Edith Wharton was a keen observer of society and a chronicleer of her times. There's an elegance and a clarity to her writing that makes her one of my favorite authors. Her novels (and novellas!) are thoughtful, biting, artistic, witty, and often beautifully sad. Although not published until 1916, Bunner Sisters
was written in 1892, making it one of Wharton's earlier works. It's the story of Ann Eliza and Evelina Bunner, two sisters who own a small shop in a shabbier part of New York.
"The Bunner sisters were proud of the neatness of their shop and content with its humble prosperity. It was not what they had once imagined it would be, but though it presented but a shrunken image of their earlier ambitions it enabled them to pay their rent and keep themselves alive and out of debt; and it was long since their hopes and soared higher."
Then they meet Mr. Herman Ramy, a German clockmaker, who awakens new hopes and dreams in both sisters. And for awhile their days are livelier and full of bright possibilities. But Ann Eliza soon realizes she must sacrifice her own happiness for that of her younger sister's.
"That night, after the light went out, the elder sister knelt longer than usual at her prayers. In the silence of the darkened room she was offering up certain dreams and aspirations whose brief blossoming had lent a transient freshness to her days. ... Grief held up its torch to the frail fabric of Ann Eliza's illusions, and with a firm heart she watched them shrivel into ashes..."
She hopes her own renunciation will be repaid in her sister's future joy. But life isn't that equitable, not for Ann Eliza and Evelina. These two sisters are not the wealthy elite of old New York that Wharton usually writes about. (And you definitely don't want to be single and poor in Wharton's world.) In the end, there are no gilded dreams for either Bunner sister.
I actually found this novella fairly depressing. My heart went out to Ann Eliza, but I found it harder to sympathize with self-absorbed Evelina. And while there were moments in this story that I loved, the ending left me feeling dissatisfied and wanting a little more. Which is why I found myself reaching for another of Wharton's novellas.
Set in Paris, Madame de Treymes tells the story of American Fanny Frisbee, who is unhappily married to the Marquis de Malrive, and her childhood friend, John Durham, who has come to France to ask Fanny to marry him. "She lifted a cleared gaze to his. 'My direct answer then is: if I were still Fanny Frisbee I would marry you.'" But the question of Fanny divorcing her husband is complicated by his family, his religion, and their son--an eight-year-old boy who neither side will give up. John turns to Madame de Treymes, Fanny's sister-in-law, for advice and help. But she wants something from him in return.
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 fulfil her side of the bargain ... but he knew that ... she wanted the money for someone else..."
And John's innate sense of honor revolts at the idea. He'd rather sacrifice his own happiness than do anything that would hurt Fanny.
This 72-page novella is really a clash of cultures: a rigid, very traditional, old French family vs. the unpolished but monied and moralistic Americans. More importantly, it's also a battle of happiness vs. honor, which is classic Edith Wharton. And maybe why I liked Madame de Treymes
a little more than Bunner Sisters
. But both novellas are beautifully written and well worth your time.