Like most of the books I read these days, I discovered It Ended Badly: Thirteen of the Worst Breakups in History (2015) through a Cannonball Review. It sounded like a fascinating, fun read, and it was immediately available at my library. That’s really all I needed, but knowing that one of the break-up stories was about Edith Wharton was probably what had me picking up this book so quickly. I love Wharton’s writing, and I wondered if I would be able to see any of her personal life (which I knew almost nothing about) in any of her books.
Wright’s writing is entertaining and easy to follow. The stories feel like a gossip session. “Did you hear about the time that [insert crazy story here].” And if you weren’t particularly interested in one of the people, you didn’t have to wait long until you had an entirely new historical era and topic. Sometimes these stories are set up as lessons or consolations for those recently suffering from a breakup. Most often, the consolation is: no matter how badly you felt or acted during your last breakup, you could not have been as bad as these couples. However, these thirteen stories are so far from our reality, that the “lessons” were a little bit of a stretch. A common theme throughout these stories is mentally ill people with a lot of power.
It is probably not surprising that I found Edith Wharton’s story of love and woe the most interesting. Wharton grew up in an incredibly sexually repressed household–Wharton’s mother would not even tell her anything of sex the night before her marriage. Her marriage was probably celibate or almost celibate and ended in divorce, But in 1907, when Edith Wharton was forty five, she had her one and only love affair. Morton Fullerton was a journalist and a player of the highest order. Like many players, he was charismatic and very good at sex. But he also had a sociopathic tendency to attach people to him and then leave them without a word. And he did this to Edith Wharton.
After a couple of mind-blowing months, Fullerton disappeared, and Wharton sent him sad, longing, and forgiving letters.
I re-read your letters the other day, & I will not believe that the man who wrote them did not feel them, & did not know enough of the woman to whom they were written to trust to her love & courage, rather than leave her to this aching uncertainty…
You told me once I should write better for this experience of loving. I felt it to be so, & I came home so fixed by the desire that my work should please you! But this incomprehensible silence, the sense of your utter indifference to everything that concerns me, has stunned me. It has come so suddenly…
When Fullerton continues to ignore her and treat her like crap, Wharton comes to a heartening, self-empowering conclusion.
What you wish, apparently, is to take of my life the inmost & uttermost that a woman–a woman like me–can give, for an hour, now and then, when it suits you, & when the hour is over, to leave me out of your mind & out of your life as a man leaves the companion who has afforded him a transient distraction. I think I am worth more than that, or worth, perhaps I had better say, something quite different.
What a sad story. And what an asshole Fullerton was. I’m torn between being pissed at Fullerton for causing such heartbreak in such an insensitive way, and being grateful that Wharton could at least experience love. This story made me want to re-read The Age of Innocence and read Wharton’s biography.
I only had some minor complaints about this book. I found myself often wishing for more historical context. Wright uses a lot of primary sources, which were fascinating to read, but I wanted to know more. Often, Wright would say, “some people think this happened and some people think this happened” and just leave it. She seems to know a lot about history. I would have preferred at least her opinion as to what was more likely. Any of the stories or people I found interesting, I felt like I needed more information to get a complete picture of what was going on. Also, I enjoyed Wright’s tone, but sometimes her jokes took me out of the history she was trying to tell and served only to distract.
Finally, Wright said that “Anne Boleyn is my personal breakup role model.” (71) She admires Boleyn for her composure and willingness to take the high road at her death. Indeed, her actions made her a more memorable historical figure. Standing before her execution, Anne Boleyn said, “…but I pray God save the king and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never and to me he was ever a good, a gentle and sovereign lord.” (70) Seriously? If Anne Boleyn had been sarcastic, I would have enjoyed this speech much more. Sure, taking the high road and not speaking badly of your ex is the best way to go in normal break-ups. But when your spouse is a hypocritical monster about to kill you, I think you can go ahead and speak your mind.
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