In Edith Wharton’s finely spun story “Autres Temps,” a woman who has caused a scandal by leaving her husband for another man returns from a long exile abroad upon learning that her daughter has divorced and remarried.
She has never been able to outlive her own history. “There had never been any danger of her being allowed to forget the past. It looked out at her from the face of every acquaintance, it appeared suddenly in the eyes of strangers when a word enlightened them: ‘Yes, the Mrs. Lidcote, don’t you know?’ ’’
However, as she makes her way back to New York via steamer, she is told again and again that times have changed. Certainly her daughter’s circle embraces the notion that a woman needn’t stay in a loveless marriage. And so she begins to hope that her two decades as a social pariah may come to an end.
When she arrives, she learns that her daughter will be having as dinner guests some people she herself once knew — and shortly comes to realize that, to avoid any awkwardness, her daughter hopes she’ll stay upstairs in her bedroom for the evening.
With that realization comes understanding: “It’s simply that society is much too busy to revise its own judgments,” she tells a friend. “My case had been passed on and classified: I’m the woman who has been cut for nearly 20 years. The older people have half-forgotten why, and the younger ones have never really known: It’s simply become a tradition to cut me. And traditions that have lost their meaning are the hardest of all to destroy.”
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