Out of print for several decades, here is Edith Wharton's superb satirical novel of the Jazz Age, a critically praised best-seller when it was first published in 1927. Sex, drugs, work, money, infatuation with the occult and spiritual healing -- these are the remarkably modern themes that animate Twilight Sleep. The extended family of Mrs. Manford is determined to escape the pain, boredom and emptiness of life through whatever form of "twilight sleep" they can devise or procure. And though the characters and their actions may seem more in keeping with today's society, this is still a classic Wharton tale of the upper crust and its undoing -- wittily, masterfully told.
Miss Bruss, the perfect secretary, received Nona Manford at the door of her mother's boudoir ("the office," Mrs. Manford's children called it) with a gesture of the kindliest denial.
"She wants to, you know, dear -- your mother always wants to see you," pleaded Maisie Bruss, in a voice which seemed to be thinned and sharpened by continuous telephoning. Miss Bruss, attached to Mrs. Manford's service since shortly after the latter's second marriage, had known Nona from her childhood, and was privileged, even now that she was "out," to treat her with a certain benevolent familiarity -- benevolence being the note of the Manford household.
"But look at her list -- just for this morning!" the secretary continued, handing over a tall morocco-framed tablet, on which was inscribed, in the colourless secretarial hand: "7.30 Mental uplift. 7.45 Breakfast. 8. Psycho-analysis. 8.15 See cook. 8.30 Silent Meditation. 8.45 Facial massage. 9. Man with Persian miniatures. 9.15 Correspondence. 9.30 Manicure. 9.45 Eurythmic exercises. 10. Hair waved. 10.15 Sit for bust. 10.30 Receive Mothers' Day deputation. 11. Dancing lesson. 11.30 Birth Control committee at Mrs. --"
"The manicure is there now, late as usual. That's what martyrizes your mother; everybody's being so unpunctual. This New York life is killing her."
"I'm not unpunctual," said Nona Manford, leaning in the doorway.
"No; and a miracle, too! The way you girls keep up your dancing all night. You and Lita -- what times you two do have!" Miss Bruss was becoming almost maternal. "But just run your eye down that list --. You see your mother didn't expect to see you before lunch; now did she?"
Nona shook her head. "No; but you might perhaps squeeze me in."
It was said in a friendly, a reasonable tone; on both sides the matter was being examined with an evident desire for impartiality and good-will. Nona was used to her mother's engagements; used to being squeezed in between faith-healers, art-dealers, social service workers and manicures. When Mrs. Manford did see her children she was perfect to them; but in this killing New York life, with its ever-multiplying duties and responsibilities, if her family had been allowed to tumble in at all hours and devour her time, her nervous system simply couldn't have stood it -- and how many duties would have been left undone!
Mrs. Manford's motto had always been: "There's a time for everything." But there were moments when this optimistic view failed her, and she began to think there wasn't. This morning, for instance, as Miss Bruss pointed out, she had had to tell the new French sculptor who had been all the rage in New York for the last month that she wouldn't be able to sit to him for more than fifteen minutes, on account of the Birth Control committee meeting at 11.30 at Mrs. --
Nona seldom assisted at these meetings, her own time being -- through force of habit rather than real inclination -- so fully taken up with exercise, athletics and the ceaseless rush from thrill to thrill which was supposed to be the happy privilege of youth. But she had had glimpses enough of the scene: of the audience of bright elderly women, with snowy hair, eurythmic movements, and finely-wrinkled over-massaged faces on which a smile of glassy benevolence sat like their rimless pince-nez. They were all inexorably earnest, aimlessly kind and fathomlessly pure; and all rather too well-dressed, except the "prominent woman" of the occasion, who usually wore dowdy clothes, and had steel-rimmed spectacles and straggling wisps of hair. Whatever the question dealt with, these ladies always seemed to be the same, and always advocated with equal zeal Birth Control and unlimited maternity, free love or the return to the traditions of the American home; and neither they nor Mrs. Manford seemed aware that there was anything contradictory in these doctrines. All they knew was that they were determined to force certain persons to do things that those persons preferred not to do. Nona, glancing down the serried list, recalled a saying of her mother's former husband, Arthur Wyant: "Your mother and her friends would like to teach the whole world how to say its prayers and brush its teeth."
