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Edith Wharton: The Mother’s Recompense

Lous Bromfield said that The Mother’s Recompense had been handled with a technical skill approached by only one other book we have read this year, [1925] The Great Gatsby. This was a year that also saw The Professor’s House, Manhattan Transfer, Am American Tragedy, Barren Ground and works by Hemingway and Sinclair Lewis. Posterity has not been as kind, finding this one of Wharton’s lesser works. F. Scott Fitzgerald, however, thought it was just lousy, though his literary judgement may have been coloured by his personal view of Wharton.

The story is relatively straightforward. Kate Clephane, now forty-four years old, lives in a shabby cramped room in the third-rate Hôtel de Minorque et de l’Univers. When young, she had left her husband and their infant daughter, Anne, for an affair with a wealthy lover. She has subsequently drifted down to the Riviera where her dull life had been punctuated only by a brief, passionate affair with a young man called Chris Fenno. It is quite apparent that this was the highlight of her life. Now she is summoned back to New York by Anne and returns. They establish a good mother-daughter relationship. But she finds out that her daughter has a gentleman caller and that that gentleman caller is none other than Mr. Fenno, now working as the secretary of a rich man. Most of the novel is about how she comes to terms with this and agonising whether she should tell Anne about the past relationship. She does not and returns to her former life in France, after Anne and Chris marry.

Though this is still a fine novel, as is any novel by Wharton, it is, despite Bromfield’s view, not a great novel. The agonising of Kate Clephane over her past sins does not seem as poignant as the fate of, say, Lily Bart or Ethan Frome. We can agonise with Kate and sympathise with her predicament but, ultimately, you have to say, well, yes, that’s how it should be.

Publishing history

First published 1925 by Appleton and Company