deny her the triumph: one of the guests after all was the fearsome Mrs. Boulger, and the purpose of the evening was to secure Leila’s husband an appointment to Rome. Lidcote’s presence would have complicated matters. “Leila was in an agony lest I should come down to dinner the first night. And it was for me she was afraid, not for herself. Leila is never afraid for herself,” her mother reasons, not entirely correctly but lovingly, which has precedence in this heart of hers (as it does not in Ide’s). She decides to return to Florence, “which held her past in every fold of its curtains and between every page of its books, seemed now to her the one spot where that past would be endurable to look upon.” And Ide? He turns out to be as much of a cad as the rest of them.
The money quote:
It’s simply that society is much too busy to revise its own judgments. Probably no one in the house with me stopped to consider that my case and Leila’s were identical. They only remembered that I’d done something which, at the time I did it, was condemned by society. My case has been passed on and classified: I’m the woman who has been cut for nearly twenty years. The older people have half forgotten why, and the younger ones have never really known: it’s simply become a tradition to cut me. And traditions that have lost their meaning are the hardest of all to destroy.”
Century Magazine, July 1911 (as “Other Times, Other Manners”), “Xingu,” 1916.