‘Souls Belated’ by Edith Wharton

Set in her customary milieu of upper-class East Coast American society, Wharton’s story is the saga of Lydia and Gannet, their illicit affair, and Lydia’s divorce from her husband. As they travel though Italy with Lydia’s divorce papers in her luggage, the way ahead to a blissful married future seems clear. Except it’s not – complicated emotions, doubts and fears cloud any vision of harmony, as Wharton painstakingly dissects their relationship. While the story is in one sense a sober satire of late nineteenth-century society, with its strictures and constraints, it’s more an exploration of the how unknowable people are, even those closest to us. Wharton reinforces this with the constantly shifting POVs – never a very successful tactic in short stories, given the concentration of the form – exposing just how differently Lydia and Gannet see each other and the world. At the end, this distance is deftly bridged by the sound of the steamboat that is to take Lydia away: ‘He and she, at that moment, were both listening to the same sound: the whistle of the boat as it rounded the nearest promontory’. The story’s closing moments when they part and seem to reconsider are tortuous and beautiful in their fidelity to lived experience. 

First published in The Greater Inclination, Scribner, 1899. Collected in The Reckoning and Other Stories, Phoenix Orion, 1999