Madame De Treymes, by Edith Wharton

Madame De Treymes is a novella, written by Edith Wharton  My son had to read Ethan Frome for school and having not read that, but knew it was an American classic I thought that I should.  So I went to our local library and picked up several of her other books too, including this one.

Our Library although housed in a 1960s building actually dates back to 1700s which if you live in the States will understand is old.  And therefore our library has many old copies of books which are still just sitting on the shelf to be loaned out.  The copy I picked up is dated 1907.  So must be an original copy as it was published February 1907.  With several of those colored plate pages that they used to put in novels back then.

I thought that Edith Wharton might have written this during the time that she lived in France, but that was actually later.  The book shows an understanding of American upper class thinking as opposed to French aristocratic thinking.  Although at the time that this is set before WWI obviously all ‘true’ French aristocrats had been beheaded.  So why French upper class should think themselves any better than American upper class is beyond me, because neither have a ‘pedigree’ if you were into all that.

This difference of thought process and keeping family face is the whole premise of the book.

Madame de Malrive, who used to be good old Fanny Frisbee, meets in Parisian Society on old friend from the States, Durham.  Fanny is separated from the Count because of his philandering and has one child a boy.  Really the whole story is based around the boy, although he hardly appears in the book.

“If he had been asked why, he could not have told; but the Durham of forty understood.  It was because there were, with minor modifications, many other Fanny Frisbees; whereas never before, within his ken, had there been a Fanny de Malrive.’

Madame de Treymes is Fanny’s sister-in-law.

Durham says, “If I could only be sure of seeing anything here!”

Durham would like to marry Fanny, but the obstacle is the divorce in a Catholic society where divorce is not permitted under any circumstances, and the family cannot be scandalized by this.  Also Fanny wants to take her son if she gets a divorce, here is the key part of the story.

Fanny having married into and living in France understands many of the problems in extricating herself from this family, but as is the case of foreigners living in a country not theirs to know the French thinking and laws to the ump degree is not a domain held by those not born there.

“Perhaps no Anglo-Saxon fully understands the fluency in self-revelation which centuries of the confessional have given to the Latin races, and to Durham, at any rate, Madame de Treymes’ sudden avowal gave the shock of a physical abandonment.”

Durham sets himself up as a knight in shining armor, a go between, and his contact is Madame de Treymes.

“Durham sat silent, her little gloved hand burning his coat-sleeve as if it had been a hot iron.  His brain was tingling with the shock of her confession.  She wanted money, a great deal of money:  that was clear, but it was not the point.  She was ready to sell her influence, and he fancied she could be counted on to fulfill her side of the bargain….”

I will not tell you the plot, but let me say it has more twists than a cold war spy story.

It is essentially the difference between an American principled thinking, that cannot understand an old French families code of honour.

Do find the book and read it.  It’s short but a great study into two societies before WWI.



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