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“La Famille”: An Unpublished Short Story in French by Edith Wharton

Sarah Whitehead
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Edith Wharton
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  • 1 Henry James responded to “Les Metteurs” by congratulating her on “the way in which you’ve picked u (...)
  • 2 In 1907, Wharton began writing a story in French as an exercise for her French teacher in Paris. T (...)

1Despite being fluent in French from an early age and choosing to live the last three decades of her life in France, biographers generally agree that when it came to writing fiction in French, Edith Wharton’s only published effort was her decidedly unsuccessful “Les Metteurs en Scène,” a short story which appeared in the Revue des Deux Mondes in October 1908 (Lee 303; Lewis 234).1 Furthermore, whilst “Les Metteurs” is not a straightforward translation of another English story of hers (as in the case of her French version of “Atrophy” (1927) entitled “Atrophie” and also published in the Revue des Deux Mondes in July 1929), it is generally recognised as a reworking of her 1905 story, “The Introducers” and therefore does not constitute a wholly new story composed specifically for a French treatment.2

2The discovery of “La Famille” amongst her unpublished papers at the Beinecke library at Yale changes this picture of Wharton’s fiction output in French. The undated typescript, complete with handwritten revisions, constitutes the first four sections, and a short extract from the fifth, of the tale of a rich, young, orphaned American woman engaged to a titled Frenchman. This story does not, to my knowledge have any clear English language counterpart within Wharton’s oeuvre. The choice to write in French suits the Parisian setting of the story, as well as the subject matter of a Franco-American alliance. However, such narrative features can also be found in some of her English language fictions, such as the 1906 novella Madame de Treymes, her short story “The Last Asset” (1904), and her novel The Custom of the Country (1913), which begs the question why she wrote this particular story in French. An answer could lie in a close reading of the text itself and what this suggests of her intended reader—the typescript is multilingual; it regularly contains phrases in English (these are underlined in the original and the translation) and rests on the assumption of a reader fluent in French, with a secure knowledge of French culture, as well as a certain fluency in English language and literature—a line is quoted from Hamlet in the story. Wharton’s use of deixis (“those”/“ces”) in her phrasing furthers the sense of a shared understanding between a cultured writer and the reader. An example of this is in a reference to the works of the painter Hyacinthe Rigaud. Wharton writes:

La marquise rappelait elle-même un de ces beaux tableaux dans lesquels Rigaud a fixé les traits nobles et sévères des douairières de son époque.

The Marchioness resembled one of those fine paintings in which Rigaud displayed the noble and severe characteristics of the dowagers of his age. (Translation)

3The multilingual and cosmopolitan nature of the text, with references to Falconnet clocks and French salons, combined with Wharton’s deictic phrasing suggests that this story is written for a reader not unlike Wharton herself, who would chuckle knowingly at her satirical vision of both American and French mores. The story’s focus on the young American, Nina Alston, and the narrative distancing of her French fiancé and his family suggests that this reader too could have an American perspective, or perhaps simply the same sort of “cosmopolitan expatriation” Blazek references in his account of Wharton’s position in France. Blazek notes that “for Wharton in her time the condition among the haut bourgeois implied experience essentially of Europe, aesthetic sensibilities across a range of literary and cultural traditions, a refined sense of cultivated taste and manners, and the means and most likely the family heritage to acquire these qualities” (277). However, whatever the intended reader’s affiliation, neither the French nor the American characters (save Nina Alston) in this story escape her satirical brush and the use of French combined with English interjections gives Wharton free reign to subtly twist her literary knife using the wide linguistic repertoire of two languages and their two associated cultural histories.

4Wharton’s affiliation with France was such that Ricard argues it is possible to read her work as entirely governed by a French perspective, explaining that “France became Wharton’s frame of reference” (81). In probably her most well-known exploration of France and the character of its people, French Ways and Their Meaning (1919), Wharton applauds the French’s strict observances of protocol and their upholding of tradition. However, as Ricard notes (89), she also singles out “an instinctive recoil from the new, the untasted and the untested as characteristic of the Gallic mind” (French Ways 30). This “strong instinct to preserve” (31) and shying away from the new is a French trait ridiculed in “La Famille.” Nina’s prospective family-in-laws are presented as Old World snobs and the Egyptian mummy they have on display in their entrance hall reads as a symbol of their own metaphorical burial in the past. The gap between the French preservation of the old and the American love of the new is signalled by the visiting Americans’ response to the relic, as they comically wonder if it is “an ancestor—a crusader.” The exchange ends on the similarities between this museum object and their French hosts, concluding with the remark “[w]e will see many more of them in this world you are going to present to us,” as the Americans walk into the Brancade reception room. Whilst the American arrivals are ridiculed in the story, the French Brancade family appear to be even less sympathetically drawn, in terms of their snobbish, appalled response towards these admittedly garish individuals. Indeed, Wharton reminds the reader of an earlier Franco-American engagement, between Edna Frusk of Omaha and Jean de Montrieux, which fell apart when the unforgettable Frusk family made a visit to their prospective in-laws in Paris.

