The Reader's Den: Edith Wharton's "Autres Temps"
At the start of Autres Temps, Mrs. Lidcote is arriving in New York on a steamer ship from Italy, after a long, self-imposed exile. Having fled New York's society years ago, when she became an outcast following her divorce, she is returning only after receiving news of her daughter's divorce and remarriage.
As the shapes of the city's skyline begin to emerge from the fog, Mrs. Lidcote is full of worry and unable to stop mulling over her past, which she fears will become her daughter Leila's future. When she shares these fears with an old friend, Franklin, whom she meets on the boat, he tells her that times have changed, that Leila won't face the same stigma, and what's more, he proposes to Mrs. Lidcote! She has a lot to think over, and she begins to really wonder if she does have a chance of being accepted again by those who cut her out years ago.
- Why does Franklin try so hard to convince Mrs. Lidcote that she is just being paranoid, and is not a social outcast? Does he really believe times have changed so much, or is he just working towards his own goal of marrying her? Maybe he is trying to convince himself?
- Franklin, Leila, and the relative sent to collect her, Susy, all have in common an attitude of gaiety when it comes to Leila's new marriage. They all try to convince Mrs. Lidcote that she is hopelessly old-fashioned and out of touch with the new way of doing things. Mrs. Lidcote starts to second guess herself, until it becomes clear that she is being excluded from Leila's dinner party. Why is everyone working so hard to convince her of something that doesn't seem to be true?
- Instead of telling her mother directly that she should not attend her dinner party, Leila insists that she must be too exhausted after her journey to come. Does it seem that everyone is treating Mrs. Lidcote like a child? Why does Leila not think her mother will be able to see that she is being excluded?
- Before she returns to Europe, Franklin comes to Mrs. Lidcote's hotel room to try once more to convince her that she will be accepted in society. Despite what had happened at Leila's home, Mrs. Lidcote suddenly agrees and tells Franklin she wants to go downstairs right then and there to see some old acquaintances. It is only then that Franklin balks, and the truth is made clear: he knows that she is still an outcast. Was Mrs. Lidcote really convinced, or was she trying to test Franklin?
- This story was published in 1911. Does the social world of old New York hold any relevance when you read it today? Is it enjoyable as a look at a bygone era, or do you find parallels with today's society that you relate to?
Please leave any comments and questions below, and thank you for participating in the Reader's Den! Join us next week when we will discuss Wharton's 1934 story, Roman Fever.