‘Souls Belated’ by Edith Wharton

Chosen by Catherine Taylor

“I didn’t know that we ran away to found a new system of ethics. I supposed it was because we loved each other.”

In Edith Wharton’s story, published in 1899, Old New York meets fin-de-siècle Europe as Americans Lydia Tillotson and Ralph Gannett, a younger writer for whom she has left her wealthy husband, run away together to the Continent – but instead of finding the freedom to pursue their relationship, society dictates that they pose as a married couple. We first encounter them on a train in Northern Italy, where all discussion around the ‘thing’ resting in a bag in the luggage rack is avoided – ‘the thing’ being  the divorce papers from Lydia’s husband which have caught up with them – and while Lydia is now free to marry her lover, the nub of this complex, emotional story is that she does not want to. 

She reasons that their love has opposed convention,  so why enter into a legal binding that defies, rather than defines, their feelings: “the secret fear of each that the other may escape, or the secret longing to work our way back gradually – oh very gradually – into the esteem of the people whose conventional morality we have always ridiculed and hated.”‘Souls Belated’ is one of Wharton’s earliest and finest stories. I first read it when I was selecting  short fiction by 19th-century women writers for a Folio Society collection. It is intensely emotional, but also pragmatic, and neatly skewers the hypocrisy of a society which thwarts natural happiness, and wears down real love, while upholding the sham of status or protocol, as resonant this Valentine’s day as it was 120 years ago. 

From Roman Fever and Other Stories, Virago Press, 1998

Catherine Taylor is a critic, editor and writer. She has been a judge on prizes from the Guardian First Book Award to the Jewish Quarterly-Wingate and is part of the team behind the Brixton Review of Books. You can read her full Personal Anthology and other selections here.

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