5Wharton’s satirical description of Nina’s long lost American family group has a heavy focus on their clothing. The stepmother’s “chic hat of extraordinary shape,” “rather tired dress,” “well-used gilt metal purse” and “chinchilla muff, whose worn fur contained various large bald patches” remind the reader of her description of Medora Manson’s outfit in The Age of Innocence—a garment with “plaids and stripes and bands of plain colour disposed to a design to which the clue seemed missing” (97)—in the way that both accounts combine humour with a certain pathos. Equally arrestingly dressed, Mrs. Alston’s son (and Nina’s presumed step brother), Cesar, seems to have a well-developed ability to say the wrong thing, such as his remark “How come you haven’t installed electric light yet?” when given privileged access into the Brancade stately home, furthering the image of these American arrivals as a rather clownish, uncultured group of individuals (unlike the transnational Nina). Yet within this comedy, there is a certain admiration for the self-made Mrs. Alston, who began as a cable girl and has since, through the hard work evidenced in the wrinkles on her face, risen to the position of manageress of the local telephone exchange. Her first marriage was short lived, and it is implied that she inherited little if nothing on her husband’s death, and her second was more of a hindrance than a help to her financial stability. When Nina suggests that she cover the costs of their trip, Mrs. Alston blushes indignantly and refuses the offer. Whilst she is tactless, and an object of narrative ridicule, this middle-aged woman is a modern example of the American pioneer, self-made and independent, two qualities that would have appealed to Wharton.

6Above all “La Famille” is a playful story. Much of the comedy lies in Wharton’s wordplay—the matchmaker is called Madame Le Chercheux (of course, it would be in the plural). Mrs. Alston acknowledges that the surname of her second husband, Sprang, sounded ridiculous and she edited it from her offspring’s nomenclature the day after her divorce. Wharton gives a certain onomatopoeic quality to the name of the maid, the meek Miss Neff. And whilst there is not enough space here to explore the names Mrs. Alston gave her children—Augusta Germania, Nathalie of Serbia and Caesar Borgia Alston—the colourful backstories of their historical namesakes deserve recognition.

7There is also a playfulness of genre here: Wharton is Wildean in her use of epithets and aphorisms, such as Mme Le Chercheux’s remark that “the absence of a large family is almost as valuable as the possession of a large fortune.” The regular salon setting for many of the exchanges in the story gives the narrative an Austenesque feel, in what appears to be a comedy of manners. The rather clumsy exposition at the opening of the story, when Nina refers to her lack of any living relative and upcoming marriage to a Marquis, combined with the regular focus on prosodic features of the characters’ speech suggest that this could have been written with the stage in mind. Apart from a brief reference to Diana, the central character, Nina, is relatively underdeveloped compared to those in Wharton’s other short stories, and if this were a study for a theatrical piece, it feels more pantomime than serious drama.

8Given Wharton’s penchant for twists and surprise endings, it is a great shame that she either did not finish her story, or that the final pages have been lost. There is much to suggest that these four sections set the story up for a denouement, or a Whartonian reveal. There is a clear signalling that Nina would like to put her fiancé to some sort of test and the more I read this story, the more I think that Nina has found the ultimate test any Frenchman could be asked to endure: brash American in-laws. It would be simply a contest between his snobbery and his love for Nina. Furthermore, there are various clues in the text that this is a manoeuvre orchestrated by Nina to test her lover. Indeed, she tells Mme Le Chercheux that she “will have to invent some other [tests]” for her fiancé. Nina did not need to go to America for six weeks, so perhaps she went to arrange for her man over there to sort out a group of surprise arrivals who would play the part of a long lost family. It appears that he sends a group of actors (note the Hamlet quotation made by Mrs. Alston), which would also explain the refusal of any handout (they have already been paid for their services). Whatever she had planned for her conclusion, there was some twist awaiting.

  • 3 Levy notes Wharton’s letter of complaint about the spaces between ellipsis points in the printed v (...)

