The Reef by Edith Wharton, with an introduction by Louis Auchincloss. Recommended.
In his introduction to The Reef, Louis Auchincloss notes modern readers may not appreciate a moral climate in which a woman opposes her stepson’s engagement to a girl who had an affair with the man the woman is about to marry. The Reef, however, is as concerned with morality as with class.
On his way to France to see his beloved, the widowed Anna Leath, George Darrow receives a telegram telling him not to come “till thirtieth” due to “unexpected obstacle.” When he doesn’t receive an explanation for the delay, he experiences growing feelings of disappointment and humiliation. He imagines the umbrellas and elbows of his fellow travelers saying, “She doesn’t want you, doesn’t want you, doesn’t want you.”
As he waits undecided whether to return to London or to press forward, he encounters Sophy Viner, the recently unemployed servant of a woman whose dinners he once attended. She is on her way to Paris to look up old friends and to pursue a theatrical career. Darrow, who feels sorry for himself and the loss he thinks he is about to suffer, manipulates Sophy into staying with him to attend the theatre, then into a short liaison. He is unaware she has fallen in love with him and his kindness in her hour of uncertainty.
A year later, Anna Leath eagerly anticipates Darrow’s arrival. They are to be married and begin an overseas stint as part of his diplomatic career. Her stepson, Owen Leath, wants to do something both know will upset his aristocratic, old-fashioned grandmother. He wants to marry Anna’s daughter’s governess, who is none other than Sophy Viner.
Darrow and Sophy’s secret is safe with one another. Darrow, however, is uncomfortably aware Anna wants him to support Owen’s choice of a woman he knows to be unsuitable but whom he pities. He tries to convince Sophy that Owen is not right for her. “You’d rather I didn’t marry any friend of yours,” she says “not as a question, but as a mere dispassionate statement of fact.” Darrow’s lack of feeling and poor conduct make Sophy an undesirable wife for Owen. She is a painful reminder that both of them have broken social conventions.
Auchincloss calls Sophy a “fallen woman” in the context of the times, but this is too simplistic. Sophy’s problem, before and after Anna finds out about her relationship with Darrow, is her class and lack of social background. After all, in The House of Mirth, extramarital liaisons are commonplace, understood, and accepted if they are discreet and do not upset the social balance. Within the correct parameters, such affairs become a comfortable topic of gossip and speculation.
Once Anna divines there had been something between Darrow and Sophy beyond a casual acquaintance, he says simply, “She has given me up.” He refers to Sophy’s expectations, not her feelings. In the world she inhabits, she has learned the Darrows seek temporary solace from the Sophys and permanence and stability from the Annas.
Anna keeps returning to the idea that Sophy has been there before, whether it is to the theatre with Darrow or in Darrow’s arms. She is bothered that the liaison happened while he was on his way to her, but is more disturbed that the kiss he places on her neck has also landed on Sophy’s — and that Sophy has been more intimate with him.
Anna asks Darrow, “Do such things happen to men often?” (phrased passively, as though Darrow had been the pursued rather than the pursuer). “I don’t know what happens to other men. Such a thing never happened to me . . .” The “thing” here is not the physical aspect of the relationship. Even the “fine” Anna knows that he has indulged because one of his relationships, with a mutual acquaintance named Kitty, drove her away from him in their youth. This relationship outside their social sphere reflects a lack of discretion that may make him an unsuitable husband and stepparent.
With her finely tuned perceptions, delicacy, generosity, and genuine feelings, Sophy does not deserve her fate. Darrow assures Anna that she is no adventuress, which Anna wants her to be. She returns to the service of Mrs. Murrett in India. In one of the weaknesses of The Reef, Anna’s encounter with Sophy’s fat, frowsy, common sister and her equally common lover, Jimmy Brance, puts the noble Sophy in her proper place for both Anna and the reader.
The Reef is in shallower waters than The House of Mirth or The Age of Innocence, its structure weakened by a forced reliance on dialogue. In the final third, various characters talk to Anna in her room, coming and going through what may as well be a revolving door.
Sophy’s fate further weakens the drama. Yet who but Wharton could write, “Her frugal silence mocked his prodigality of hopes and fears”? Such elegant prose and insights alone distinguish The Reef.
7 July 2003
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf
As an aside, it would be interesting if, in the same fashion Jean Rhys gave Bertha Mason from Jane Eyre “a life,” a writer were to do the same for Sophy, whose viewpoint is not shown.