“The Old Maid” by Edith Wharton vs. “The Real Thing” by Henry James

“The Old Maid” by Edith Wharton  (1924) – 96 pages

“The Real Thing” by Henry James (1892) – 40 pages

 I’m doing so poorly in the Tournament of Books 2011 shadow contest at Hungry Like the Woolf, that to exact my revenge I’m writing up my own judge’s report facing off two books against each other. In this case, the two novellas in question were re-published together in one volume called “Inventing the Real”. The two novellas are “The Old Maid” by Edith Wharton and “The Real Thing” by Henry James.

At first glance this would appear to be no contest for me since Edith Wharton is one of my favorite novelists while Henry James’ novels, especially his later novels, have seemed stuffy, snobbish, and peopled with characters with over-refined sensibilities to the point where they are nearly incomprehensible. I’ve always been an admirer of T’S. Eliot’s quip that Henry James “had a mind so fine no idea could violate it.”

First I will discuss Wharton’s “The Old Maid”. To some extent this novella is hampered by the out-moded concept of its title, the old maid, even though Wharton is using the term ironically. I doubt single women today look upon themselves as old maids. The woman who is called ‘the old maid’ in Wharton’s novella actually has a daughter, a daughter who cannot be acknowledged in public. Even in the highest reaches of New York society there were illegitimate children. Her married friend, the narrator of the story, agrees to bring up the child as her own daughter. In order to see her daughter frequently, the real mother plays the role of the maiden aunt who visits often.

Once I got past the construct of the old maid, I found this story had all of the elements of Edith Wharton‘s writing that I’ve come to expect and admire. There is the dramatic irony of the situation which Wharton treats with discerning empathy. As always Edith Wharton captures upper class society with elegance and precision, not just the everyday events but also the crises. While reading Edith Wharton even upper class life makes sense. I guarantee that the last sentence of “The Old Maid” will bring a tear to your eye.

In “The Real Thing” by Henry James, the main protagonist and narrator is a commercial photographer. This protagonist is fine with me, a down-to-earth guy who works for a living, not some over-refined society leech. This photographer takes pictures for magazine and newspaper advertisements. He usually hires poor unemployed actors and actresses who model whatever roles are need for the advertisement. Then he meets this middle-aged couple who want to work for him. This couple looks like the perfect upper middle-class couple required by so many advertisements. They are the real thing, not actors.

I was favorably impressed with “The Real Thing”. The narrator is very matter-of-fact relating his story. There is nothing pompous, abstruse, or obtuse about him. The characters in this novella are portrayed with psychological acuteness and all are portrayed sympathetically. This story reminded me of the early Henry James novels I’ve read and enjoyed such as “Washington Square”, and “The Spoils of Poynton”. One interesting side note to “The Real Thing” is that the idea of the story was suggested to Henry James by George du Maurier, a novelist himself and father of Daphne du Maurier.

So which novella is the winner of this competition? The decision was very close for me as both stories were strong examples of their creators’ talents. In the end, the winner is “The Old Maid”. That last sentence really got to me.


The Old Maid

4 responses to this post.

  1. Awesome. Can we look forward to more of these? (I am hoping this is the first of a 64-novella tournament.)

    I have not read either of these works, but have read both authors. You make a good case for going out and buying Inventing the Real so that I can enjoy them together and with the benefit of your priming insights.

    Wharton really has an excellent way with endings, doesn’t she? She manages to make them surprising and satisfying in a way that reinforces her themes rather than mucking them up.


  2. Hi Kerry,
    Hmmm, two books for each post. Even if they are novellas, that’s a lot.
    I got that book “Inventing the Real” on remainder, so it must have been published some time ago. It did offer a nice compact comparison between Edith Wharton and Henry James, and, yes, that was a great ending to the Wharton story.


  3. I like both Wharton and James (although I have not read these two) and would offer the observation that, for me at least, she is much better at short fiction than he is — a better eye for detail, less metaphysical and an appreciation of the limits of the story.

    They are much more eventually matched with longer works.

    Now if you wanted to set up a tournament with only 16 novellas, I’d be happy offer to participate as a judge — if you could find eight of us, that would mean only two novellas each in round one. Four could line up for the eights, two others for the fours and everybody could return for the finals.


    • Hi Kevin,
      It would be interesting selecting the 16 novellas for the ‘Tournament of Novellas’. It would be much more pleasant reading 100 or so pages rather than plowing through 500+ page tomes.
      Which novel of Henry James would you recommend?


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