The Reef by Edith Wharton, with an introduction by Louis Auchincloss. Recommended.
In his introduction to The Reef, Louis Auchincloss notes that modern readers may not appreciate a moral climate in which a woman opposes her stepson’s engagement to a girl who has 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.” As time passes and he doesn’t receive an explanation for the delay, he experiences growing feelings of disappointment and humiliation. At one point, 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 undetermined as to whether to go back to London or to press forward, he encounters Sophy Viner, a 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, finds himself manipulating Sophy into staying with him to attend the theatre and finally into a short liaison. He is unaware that 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, for they are to be married and begin an overseas stint as part of his diplomatic career. She is also excited because her stepson, Owen Leath, wants to do something that they 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, yet Darrow is faced by the uncomfortable fact that the ignorant 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. The real issue with Sophy, both 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 has finally divined that there has been something between Darrow and Sophy beyond the casual acquaintance previously admitted, he acknowledges it by saying simply, “She has given me up.” This does not refer to Sophy’s feelings, but to her expectations. Sophy has learned that, in the world she inhabits, the Darrows seek temporary solace from the Sophys, but permanence and stability from the Annas.
The issue that Anna keeps returning to is not that Darrow has deeper feelings for Sophy, but that Sophy has been there before, whether it is to the theatre with Darrow or in Darrow’s arms. True, the liaison happened while he was on his way to Anna and she is bothered by that, but it does not dwell so much in her thoughts as that the kiss he places on her neck has also landed on Sophy’s — and that Sophy has been even more intimate with him than she has. 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. The fact is that this relationship is outside their social sphere and reflects a lack of discretion that may make him an unsuitable husband and stepparent.
Sophy, with her finely tuned perceptions, her delicacy, her generosity, and her genuine feelings (Darrow assures Anna that she is no adventuress, which Anna wants her to be), does not deserve her fate. She goes off to India to return to the service of Mrs. Murrett. 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, and its structure is weakened by a forced reliance on dialogue. A large part of the final third consists of various characters talking to Anna in her room, coming and going 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.
(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 never shown.)
7 July 2003
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf