The Sexual Education Of Edith Wharton

The Sexual Education Of Edith Wharton

by Gloria C. Erlich

Starting with the tensions in the early family constellation, Gloria C. Erlich traces Edith Wharton's erotic evolution—from her early repression of sexuality and her celibate marriage to her discovery of passion in a rapturous midlife love affair with the bisexual Morton Fullerton. Analyzing the novelist's life, letters, and fiction, Erlich reveals several


Starting with the tensions in the early family constellation, Gloria C. Erlich traces Edith Wharton's erotic evolution—from her early repression of sexuality and her celibate marriage to her discovery of passion in a rapturous midlife love affair with the bisexual Morton Fullerton. Analyzing the novelist's life, letters, and fiction, Erlich reveals several interrelated identity systems—the filial, the sexual, and the creative—that evolved together over the course of Wharton's lifetime.

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The Sexual Education of Edith Wharton

By Gloria C. Erlich

University of California Press

Copyright © 1992 Gloria C. Erlich
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-07583-8


On Double Mothering

How was it that hundreds of thousands of mothers, apparently normal, could simply abandon all loving and disciplining and company of their little children, sometimes almost from birth, to the absolute care of other women, total strangers, nearly always uneducated? Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy, The Rise and Fall of the British Nanny

Interrogation of the commonplace has in recent decades yielded radical new perspectives for social historians. They delight in discovering the consequences of practices and beliefs so widely accepted as to be almost invisible at the time-such as assumptions about gender roles, family structure, and hygiene, or, more pertinent to the present purpose, the effects of servants on the life of a family. Biographers and psychoanalysts have been slower to recognize that commonplace experiences such as the presence of a servant or a nursemaid in the household may indeed influence a child's development and constitute a significant element of a life history.

In a remarkable piece of social history, The Rise and Fall of the British Nanny, Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy examined the nanny phenomenon during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Britain, revealing how multiple mothering affected the personality, career, and psychosexual lives of many people, including public figures such as Winston Churchill. The book presents a social history of British upper-class mores, which fostered the development of a nanny culture. It also offers a historical and psychological perspective on multiple mothering-ranging from foster care and wet-nursing to communal child-rearing on kibbutzim. Gathorne-Hardy is sensitive to the ways in which the introduction of an alternative nurturing figure affects the dynamics of the family and the future erotic life of the child. He observes that upper-class nanny-reared men tend to feel less sexual potency with their wives than with working-class women, perhaps because the latter remind them of their most intimate early caretakers, their nannies.

Gathorne-Hardy expresses astonishment that Anthony Storr, a psychoanalytic biographer of Winston Churchill, tried to account for Churchill's personality by reference to parental neglect without recognizing the formative role played by his beloved nanny. When queried about this lapse, Storr acknowledged that Nanny Everest had indeed saved young Winston's life but argued that "a Nanny's love never made up for a hostile or neglectful mother because a child always knew the mother was the authority." Storr's claim is true enough, but imperfect compensation for maternal deficiencies does not eliminate the nanny from the psychic picture; it complicates the picture.

A large part of the upper-class English child's socialization was left to its nanny, who tended to be a strict disciplinarian. The classic British nanny, according to Gathorne-Hardy, was probably more repressive than the child's own mother would have been, possibly because of a sexual puritanism among women of the respectable working class. Such women were trained by the nanny culture to perpetuate the values of the ruling class. Nannies and nursemaids were at least as snobbish as their employers and probably more rigid about the social distinctions that discriminated against them. But warm and loving nannies, such as Winston Churchill's Nanny Everest, did exist and did, to some degree, compensate for maternal deficiencies.

The nanny of American novelist Edith Wharton was of this loving breed, and she earned the undying affection of her charge. A major contention here is that Nanny Doyley's presence shifted the forces within young Edith's family constellation and thereby modified her inner life. Biographers are quick to fault Wharton's mother but insufficiently appreciative of the way the introduction of another woman into the child's affections at a particularly sensitive stage could modify family relationships.

