Saturday History Lesson: That Time Edith Wharton Wrote Erotica


If you’ve never been to an archive, this is what it’s like: you will go mad from the hum of cranked up air-conditioning. You are usually only allowed to bring a pencil. You are assigned a desk and brought a dusty box and asked not to disturb the order of the folders, which have hand-written labels of varying intelligibility, because they are almost always handwritten. Even on the busiest days the median age in the room is about forty-eight. Everyone has brought a warm, grandfatherly cardigan, and rarely looks up from the yellowed paper. It is not an exciting place.

But the day that the biographer Cynthia Griffin Wolff turned over the page of an old notebook and started to read Edith Wharton’s outline of a story called “Beatrice Palmato,” the thrill of it must have been inescapable. The titular character is a banker’s daughter, living alone with her father. Her elder sister commits suicide under mysterious circumstances, and her mother subsequently loses her mind, tries to kill her husband, and dies in an insane asylum. Her brother is kept away at school. She becomes very close with her father, who ends up marrying her governess. The family is, to all outward appearances, very happy.

After she comes of age, Beatrice marries a dull man and has two children with him, a boy and a girl. Beatrice’s father dies not too long after the girl is born. She is just like her mother: “exquisite, gay, original, brilliant.” Beatrice’s husband and daughter have a relationship that mimic’s Beatrice’s own with her father: close. When the husband comes home from a trip he sweeps the daughter into his arms, and Beatrice becomes upset. “Don’t kiss my child,” she tells him. They fight about it, until she runs upstairs and shoots herself with a pistol. No one understands why, until Beatrice’s brother comes to meet her grieving husband, and sits him down, promising to explain — about their father.

Below this bit of plot summary Wharton left a fragment she annotated as “unpublishable.” Wolff and others ignored that bit of instruction. Lewis was the first to publish the entire thing, adding it as an appendix to his biography of Wharton. That, no doubt, helped sell a few copies of his nearly six hundred page doorstop, because the fragment was, for lack of a better word, pornographic:

As his hand stole higher, she felt the secret bud of her body swelling, yearning, quivering hotly to burst into bloom. Ah, here was his subtle forefinger pressing it, forcing its tight petals softly apart, and laying on their sensitive edges a circular touch so soft and yet so fiery that already lightnings of heat shot from that palpitating center all over her surrendered body, to the tips of her fingers and the ends of her loosened hair.

It depicts a tryst between Beatrice, and Mr. Palmato himself. Possibly you’ve encountered this fragment before. It drifts through the internet from time to time, and was republished in Lapham’s Quarterly not too long ago. Always presented with a giggle, it still comes as shock of a read, breaking up the image we’ve constructed of her, of high-necked dresses and tightly-laced boots and stuffy drawing-room. It’s the kind of thing someone leaves behind perhaps because they’ve forgotten it exists, but also perhaps because they want to keep posthumous nosy parkers on their toes. It’s hard to say which Wharton was doing; Hermione Lee, her biographer, thinks Wharton was trying to be wry by designating the piece an “Unpublishable Fragment.”

*  *  *

Whether Wharton was just being sly or not, the survival of this fragment did start fires. Every review of Lewis’ biography, which eventually won the Pulitzer, gave substantial space to the tiny issue of this fragment — of a story that Wharton evidently never really drafted up, of one she herself declined to publish, one which is, moreover, heavily edited and annotated — as though it held the secret of her life.

It is the kind of questionable fragment biographers salivate over. Fiction is just so much more interesting as cloaked autobiography, and there was reason to suspect it here. Other tropes of Wharton’s work — the dull marriage haunting nearly every novel she wrote, anyway — were, if not in all particulars her exact experience, easily related to her life. Her husband was boring. Lewis connected the graphic depiction of sex not to Teddy Wharton, but to Edith’s brief affair with a journalist-dandy-type, a “Gatsby of the boulevards,” as her biographer Hermione Lee would call him, named Morton Fullerton.

She’d also had a close relationship with her father, Frederic Jones, that always managed to seem a little, well, off. She adored him, called him Papa, thought him her greatest support. Per Lee, his death when she was twenty was devastating:

[Wharton] remembered all her life his expression on his death-bed. There was something he wanted to say to her, and he never managed it.

Nonetheless, “a concealed secret remains a secret.” There’s no evidence to suggest that she knew of incest firsthand. In her memoirs and private papers it was clear she resented her mother much more than her father. He was perhaps more closely romanticized and fictionalized as the unhappy, unfulfilled Newland Archer of The Age of Innocence, a man whose dreams were crushed under the wheels of familial obligations. He was not, most biographers seem to agree, an analogue of Mr. Palmato, though the suggestion that he might have been survives, because it’s always harder to prove something didn’t happen than to imagine something did.

*  *  *

For my part, I keep imagining this: Edith Wharton was not a stupid woman. The scholars vary on the timing but even so, when she drafted this, she is thought to have been no younger than her late fifties. She was several years from her divorce from Teddy and a few longer from her affair with Fullerton. She was an old grand dame by then, and most of her greatest books were behind her. When she picked up her pencil and wrote the pieces of Beatrice Palmato she likely did so in bed, because it was where she always said she liked to write. She lived in France, in the country, having left Paris and America for a quieter life. She knew what fame was, and she knew she had it. She knew most of all that it was a thing you managed.

Someone was guaranteed come along and read her papers. She had an idea of what people wanted to know and had, it seems, much of her life hidden it from public view. (Her memoir, A Backward Glance, doesn’t mention her troubles with mother, or her affair with Fullerton.) In her will she deliberately provided that they not be opened to scholars until 1968. She also knew that her good friend Henry James had destroyed many of his papers, including letters she’d sent him, at her death. Probably she was more interested in hiding her passionate letters to Fullerton than anything else, but it could not have escaped her notice that her unpublishable fragment wasn’t likely to remain so.

Could she have known that 1968 would coincide with the sexual revolution, that what might have been obscene in her lifetime would change and no longer be? Could she have predicted that her narrative now sound so tame, set alongside our childhood V.C. Andrews collections, not to mention any current romance-bondage pulp-sensations That Shall Go Unnamed? Did she predict that at some future there would be no call from primness, or embarrassment, about these sorts of fantasies? Of course we’ll never know. But that might just be how she wanted it.

Michelle Dean has written for a variety of places, including The Awl, ELLE and Bitch. More from this author →