Edith Wharton’s Debut

May 26: Edith Wharton’s short story “Mrs. Manstey’s View” was accepted for publication on this day in 1891 by Scribner’s magazine. The story marks the beginning, at age twenty-nine, of Wharton’s prose career—forty-three works of fiction and non-fiction over the next forty-six years, with a Pulitzer in 1920 for The Age of Innocence.

Wharton was brought up in high society, and recently married to a prominent banker. Her first story throws the write-about-what-you-know rule out the window—at which her poor, rooming house heroine customarily and contentedly sits:

Mrs. Manstey, in the long hours which she spent at her window, was not idle. She read a little, and knitted numberless stockings; but the view surrounded and shaped her life as the sea does a lonely island. When her rare callers came it was difficult for her to detach herself from the contemplation of the opposite window-washing, or the scrutiny of certain green points in a neighboring flower-bed which might, or might not, turn into hyacinths…. Mrs. Manstey’s real friends were the denizens of the yards, the hyacinths, the magnolia, the green parrot, the maid who fed the cats, the doctor who studied late behind his mustard-colored curtains; and the confidant of her tenderer musings was the church-spire floating in the sunset.

When neighbors plan to build an addition and ruin Mrs. Manstey’s view, she attempts to dissuade them, first through a polite appeal and then through arson.

Wharton’s famous homes include several villas in France and “The Mount,” the Berkshires estate built according to principles which she articulated in The Decoration of Houses (1898), and described by Henry James as “a delicate French chateau mirrored in a Massachusetts pond.” Although not likely the sort of place where Mrs. Manstey could feel comfortable, author and heroine shared the same worldview, articulated below in Wharton’s letter to her friend Mary Berenson (wife of art historian Bernard Berenson), who was struggling with suicidal depression:

I believe I know the only cure. Make one’s center of life inside oneself, not selfishly or excludingly but with a kind of unassailable serenity—to decorate one’s inner house so richly that one is content there, glad to welcome anyone who wants to come and stay, but happy all the same in the hours when one is inevitably alone.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.