For a girl of Edith Wharton's time and social class, rearing by nannies and governesses was customary. In old New York society of the Gilded Age, socially prominent women like her mother did not attend to the details of raising children, and they were not negligent for hiring substitutes. They perceived their principal responsibility as maintaining the social position of the family by entertaining, making social calls, appearing at cultural and charitable events, and being generally ornamental. The daily care and training of children they deemed fit occupation for working-class women with genteel manners. Placing greater emphasis on the social aspects of the wifely role than on the nurturing function of motherhood, they did not give much thought to the psychological impact of class differences between themselves and their children's caretakers.

The meaning of such a widespread and accepted practice differs according to the temperaments and circumstances of children brought up under it. The differences lie in the specifics of the individual life-the details of family relationships, gender, class, culture, and most important, the degree and direction of the child's responsiveness. I suggest here not that surrogate nurturance is a negative practice with predictable or measurable consequences, but merely that it is likely to make some difference in the child's inner world. Rather than try to judge whether the difference is detrimental or beneficial, I am inquiring in this case about a particular child's sensitivity to such a practice and about the nature of her adaptive mechanisms. In this book I study the effects of surrogate mothering on an extremely intelligent and reactive child whose writings as an adult indicate that this experience was for her a formative one.

My views on the subject of multiple mothering challenge those who believe that our tradition of mothers rearing their own infants is only a social construct, either an artifact of human history or part of a patriarchal plot to subjugate women. Following the lead of early twentieth-century thinkers such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman, some feminists, including Dorothy Dinnerstein and Nancy Chodorow, among others, see nothing essential in the mother-child bond and believe that mothering can be done equally well by a father, an au pair, or the staff of a day-care center. According to this view, "'mother' is not a noun, it's a verb." Nancy Chodorow argues:

The cross-cultural evidence ties women to primary parenting because of their lactation and pregnancy functions, and not because of instinctual nurturance beyond these functions. This evidence also suggests that there can be a variety of other participants in child care... The prehistoric reasons of species or group survival which tied women to children have not held for centuries and certainly no longer hold today... There is substantial evidence that nonbiological mothers, children, and men can parent just as adequately as biological mothers and can feel just as nurturant. This may well be true under certain circumstances, especially if the surrogate care is good and the mother would prefer to be doing something else. Today even mothers who long to tend their own infants are being driven into the work force in unprecedented numbers by economic pressures, earnestly hoping that their child-care arrangements will entail no loss to their babies.

In general, however, recent infant research stresses the exquisitely fine attunement between an infant and its biological mother. This begins during the long months of gestation that heighten the mother's awareness of the coming infant. Her interest is focused on this one as-yet unknown being, so that when it is finally revealed to her, she is attentive to its slightest signals. The focused attention generated during gestation and the early period just after birth is a major part of her message of care. According to research summarized by Joseph Lichtenberg, "Mothering behavior is primed for the immediate postpartum period and... early separation can adversely affect the developing maternal bond." He cites experiments showing a direct correlation between the amount of immediate mother-infant contact and the strength of the mother's bond to the child.

Correspondingly, from its earliest days the child knows its mother from all other women-knows the contours of her face, the smell of her milk and her body, the sound of her voice-and prefers this woman to all others. Ideally, each recognizes the other and validates the role of the other-the mother as a good mother, the child as an infant pleasing to this mother and safe in her care.

As D. W. Winnicott made us aware, the details of child care-from the manner of holding, feeding, and cleansing to attunement to the child's slightest signals-function as a language to which the infant responds in minutely sensitive ways. Through this mother-infant dialogue the child becomes socialized into a specific kind of human being. In this mutual attunement is the child's first experience of a shared world, an intersubjectivity that evolves into a need for sharing experience with others. On this first wordless dialogue rests the capacity for intimacy and a preference for certain kinds of relationships. The inherited range of potential selves becomes, through this interaction, a specific self with its own style of being in the world, its own style of loving, doing, and perceiving. Other primary caretakers would shape a different self because their language of behaviors and style of attunement would evoke different elements from the child's innate repertoire. Infants are adaptable and can shape a coherent self from a multitude of nossible caretakers, but the current consensus indicates that lack of consistency and reliability in the first attachment can hinder development of a coherent self.