The girl had laughed, as she could never help laughing at Wyant's sallies; but in reality she admired her mother's zeal, though she sometimes wondered if it were not a little too promiscuous. Nona was the daughter of Mrs. Manford's second marriage, and her own father, Dexter Manford, who had had to make his way in the world, had taught her to revere activity as a virtue in itself; his tone in speaking of Pauline's zeal was very different from Wyant's. He had been brought up to think there was a virtue in work per se, even if it served no more useful purpose than the revolving of a squirrel in a wheel. "Perhaps your mother tries to cover too much ground, but it's very fine of her, you know -- she never spares herself."
"Nor us!" Nona sometimes felt tempted to add; but Manford's admiration was contagious. Yes; Nona did admire her mother's altruistic energy; but she knew well enough that neither she nor her brother's wife Lita would ever follow such an example -- she no more than Lita. They belonged to another generation: to the bewildered disenchanted young people who had grown up since the Great War, whose energies were more spasmodic and less definitely directed, and who, above all, wanted a more personal outlet for them. "Bother earthquakes in Bolivia!" Lita had once whispered to Nona, when Mrs. Manford had convoked the bright elderly women to deal with a seismic disaster at the other end of the world, the repetition of which these ladies somehow felt could be avoided if they sent out a commission immediately to teach the Bolivians to do something they didn't want to do -- not to believe in earthquakes, for instance.
The young people certainly felt no corresponding desire to set the houses of others in order. Why shouldn't the Bolivians have earthquakes if they chose to live in Bolivia? And why must Pauline Manford lie awake over it in New York, and have to learn a new set of Mahatma exercises to dispel the resulting wrinkles? "I suppose if we feel like that it's really because we're too lazy to care," Nona reflected, with her incorrigible honesty.
She turned from Miss Bruss with a slight shrug. "Oh, well," she murmured.
"You know, pet," Miss Bruss volunteered, "things always get worse as the season goes on; and the last fortnight in February is the worst of all, especially with Easter coming as early as it does this year. I never could see why they picked out such an awkward date for Easter: perhaps those Florida hotel people did it. Why, your poor mother wasn't even able to see your father this morning before he went down town, though she thinks it's all wrong to let him go off to his office like that, without finding time for a quiet little chat first...Just a cheery word to put him in the right mood for the day...Oh, by the way, my dear, I wonder if you happen to have heard him say if he's dining at home tonight? Because you know he never does remember to leave word about his plans, and if he hasn't, I'd better telephone to the office to remind him that it's the night of the big dinner for the Marchesa --"
"Well, I don't think father's dining at home," said the girl indifferently.
"Not -- not -- not? Oh, my gracious!" clucked Miss Bruss, dashing across the room to the telephone on her own private desk.
The engagement-list had slipped from her hands, and Nona Manford, picking it up, ran her glance over it. She read: "4 P.M. See A. -- 4.30 P.M. Musical: Torfried Lobb."
"4 P.M. See A." Nona had been almost sure it was Mrs. Manford's day for going to see her divorced husband, Arthur Wyant, the effaced mysterious person always designated on Mrs. Manford's lists as "A," and hence known to her children as "Exhibit A." It was rather a bore, for Nona had meant to go and see him herself at about that hour, and she always timed her visits so that they should not clash with Mrs. Manford's, not because the latter disapproved of Nona's friendship with Arthur Wyant (she thought it "beautiful" of the girl to show him so much kindness), but because Wyant and Nona were agreed that on these occasions the presence of the former Mrs. Wyant spoilt their fun. But there was nothing to do about it. Mrs. Manford's plans were unchangeable. Even illness and death barely caused a ripple in them. One might as well have tried to bring down one of the Pyramids by poking it with a parasol as attempt to disarrange the close mosaic of Mrs. Manford's engagement-list. Mrs. Manford herself couldn't have done it; not with the best will in the world; and Mrs. Manford's will, as her children and all her household knew, was the best in the world.
