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Edith Wharton: The Reef

George Darrow is travelling to France, ostensibly to meet his fiancée, Anna Leath. Anna is a widow and is bringing up both her own daughter and her stepson, Owen, from her husband’s first marriage. Just prior to his departure, Darrow gets a telegram asking to delay his trip. He, naturally, thinks the worst. While on the boat, he bumps into a woman he had known vaguely in a Chelsea house – Sophy Viner, an orphan. He had been to the house (Mrs. Murrett’s) when pursuing another woman, while Sophy had worked there as Mrs. Murrett’s reader, a position she is now fleeing from. (Mrs. Murrett is described as shrieking unescapable.) When he arrives in Paris, hearing nothing from Anna, and with Sophy’s arrangements also awry, he accompanies Sophy around Paris. Sophy’s finally makes contact with her friends and they separate.

When Darrow finally reaches Anna Leath’s château, he finds that Sophy is not only Anna’s daughter’s governess but also the fiancée of her stepson. Sophy and Darrow then try to make sure that the others do not discover their relationship and Wharton skilfully describes their various subterfuges (including lying to Anna). What Wharton does is show the shifting relationship between each pair of participants (including Anna’s mother-in-law) as each person tries to stake out his or her own territory (the mother-in-law to ensure that her grandson is marrying well, Owen to get the girl he loves and Anna to protect her stepson, with Darrow and Sophy trying to cover themselves). However, all is in vain and, eventually, the secret is out. All parties are badly affected by this discovery and go their separate ways.

Some people have described the book as cruel for all the main characters are not only affected but, essentially, shattered by what was a relatively innocent encounter. Are Sophy and Darrow in love? Possibly, but that is not made entirely clear. But Wharton herself did not see this as necessarily cruel; rather she was interested in playing out the situation, seeing how it might work on the different characters and showing how what starts as a relative trivial incident is blown up to become a devastating shock to the lives of several people. The book consciously and explicitly starts with the very short note from Anna Leath to Darrow (Unexpected obstacle. Please don’t come till thirtieth. Anna.) and ends with Anna discovering that Sophy has gone to India with the dreaded Mrs. Murrett, apparently the only choice left open to her. Not only is Sophy’s life shattered by this event but so is Anna’s.

Publishing history

First published 1912 by Appleton and Company