Today Virago reissues a short story collection called Daughters of Decadence, edited by Elaine Showalter. This is a collection of twenty Fin de Siecle stories by Women Writers, and includes such luminaries as Kate Chopin, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Olive Schreiner. The lovely people at Virago got in touch and asked if I wanted to get involved by taking a look at one particular story, The Muse’s Tragedy by Edith Wharton.
Lewis Danyers is a young writer who has written a well-received essay on Vincent Rendle, a famous poet. Danyers becomes preoccupied with the woman who inspired much of Rendle’s poetry, the muse of the title, a lady called Mrs Anerton. Through a connection with a mutual friend, he manages to make contact with Mrs Anerton, and spends some time with her, during which time she encourages him to write a book on the poet.
It is only in the third chapter of the story that the reader learns the truth, through a letter that Mrs Anerton sends to Danyers to explain why, despite their emerging feelings for one another, and despite his marriage proposal, she cannot marry him. Her explanation is the reason this story is called The Muses’s Tragedy; her tragedy is that the artist she inspired to greatness never actually loved her.
This is an interesting look at the relationship between artist and muse, something I’ve been thinking about recently ever since I went to YALC at the weekend and heard an author ruminating on that very subject. What is like to be a muse; someone who inspires greatness in someone else, but is rarely recognised as great themselves? Something that may seem a great compliment at first must surely develop into something much more complex. Mrs Anerton tells Danyers that the “intellectual sympathy between us was almost complete”; she is Rendle’s muse because he admires her intellect, not because he is in love with her beauty, but this isn’t enough for her; and she later finds herself jealous of a woman he falls for, and follows to Europe where he “thought out adjectives for her hair.”
Edith Wharton’s writing is never a disappointment; I have barely made a dent in her prolific output as an author, and reading The Muse’s Tragedy just has me wanting to read more!
Daughters of Decadence edited by Elaine Showalter
Reissued: 4th August2016
Review copy provided by publisher