Nona Manford moved away with a final shrug. She had wanted to speak to her mother about something rather important; something she had caught a startled glimpse of, the evening before, in the queer little half-formed mind of her sister-in-law Lita, the wife of her half-brother Jim Wyant -- the Lita with whom, as Miss Bruss remarked, she, Nona, danced away the nights. There was nobody on earth as dear to Nona as that same Jim, her elder by six or seven years, and who had been brother, comrade, guardian, almost father to her -- her own father Dexter Manford, who was so clever, capable and kind, being almost always too busy at the office, or too firmly requisitioned by Mrs. Manford, when he was at home, to be able to spare much time for his daughter.
Jim, bless him, always had time; no doubt that was what his mother meant when she called him lazy -- as lazy as his father, she had once added, with one of her rare flashes of impatience. Nothing so conduced to impatience in Mrs. Manford as the thought of anybody's having the least fraction of unapportioned time and not immediately planning to do something with it. If only they could have given it to her! And Jim, who loved and admired her (as all her family did) was always conscientiously trying to fill his days, or to conceal from her their occasional vacuity. But he had a way of not being in a hurry, and this had been all to the good for little Nona, who could always count on him to ride or walk with her, to slip off with her to a concert or a "movie," or, more pleasantly still, just to be there -- idling in the big untenanted library of Cedarledge, the place in the country, or in his untidy study on the third floor of the town house, and ready to answer questions, help her to look up hard words in dictionaries, mend her golf-sticks, or get a thorn out of her Sealyham's paw. Jim was wonderful with his hands: he could repair clocks, start up mechanical toys, make fascinating models of houses or gardens, apply a tourniquet, scramble eggs, mimic his mother's visitors -- preferably the "earnest" ones who held forth about "causes" or "messages" in her gilded drawing-rooms -- and make delicious coloured maps of imaginary continents, concerning which Nona wrote interminable stories. And of all these gifts he had, alas, made no particular use as yet -- except to enchant his little half-sister.
It had been just the same, Nona knew, with his father: poor useless "Exhibit A"! Mrs. Manford said it was their "old New York blood" -- she spoke of them with mingled contempt and pride, as if they were the last of the Capetians, exhausted by a thousand years of sovereignty. Her own red corpuscles were tinged with a more plebeian dye. Her progenitors had mined in Pennsylvania and made bicycles at Exploit, and now gave their names to one of the most popular automobiles in the United States. Not that other ingredients were lacking in her hereditary make-up: her mother was said to have contributed southern gentility by being a Pascal of Tallahassee. Mrs. Manford, in certain moods, 'spoke of "The Pascals of Tallahassee" as if they accounted for all that was noblest in her; but when she was exhorting Jim to action it was her father's blood that she invoked. "After all, in spite of the Pascal tradition, there is no shame in being in trade. My father's father came over from Scotland with two sixpences in his pocket..." and Mrs. Manford would glance with pardonable pride at the glorious Gainsborough over the dining-room mantelpiece (which she sometimes almost mistook for an ancestral portrait), and at her healthy handsome family sitting about the dinner-table laden with Georgian silver and orchids from her own hot-houses.
From the threshold, Nona called back to Miss Bruss: "Please tell mother I shall probably be lunching with Jim and Lita --" but Miss Bruss was passionately saying to an unseen interlocutor: "Oh, but Mr. Rigley, but you must make Mr. Manford understand that Mrs. Manford counts on him for dinner this evening...The dinner-dance for the Marchesa, you know..."