9Kate Wright translated the story (with thanks to Don Clark). Unfortunately, the shortness of this introduction means that Wharton’s stylistic choices in French cannot be given the detailed analysis they invite. Some grammatical elements have been adapted in an attempt to create the register of Wharton’s English language stories; Wharton’s heavy use of (generally present) participles to modify noun phrases in French have sometimes been substituted for a subordinate clause, or nominalised in the English version to lend the text a more natural feel. Wharton’s heavy use of punctuation is striking here and stands out given how concerned she was with this element of her printed texts. (She once wrote to her publisher to complain about the size of the spaces between her ellipsis points.)3 Compared to her English language stories, “La Famille” contains an unusually large amount of comma splices and a significant use of semi-colons, particularly before conjunctions. And on a final note, some of her phrases simply do not translate well, such as the fiancé’s declaration, “‘Mais je chercherai, je trouverai, je la débarasserai malgré elle de cet horrible fardeau’” which awkwardly reads as “‘But I will search, I will find and I will relieve her, in spite of herself, of this terrible burden!’” However, we should remember that this was not written in English, or for translation into English and perhaps by doing so we are removing a central element of this story: its Frenchness.

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Blazek, William. “Wharton and France.” Edith Wharton in Context. Ed. Laura Rattray. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012. 275-85. Print.

Lee, Hermione. Edith Wharton. London: Vintage, 2008. Print.

Levy, Andrew. The Culture and Commerce of the American Short Story. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993. Print.

Lewis, R. W. B. Edith Wharton: A Biography. London: Vintage, 1993. Print.

Ricard, Virginia, “Edith Wharton’s French Engagement.” The New Edith Wharton Studies. Eds. Jennifer Haytock and Laura Rattray. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2020. 80-95. Print.

Wharton, Edith. “The Last Asset.” Scribner’s Magazine 36 (August 1904): 150-56. Print.

---. “The Introducers.” Ainslee’s 16 (December 1905): 139-48; (January 1906): 61-67. Print.

---. Madame de Treymes. Scribner’s Magazine 40 (August 1906): 167-92. Print. (Then in book form in 1907, published by Scribner’s.)

---. “Les Metteurs en Scène.” Revue des Deux Mondes 67 (October 1908): 692-708. Print.

---. Ethan Frome. New York: Scribner’s, 1911. Print.

---. The Custom of the Country. New York: Scribner’s, 1913. Print.

---. French Ways and Their Meaning. New York and London: Appleton, 1919. Print.

---. The Age of Innocence. 1920. Ed. Candace Waid.New York: Norton, 2003. Print.

---. “Atrophy.” Ladies Home Journal 44 (November 1927): 8-9. Print.

---. “Atrophie.” Revue des Deux Mondes 99.7 (July 1929): 375-88. Print.

---. A Backward Glance. New York and London: Appleton, 1934. Print.

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1 Henry James responded to “Les Metteurs” by congratulating her on “the way in which you’ve picked up every old worn-out literary phrase that’s been lying about the streets of Paris for the last twenty years, and managed to pack them all into those few pages.” He was to later acknowledge that it was “[a] very creditable episode in her career. But she must never do it again” (A Backward Glance 183-84).

2 In 1907, Wharton began writing a story in French as an exercise for her French teacher in Paris. This was to become the seed of Ethan Frome (1911), a novella written in English (Lewis 296).

3 Levy notes Wharton’s letter of complaint about the spaces between ellipsis points in the printed versions of her work (60).

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Sarah Whitehead, « “La Famille”: An Unpublished Short Story in French by Edith Wharton »Journal of the Short Story in English, 73 | 2019, 301-308.

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Sarah Whitehead, « “La Famille”: An Unpublished Short Story in French by Edith Wharton »Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 73 | Autumn 2019, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2021, consulté le 07 décembre 2022. URL :

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Sarah Whitehead

Sarah Whitehead teaches English Language and Literature in London, England. She has written on the short story, Edith Wharton and the Comic Gothic in various venues, including JSSE, Short Fiction in Theory and Practice, European Journal of American Culture, The Edith Wharton Review, the Times Literary Supplement, and the collected volume: The New Edith Wharton Studies. She recently (2020) published two hitherto unpublished Wharton short stories, “The Children’s Hour” and “A Granted Prayer” in the Times Literary Supplement and The Atlantic magazine respectively. Her current projects include a study of the early publication of James Joyce’s short stories in The Smart Set magazine.

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