I’ve been listening to David M. Friedman’s Oscar Wilde in America. In his early days in New York, Wilde gave lectures and appeared at (I’m tempted to say “posed at”) innumerable society parties. Friedman mentions at least two appearances that Wilde made at parties given by Mrs. Paran Stevens.
Now, Mrs. Paran Stevens rings a bell with all Whartonites for several reasons. According to Hermione Lee, Mrs. Stevens, “a grocer’s daughter,” was born Marietta Reed in Lowell, Massachusetts. She ‘forced herself’ Emelyn Washburn remembered) ‘into New York society by way of Newport” (61).
Edith Wharton’s great-aunt, Mrs. Mary Mason Jones, refused to receive the pushy arriviste Mrs. Stevens, but Mrs. Stevens had nearly the last laugh: After Mary Mason Jones’s death, Mrs. Stevens bought her house, the house that she had not entered during Mrs. Jones’s lifetime.
Wharton herself had the real last laugh. She immortalized Mrs. Stevens as Mrs. Lemuel Struthers in The Age of Innocence, whose parties, held on Sundays, scandalize Old New York but attract the more cosmopolitan Ellen Olenska.
But there is a closer connection: Mrs. Stevens was nearly Edith Wharton’s mother-in-law. Lee reports that “the engagement between Edith Jones and Henry Leyden Stevens was announced in Town Topics, on 19 August 1882, with a wedding set for October. In October, however, the engagement was publicly broken off” (61). Edith Jones, later Wharton, supposedly broke off the engagement, although insiders claimed that Mrs. Stevens wanted to keep control of all her son’s millions and forced him to break the engagement. Henry was 23 in 1882, and the money was in his mother’s control until he married or reached the age of 25. Henry Stevens died without having married in 1885, the year that Edith married Edward (Teddy) Wharton.
What of Wilde and the 1882 tour? Could Edith Wharton have met, or rather seen, Oscar Wilde?
First, since the announcement of Edith’s engagement came in August 1882, she and Henry must have been seeing each other for some time. Shari Benstock, in No Gifts from Chance, dates their relationship to the Joneses’ residence in Venice in 1881, with Harry following Edith to Cannes during her father’s last illness (44). Henry, or “Harry,” was Edith’s “shadow,” according to her relatives, and devoted to her. And although the stiff-necked Joneses and Rhinelanders, Edith’s relations, did not accept Mrs. Stevens, it’s hard to believe that over the course of their relationship Edith would not have visited Henry’s home.
Thus she could have attended one of Mrs. Stevens’s more literary soirees, especially to meet a celebrated character like Wilde. Wilde’s literary credentials were slim at this point, but his fame as an apostle of the Aesthetic movement was phenomenal. Edith Jones, though unknown, was already a published poet with alarmingly intellectual interests. (Her intellectual interests were, Town Topics speculated, the reason for the broken engagement.) The newspapers were full of Wilde’s visit–and her fiancé’s mother hosted at least two entertainments with Wilde as a featured guest, which a young engaged woman like Edith might have attended with her fiancé.
If she met Oscar Wilde at this time, Edith Wharton seems to have left no record of it, unlike her long friendship with Henry James and other literary figures.
So did she meet or see him in 1882? What’s your guess?