The marriage of her half-brother had been Nona Manford's first real sorrow. Not that she had disapproved of his choice: how could any one take that funny irresponsible little Lita Cliffe seriously enough to disapprove of her? The sisters-in-law were soon the best of friends; if Nona had a fault to find with Lita, it was that she didn't worship the incomparable Jim as blindly as his sister did. But then Lita was made to be worshipped, not to worship; that was manifest in the calm gaze of her long narrow nut-coloured eyes, in the hieratic fixity of her lovely smile, in the very shape of her hands, so slim yet dimpled, hands which had never grown up, and which drooped from her wrists as if listlessly waiting to be kissed, or lay like rare shells or upcurved magnolia-petals on the cushions luxuriously piled about her indolent body.
The Jim Wyants had been married for nearly two years now; the baby was six months old; the pair were beginning to be regarded as one of the "old couples" of their set, one of the settled landmarks in the matrimonial quicksands of New York. Nona's love for her brother was too disinterested for her not to rejoice in this: above all things she wanted her old Jim to be happy, and happy she was sure he was -- or had been until lately. The mere getting away from Mrs. Manford's iron rule had been a greater relief than he himself perhaps guessed. And then he was still the foremost of Lita's worshippers; still enchanted by the childish whims, the unpunctuality, the irresponsibility, which made life with her such a thrillingly unsettled business after the clock-work routine of his mother's perfect establishment.
All this Nona rejoiced in; but she ached at times with the loneliness of the perfect establishment, now that Jim, its one disturbing element, had left. Jim guessed her loneliness, she was sure: it was he who encouraged the growing intimacy between his wife and his half-sister, and tried to make the latter feel that his house was another home to her.
Lita had always been amiably disposed toward Nona. The two, though so fundamentally different, were nearly of an age, and united by the prevailing passion for every form of sport. Lita, in spite of her soft curled-up attitudes, was not only a tireless dancer but a brilliant if uncertain tennis-player, and an adventurous rider to hounds. Between her hours of lolling, and smoking amber-scented cigarettes, every moment of her life was crammed with dancing, riding or games. During the two or three months before the baby's birth, when Lita had been reduced to partial inactivity, Nona had rather feared that her perpetual craving for new "thrills" might lead to some insidious form of time-killing -- some of the drinking or drugging that went on among the young women of their set; but Lita had sunk into a state of smiling animal patience, as if the mysterious work going on in her tender young body had a sacred significance for her, and it was enough to lie still and let it happen. All she asked was that nothing should "hurt" her: she had the blind dread of physical pain common also to most of the young women of her set. But all that was so easily managed nowadays: Mrs. Manford (who took charge of the business, Lita being an orphan) of course knew the most perfect "Twilight Sleep" establishment in the country, installed Lita in its most luxurious suite, and filled her rooms with spring flowers, hot-house fruits, new novels and all the latest picture-papers -- and Lita drifted into motherhood as lightly and unperceivingly as if the wax doll which suddenly appeared in the cradle at her bedside had been brought there in one of the big bunches of hot-house roses that she found every morning on her pillow.
"Of course there ought to be no Pain...nothing but Beauty...It ought to be one of the loveliest, most poetic things in the world to have a baby," Mrs. Manford declared, in that bright efficient voice which made loveliness and poetry sound like the attributes of an advanced industrialism, and babies something to be turned out in series like Fords. And Jim's joy in his son had been unbounded; and Lita really hadn't minded in the least.
Edith Wharton (1862–1937) was an American novelist—the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Age of Innocence in 1921—as well as a short story writer, playwright, designer, reporter, and poet. Born into one of New York's elite families, she drew upon her knowledge of upper class aristocracy to realistically portray the lives and morals of the Gilded Age.
New York Evening Post 1927 A brilliant and penetrating study of life in the upper social circles of New York...its people all fully and sharply characterized, its story managed with the most praiseworthy dexterity, and the whole seasoned with the acid of Mrs. Wharton's keen satire.
Gore Vidal There are only three or four American novelists who can be thought of as "major" -- and Edith Wharton is one.