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Americans Writing Venice: Edith Wharton and Henry James

An essay by Professor Ann Hallamore Caesar, Pro-Vice-Chancellor For Teaching And Student Experience

Published October 2011

A Venetian Miscellany is a book of essays celebrating Warwick's long connection with the city of Venice - not least its occupation of the Palazzo Pesaro Papafava, which has become the University's permanent Italian base. In this extract, Prof Ann Hallamore Caesar looks at how Edith Wharton and Henry James used Venice as a metaphor for decline and decay.

Venetian windowIn a fine critical study dedicated to Venice in literature, Tony Tanner pointed out that whereas most great cities have their writers – Paris has Balzac, London – Dickens, Dublin – Joyce, and Trieste – Svevo – Venice does not. He attributes this to the fact that the rise of the modern novel came at the very time when Venice was in decline. However, the numbers of writers who have drawn inspiration from and written about Venice are many, from Proust and Thomas Mann through to modern crime writers such as Michael Dibdin and Donna Leon.

Here, I want to consider two American writers, Edith Wharton (1862-1937) and Henry James (1843-1916) – good friends, Europeanised Americans with a deep love of and knowledge of Italy, who both lived in Europe and featured Venice in their novels. James made his first visit to Venice in 1869 when he was under the influence of Ruskin. Edith Wharton, an intrepid traveller, lived permanently in France from 1907 until her death. Her non-fiction book, Italian Backgrounds, ends on a melancholy note in Venice with the mannequins in a corner of the Museo Correr dressed in eighteenth century costume, snatched from the ‘plots and pleasures’ of eighteenth century Venice not ‘by Death but by Napoleon’.

Yet it is the novel, above all the nineteenth and early twentieth century novel, that communicates a sense of place more powerfully than any other written medium. But why do writers choose one place in preference to another? In other novels by Wharton and James we find ourselves in London, New York, Boston, Rome, Paris. What leads to the choice of Venice? What are the particular associations of a location that contribute to the narrative as a whole? How is late-nineteenth century Venice – a city of decline and decay – deployed in their writing?

Edith Wharton’s ways of using Venice are straightforward in comparison to Henry James. In her novels, she turns to Venice later in her career when it becomes a channel for a set of moral or ethical concerns. In The Glimpses of the Moon (1922), two attractive young people, Susy Branch and Nick Lansing, hangers-on in the rich international set, agree to marry and live for a year off the offers of houses made by friends and their wedding presents. They move, reluctantly, to a palazzo in Venice. The building is oppressive in its dimensions, and it soon becomes clear, as Susy herself becomes increasingly compromised, that Venice represents corruption: the loan of the palazzo is in exchange for covering up her friend’s adulterous affair. Susy, Nick and their set see Venice ‘simply as affording excellent opportunities for bathing and adultery’ rather than ‘something unique and ineffable’. Venice is the Lido and Florian’s; Wharton draws heavily on colour imagery, frequent references to water and to neglected gardens.

In The Children (1927), while the plot is very different, the underlying preoccupations are similar. The same drifting international set of high affluence and low employment, who drop into Venice for a couple of months each year, are now shown to be benefiting from the ease with which divorce is permitted in the USA. The parents are ‘jazzing in Venice’, staying in a hotel on the Grand Canal, and the focus remains firmly on the Lido. Venice is presented as the locus for artifice, money and transitoriness. The children in question have everything money can buy but because their parents have divorced and remarried so often, their lives are lived in a state of complete confusion and neglect.

Unlike Edith Wharton, Henry James actually lived in Venice. He first referred to the city in a letter to his brother, William, dated 25th September 1869 during his first visit made in his mid-twenties. And from what he said, it is surprising that he ever wrote about Venice again: ‘Taine, I remember, somewhere speaks of “Venice and Oxford – the two most picturesque cities in Europe”. I personally prefer Oxford.’ Whereas he feels he can know Oxford from within, he will always look at Venice from without and is very conscious of his outsider status as an American: ‘I feel more and more my inexorable Yankeehood’. For James, Venice was to have a particularly powerful association with death after a very close friend, Constance Fenimore Woolson, killed herself by throwing herself from the window of a palazzo on to the stones below.

