Next up is a pair of stories that seem linked in my mind: “Autres Temps …” and “The Long Run”. The stories are from nearly the same time: “Autres Temps …” appeared in Century, July 1911 (as “Other Times, Other Manners”), and “The Long Run” in the Atlantic Monthly, February 1912.
“Autres Temps …” is generally regarded, I think, as one of Wharton’s best stories, and I would tend to agree. It’s the story of Mrs. Lidcote, who scandalously left her husband and ran off with another man some 18 years before the action of the story. She has been living alone in Italy for some time, but she is finally returning to New York. It seems her daughter, Leila, has done much as Mrs. Lidcote did – divorced her husband and married her lover. Leila wants to see her mother again. On the steamer she meets again an old friend, Franklin Ide, who has suggested in the past that he wants to marry her, and whom she has refused on the grounds that she won’t be accepted in society anywhere, and that won’t be fair to Franklin. (An abiding theme again and again in Wharton’s work is how society’s rules disproportionately affected women.) Franklin seems convinced that times have changed – after all, Leila is accepted everywhere – attitudes have changed, surely Mrs. Lidcote will also be accepted. And, indeed, she allows herself to think that that may be the case.
Well, you can see where this is going. Mrs. Lidcote comes to New York, and is taken to her daughter’s new house, and she can see what a success her daughter is – she is very happy in her new marriage, her ex-husband is compliant, and she is accepted everywhere, by all the “best” people. But, in a series of devastating, and deliciously underplayed, scenes, we see that while the rules are indeed different for Leila, nothing has changed for Mrs. Lidcote – she is essentially shunned by everyone, and even those close to her: her daughter, and a sympathetic old friend, maneuver around her, shunt her to the side, make excuses that they don’t even seem to realize they are making. Finally, she decides she must return to her solitary life in Italy, and she gets one more passionate plea from Franklin Ide -- and we realize that he too, without even realizing it, treats her as someone to step carefully around in “society”. It’s just a beautiful, devastating story, and also stunningly well-written.
And in a way it’s almost like SF … because to get it, you have to understand attitudes which are quite alien to present day attitudes. There was an adaptation – a play, I think – that recast the story in 1960 … I wonder how that worked? Seems to me it might not have, really. I should mention also that it’s loosely based on a real story – a Boston woman in 1895 abandoned her family and ran off to Paris with her lover. In her case, her children shunned her completely, until finally inviting her for a visit some 40 years later – when she got the cable inviting her, apparently she fell dead on the spot. (Obviously this denouement had not eventuated when Wharton wrote "Autres Temps ...".) Lewis quotes the woman in question’s granddaughter claiming that Wharton “got it all wrong” – of course, Wharton did not, at all. Because she wasn’t telling this woman’s grandmother’s story, she was telling the story of Mrs. Lidcote, a character she invented!
So, the, what of “The Long Run”? It seems almost a purposeful response to “Autres Temps …”. The first story told of the sad fate of a woman who defied societal convention and ran off with her lover. “The Long Run” tells of the sad fates of a man and a woman who, in the end, obeyed society’s rules. (Of course, Wharton’s definitive take on this subject came a few years later in her great novel The Age of Innocence.)
“The Long Run” is told by an unnamed narrator who, at the start, having returned to the States after a dozen years away, runs into an old Harvard friend of his, Halston Merrick. Merrick, when he knew him in college and just after, was a brilliant and unconventional man, apparently destined for a great career in literature or perhaps politics. He was rich (of course), and he inherited his father’s Iron Works early after his father’s unexpected death, but he intended to sell it and get on with his real career. At the same party where the narrator meets Merrick, he sees a woman who looks vaguely familiar. He asks Merrick who she might be, and he learns that she is Mrs. Reardon, but that he must have known her as Mrs. Trant, Paulina Trant.
The narrator ends up spending some time with Halston Merrick, and he learns the whole story. Merrick and Paulina Trant fell in love – her husband was a rather awful bore. After a while, suddenly, Paulina shows up on Merrick’s door step – she is ready to run away with him. And Halston Merrick can’t bring himself to do it. He tells himself he’s saving her from herself – her foresees a fate something like that of Mrs. Lidcote in “Autres Temps …”. But by slow degrees he comes to realize that he is the coward … he is the one unable to throw off society’s rules. And, in the “long run”, what will he be? He will never sell the Iron Works – he’ll never write anything worthwhile (the narrator reads some later efforts and finds them weak and tired). And when Mr. Trant dies unexpectedly, he and Paulina meet again, and somehow he is unworthy of her – and, she, perhaps, is unworthy of him, or at least the old him. And now, years later, both Halston Merrick and the now Mrs. Reardon are sad ordinary creatures, bores, failures.
This is a decent story, but to me it has the air of constructedness – it seems didactic, formed to make its point. In a funny way I was reminded of James Hilton’s Random Harvest, whose protagonist (for rather more melodramatic reasons) ends up leaving a life with his great love to take over his family’s business. The difference in this case is that Hilton’s hero still makes something of his business (and political) career – though still missing his love, and still, perhaps, feeling that he was missing an opportunity by not pursuing a writing career.