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.”
Those days are long gone, of course.
Or are they?
Isn’t Monica Lewinsky our modern-day Mrs. Lidcote?
In her thoughtful essay in Vanity Fair, Lewinsky recounts the odd and uncomfortable realm she has occupied since her affair with Bill Clinton more than 17 years ago. She had sought jobs in London, Los Angeles, New York, and Portland, she writes, but “because of what potential employers so tactfully referred to as my ‘history,’ I was never ‘quite right’ for the position . . . I eventually came to realize that traditional employment might not be an option for me.”
She also writes of the humiliations she has suffered, from mockery in song lyrics to being asked, outright, “How does it feel to be America’s premier [oral sex] queen?”
All of which raises the interesting question of why. Granted, back then it was easy to be disgusted with her as a thoughtless young woman who showed no respect for the (admittedly porous) boundaries of someone else’s marriage. But even if, like me, you view the Clinton investigation and impeachment as examples of absurd prosecutorial overreach and colossal Republican overreaction, the principal responsibility for the affair surely rests with Clinton.
So why does Lewinsky suffer enduring notoriety? Other “other women” have faded from view and gotten on with their lives. Would anyone recognize Gary Hart’s former girlfriend? Two years ago, a woman credibly asserted that as a 19-year-old White House intern, she had an affair with JFK. Can you recall her name? Mark Sanford, whose marriage broke up after an affair with an Argentinian woman, has since been elected to Congress — and asked his lover to marry him. Who cares, really? You might remember Rielle Hunter from the John Edwards follies, but would a mocking reference to her succeed as a punchline or lyric?
Perhaps it’s the well-known details of the sex between Clinton and Lewinsky that has frozen her in lurid memory. But again, why? As intimate activity goes, it was hardly outside the norm; at its most exotic, it would be a tame entry on one of those “spice up your sex life” articles you can read almost anywhere.
Myself, I think Wharton anticipated Lewinsky’s dilemma almost a century ago. Yes, at 40, she seems serious, intelligent, reflective, and contrite, but people have made their judgments. We have long thought of her as a promiscuous flibbertigibbet or even, in Hillary Clinton’s recently unearthed phrase, “a narcissistic loony toon,” and we’re not willing to revise that verdict.
Why does Lewinsky suffer enduring notoriety? Other “other women” have faded from view and gotten on with their lives.
Reading Lewinsky’s thoughtful story, I found myself hoping she can move on, but doubting we ever will.Scot Lehigh can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.