Even though a good surrogate is probably better for a child than a deficient mother, substitution of the first attachment figure with another (however capable and loving) initiates an obscure sense of deprivation, loss, and anger. A delicate link is violated, even though other, stronger ones may be forged. To regard as abandonment the commonplace practice of delegating a child's care to a professional caretaker may seem extreme, but the infant may experience it as abandonment and come to resent the mother of whose smell, voice, and hovering face it feels deprived. In cases described by psychoanalyst Harry Hardin, the child becomes estranged from its mother and perceives her as having turned away her face, or having turned her back to it. Although quite capable of forming bonds with caretakers other than its biological mother, the child will retain in its soul this early bifurcation. A special and very refractory variety of psychic splitting will have occurred.

In discussing the strong attachment to mothers even of children who spend five days a week in day-care centers, from as early an age as three and a half months, psychoanalyst Louise J. Kaplan cites a study by Jerome Kagan of the maternal attachments of children raised communally on a kibbutz: "The number of hours a child is cared for by an adult is not the critical dimension that produces a strong attachment. There is something special about the mother-infant relationship. The parent appears to be more salient than substitute caretakers to the child. It is not clear why this is so." The salience of birth mothers over "psychological mothers" even when there is no significant class difference testifies to the power of the biological bond but fails to address the consequences of severing the two.

If the caretaker is the one whose hands provide the closest experience of human contact, the one who really trains and socializes the child, the more salient mother, for whom the child's heart yearns, comes to seem rejecting and remote. Anger then taints this first love, and the child will have difficulty gaining a realistic image of its resented mother. The salient figure is not obliterated by the nanny; she holds her important place, but with her back turned, so to speak. A passage from Wharton's memoir quoted in the next chapter depicts her nanny and furry dog in the foreground of her family memories, her mother in the background with "all the dim, impersonal attributes of a Mother, without, as yet anything much more definite" (Backward Glance, 26).

Wharton regarded her nanny as a benevolent goddess who wrapped her in a cocoon of safety, but even good care proffered by a nursemaid is a commodity purchased by parents who renounce this role for themselves. Any nanny can be dismissed, and even if retained, she will depart eventually to care for other, younger children. When she leaves, the child feels abandoned, or, we might say, doubly abandoned, because the second loss amplifies the first. The child loses the illusion of what it never really possessed, an inviolable bond with its first beloved caretaker. The departure of a nanny seems a far more radical infidelity than the diversion of a mother's attention by a new baby; the nanny's total and seemingly willful disappearance must feel like a radical betrayal of love and trust.

Harry Hardin has studied the sequelae of early primary surrogate mothering in general and in the life of Sigmund Freud in particular. From his review of the scanty literature on the subject he concludes that those who experience nanny rearing tend to feel estranged from their birth mothers, that "surrogate mothering is synonymous with loss" and usually results in problems with intimacy:

Initially, introduction of a surrogate into the family may cause a severe disruption of the infant's relationship with his own mother; this occurrence may initiate the patient's life-long avoidance of further intimacy. Then, with rare exceptions, the infant inevitably, and often suddenly, loses the [surrogate] caretaker... In my view, no infant can be psychologically unscathed by such trauma which so often occurs during its vulnerable separation-individuation phase of development. Furthermore, "as a result of her alienation, the mother is rendered incapable of adapting to her infant's changing requirements when the surrogate leaves." Hardin adduces a case in which an infant perceived its return to the care of its natural mother as an adoption. Both mother and child, then, are altered by the introduction of an alternate primary care-taker.

The infant's attachment to a nanny is likely to cause the mother to become jealous. Loss of importance to her child acts as a negative reinforcement, reducing her pleasure in being a mother and creating friction within the triad. Without positive reinforcement, she will be less effective in her role. What is basically hers alone, the thrill of being the most important person in the world to this tiny, totally dependent human being, goes to a stranger.


Excerpted from The Sexual Education of Edith Wharton by Gloria C. Erlich Copyright © 1992 by Gloria C. Erlich. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Gloria C. Erlich is the author of Family Themes and Hawthorne's Fiction (Rutgers, 1984), which won the House of Seven Gables Hawthorne Award and the Modern Language Association Prize for Independent Scholars. She lives and writes in Princeton, New Jersey.

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