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Book review: “The Mother’s Recompense” by Edith Wharton

wharton --- recompenseThere is a moment, fairly early in Edith Wharton’s 1923 novel The Mother’s Recompense, when the central character Kate Clephane exclaims to herself, “I am rewarded!”

I cringed when I read that — because of the peculiar nature of the word “reward” and “recompense” and because I had come to like Kate although her life view and life decisions were very different from mine.

Let me explain. When I say that I had come to like Kate, a product of New York society, it wasn’t that I felt we would ever be friends in any sort of existence in which we would cross paths.

As the novel opens just after the end of World War I, she is a woman in her mid-40s who is wandering around Europe, skimping by on a small allowance. It’s an aimless, meaningless life of leisure, spent with other aimless, purposeless souls awaiting…well, not really anything. This is a kind of anteroom to hell, and Kate and her circle of acquaintances are biding their time, biding their lives away.

Her allowance comes from the family in New York that she abandoned nearly twenty years earlier to go off with Hylton Davies, a man with a yacht whom she didn’t love and didn’t stay with. It wasn’t so much that she wanted to be with him, but to get away from the household of her husband John Clephane and his mother.

A hard man to stay home with

John Clephane would have been a hard man to stay home with. One character describes him as “always a slave of anything he’d once said. Once he’d found a phrase for a thing, the phrase ruled him.”

Kate herself recalls “the thick atmosphere of self-approval and unperceivingness which emanated from John Clephane like coal-gas from a leaking furnace.” And also:

In the first years of her marriage there had been the continual vain attempt to adapt herself to her husband’s point of view, to her mother-in-law’s standards, to all the unintelligible ritual with which they barricaded themselves against the alarming business of living.

To escape, however, Kate had to leave behind her three-year-old daughter Anne.

For better or worse

Not a decision I would have made. But, then, I’m not a woman held, contained, constrained in that peculiar hothouse of the rich and pompous that was New York society in the early twentieth century.

For better or worse, Kate is living with that decision and with the life she had made on her own — lonely as it is and frugal and with few prospects. Since her quick departure from the man with the yacht, she has enjoyed flirtations (although fewer as she has aged) and treasures the memory of only one affair, with a younger man named Chris Fenno.

Still, she doesn’t complain. She faces her life with a forthrightness that is admirable, and I think this is how Wharton got me to like Kate.

She is not exactly self-aware, but she is trying. She understands some things — such as the fatuousness of many of those she spends her time with — and tries, in her imperfect way, to understand the rest of her life.

Coming to understand the woman

Wharton sketches Kate in sharp and telling strokes, and leads the reader to come to understand the woman. (Think of those phrases about John Clephane and his household.) Kate’s life is one I wouldn’t choose for myself, but I can see how she came to be living it.

And then she gets the telegrams: Her mother-in-law who has ruled the family home since John Clephane’s death has died, and Kate’s daughter, now a young woman — a rich and strong-headed young woman — invites her to move back into that home. To move back and resume, after so much time, the role of mother.

So she does.

And it’s wonderful. Kate and Anne are pals. “You two were made for each other,” someone says. Anne promotes her mother among her friends and the broader society. No mention is made of the past. It is as if it never happened.

The box of jewels

And, then, to top it off, Anne gives Kate back the box of jewels that she left behind when she fled oh so long ago.

In themselves, the jewels were nothing. If Anne had handed her a bit of coal…with that look and that intention, the gift would have seemed as priceless.

And this is the moment when Kate thinks of herself as “rewarded.” And, as imperfectly self-aware as she is, she thinks:

It was a queer, almost blasphemous, fancy — but it came to her so. She was rewarded for having given up her daughter; if she had not, could she ever have known such a moment as this? She had been too careless and impetuous in her own youth to be worthy to form and guide this rare creature; and while she had seemed to be rushing blindly to her destruction, Providence had saved the best part of her in saving Anne.

Yet, even as this is happening, events that will shatter the fragile peace Kate has found are beginning, and the people behind those events are starting to come forward.


Kate looks at the jewels and thinks she is being “rewarded for having given up her daughter.”

But “reward” and the title word “recompense” are dangerous two-faced words. On the one hand, they can refer to a “prize.” But they can also refer to a “punishment” — to “pay back.”

This is not a book with a happy ending. The conclusion is bittersweet, which is to say that there is an element of satisfaction to it for Kate. But gall as well.

In the unfolding of the drama, no character is completely alert to what’s happening. All of them, to one extent or another, are moving through the emotions of life with only a vague understanding of how circumstances and their own decisions have set events into inexorable motion.

At the heart of this novel and at the heart of life as Wharton describes it is the realization that decisions have consequences.

Yet, for all the pain she endures, it is clear — for me, at least — that it is better to act as Kate and make choices (as imperfect as they might be) than, like John Clephane and his tribe, to “barricade [oneself] against the alarming business of living.”

Patrick T. Reardon

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