However, that sense of outsiderness, of the otherness of Venice, is altogether absent when James comes to adopt Venice as a location for his stories. Precise locations in the city can be identified. They often include private homes: in 1899, he describes visiting a palazzo in whose ‘beautiful blighted rooms’ he felt a novel could be made of their owners’ ‘great name and fallen fortunes ... the absence of books, the presence of ennui’. Venice is no ‘unreal city’: James’s topography is precise.

In The Aspern Papers (1888), James makes a clear connection between Venice, its acquisitive habits, and ‘spoils’. The true events that the novella is based around took place in Florence, where Byron’s mistress and Shelley’s sister-in-law, Claire Clairmont, lived to old age in seclusion. An American obsessed with Shelley tried to get papers from her that he knew were in her possession; after she died, he tried with her fifty-year-old great-niece who told him that if he married her, she would give him the papers. James moved the story to Venice ostensibly on grounds of delicacy, but at the same time he felt that Venice lent itself to such a tale. In The Aspern Papers an American writer who worships a long-deceased American poet, Jeffrey Aspern, learns that an early mistress of his is still living and has some of his private letters. Using lies and deceit, he becomes a lodger in her house and ingratiates himself with the old woman and her niece. The old woman dies and the niece offers marriage in exchange for the papers. The writer runs off in horror, then after wandering Venice, returns the next morning to accept her offer only to learn that she has destroyed the papers.

The scheming, blinkered, fanatical protagonist is also the narrator so all the reader is told and sees is filtered through him. There is no pleasure or delight in Venice. Indeed he hardly sees the city so intent is he on the obtaining the coveted papers. Venice holds no interest for him and when he flees the palazzo, the one ‘sight’ he dwells on ‘as if he had an oracle on his lips’ is the equestrian statue by Verocchio of the great mercenary Bartolomeo Colleoni astride his huge bronze horse – a reminder, of course, of terrafirma.

Most of the story takes place indoors or in the garden. The totally impoverished Miss Bordereau extracts a huge rent for a few empty rooms. The building is almost empty. The rooms are unadorned. This is part of Venice, but as far-flung and as un-Venetian as one can imagine. So: why Venice? The answer lies in the synergies between the fate of Venice and the fate of the Aspern papers for both are about plunder. The selling-off of so much when Venice fell to Napoleon created a city reduced to poverty and decay, where everything had a price, and where material and moral decadence accompany each other.

Henry James is a writer of interiors and what he emphasises about Venice is the contiguity between inner and outer. There is also the play of outer and inner – narrow winding calli where people crowd so that their voices sound as though they are coming from indoors – where one walks as though skirting furniture, where ‘shoes never wear out’. ‘The place has the character of an immense collective apartment, in which Piazza San Marco is the most ornamented corner ... As you sit in your gondola the footways that in certain parts edge the canals assume to the eye the importance of a stage, meeting it at the same angle, and the Venetian figures, moving to and fro ... strike you as members of an endless dramatic troupe.’

Henry James commented approvingly in his essay about Honoré de Balzac that where something happens in his fiction is as important as the event itself for there is always a correlation between person and place. In different ways and to different effect, for both Edith Wharton and Henry James Venice was not just another European city, a backdrop for a story. Instead its architecture, waterways and even the quality of light become the vehicle to raise questions about life and art, morality and desire, and, bearing in mind when they were writing, decay, deprivation and mortality.

An overview page is now available where you can read other essays or download the ebook version of A Venetian Miscellany.


Professor Ann Hallamore CaesarAnn Hallamore Caesar is the University’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Teaching and Student Experience. She is also a professor in the Department of Italian. Her research interests centre on the literary and cultural history of the novel in Italy. In particular, she is interested in the rise of a female reading public and the development of the domestic novel in Italy in the period immediately after unification. Professor Caesar is also exploring the emergence of an Italian novel of entertainment in eighteenth century Venice.