Anyone who’s read my blog for a while should know by now that I’m a fan of Edith Wharton. In working my way through the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list, I love that I have an excuse to discover the less-famous works of authors I already love. This works out better for my opinions of some authors rather than others—Edith Wharton is one of the former. The Glimpses of the Moon is not a novel of hers that I have heard discussed much as far as what gets recommended when Wharton’s work is brought up—but it should be.
Susy Branch, like many Wharton heroines, has been born and raised in the wealthiest circles of society and struggles to maintain her place there though much of her family’s fortune is gone. She sustains herself through the kindness—and favors—of her female friends. Accepting their castoffs and presents comes with a price and while Susy may occasionally despise her position, she doesn’t see any way out of it. When she meets Nick Lansing, he shares a similar place in their circle and they are able to commiserate and find themselves drawn each other. With the way their set sees marriage, Susy proposes that they go ahead and marry each other using the generosity of their friends’ gifts—checks, jewelry, offers of a few weeks or a month at various vacation houses around Europe—to sustain themselves for a year. At the end of that year when their funds dry up, they would release each other (a.k.a. divorce) so that they could then make more profitable though less personally desirable matches. They embark on marriage in agreement over the theory but putting it into practice proves a greater challenge as personal feelings, principles, and simply being around their “set” begins to affect how they each view themselves, each other, and the dictates of their arrangement.
As with so much of Wharton’s work, The Glimpses of the Moon focuses on the differences between men’s and women’s experiences both in society—with a particular focus on those with little more to do than spend money—and how it affects their perceptions of each other and of love. I actually found The Glimpses of the Moon to be more hopeful than most of her other explorations of the subject. There is plenty of suffering, misunderstanding, projection, assumption, and unfortunate timing but the resolution shows that a deep and understanding love between men and women is possible—but one of the conditions for achieving and maintaining it may be eliminating oneself from the materialism of wealthy society.
In terms of what I’ve read previously of Wharton’s work, The Glimpses of the Moon puts me most in mind of The House of Mirth with the plight of Lily Bart. In Mirth, Lawrence Seldon—like Nick—is incapable of seeing things from any perspective but his own until it is too late. However, their being male allows them greater room for making such errors while for their female counterparts the desire to cling to principles can prove fatal. The Glimpses of the Moon provide a more amicable outcome, but both seem to assert that—for women at least—maintaining both principles and a high social standing independently are only an option if one has an independent source of income—namely sole control over a large inheritance. Even then, happiness is never a sure or lasting thing; it comes in waves and there are difficult times but with the right person, the storms can be weathered and happiness found again.