The story follows the life of Tina, a young woman caught between the mother who adopted her - the beautiful, upstanding Delia - and her true mother, her plain, unmarried ‘aunt’ Charlotte, who gave Tina up to provide her with a socially acceptable life. The three women live quietly together until Tina’s wedding day, when Delia’s and Charlotte’s hidden jealousies rush to the surface. Originally serialized in The Red Book magazine in 1922, The Old Maid is an examination of class and society as only Edith Wharton could undertake.
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As I mentioned recently somewhere, the more I read Edith Wharton the more I love her, which is saying a lot since I was instantly smitten when I started reading my first book by her, The House of Mirth. I’ve read a couple of her novels and some of her shorter works since, but this is the first short story I've read of hers so far, and I can see why she was considered a master of the form. This story is included in the Old New York collection and I'm counting is as an individual work since I got it as an audiobook and am shamelessly making up the numbers to reach 150 books this year. Set in the 1850s, and I should specify in Edith Wharton's 50s, that is to say, the Old New York of the top of the upper crust of distinguished family names, splendour, old money and stifling social conventions, it tells the story of two cousins, one pretty and married, the other rather plain and unwed and mother to an illegitimate little girl. Charlotte, who is about to be married into the same respectable family as her cousin Mrs. Deliah Ralston, confides to her cousin and begs for her help, as she fears that her marriage will separate her from her secret love child Tina forever. Deliah, whose first loyalty goes to her family by marriage, ensures that the wedding plans are cancelled to prevent the scandal from attaching itself to the too respectable Ralstons, though she promises to take care of Tina herself. Years go by, Deliah is widowed, the cousins live together, and Tina is now a very attractive girl of marriageable age. Charlotte is known to the girl as 'Aunt Charlotte the old maid', and she affectionately considers Deliah to be her mother, and of course the secret of her real origins are unknown to her. The two older women have found this to be the best compromise, but there are unexpressed jealousies and resentments seething under the surface, which suddenly erupt when a young man starts making too frequent visits to the house. When Wharton wrote this story, it was already relegated to historical fiction, describing mores that had been long out of fashion, but the core of the tale is timeless, telling of love and passion and the mysteries of motherly love and the bonds that unify women. I couldn't help but shed a sentimental tear or two at the end, and perhaps it is a sentimental story, but they should all be so well told.