That said, she gave her Edith Wharton a suitably formidable air. In she wafted, in a light brown Dorothy Gish gown, glancing around her in feline felicity before taking up position at a lectern. What followed was neither performance nor reading, but a mix of autobiographical anecdotage and chunks from some of the novels (The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth). There were tales of Wharton's earliest forays into literature, her mother's idea of sex education ("You've seen pictures and statues of men, haven't you?"), Henry James's excruciating circumlocutions, and marital discord. All this was done with a mellifluence that carried effortlessly round the auditorium. There was no trying to "be" Wharton; eyes that widened, hands that clasped, fingers that subtly stubbed out imaginary cigarettes, all suggested a momentary possession, but no more. The sense of lives running in parallel was there for you to pick up, if you felt so inclined: Wharton, the shrewd observer of turn-of-the-century oriental rug-strewn New York society; Worth, a bouffant-haired vision of bygone professional composure. "The end of an era," someone had muttered wistfully in the bar earlier on.
It was the unobtrusive abstention from self-pity that also caught your eye in her study of another woman who defied social convention, George Sand. Lying on a chaise-longue, Worth breathed life into the correspondence between the Parisian novelist and Gustave Flaubert. The latter's career was going through a rocky patch, or so he thought, and Sand's letters acted as strong encouragements: to keep writing, to get out more, to get married. Peter Eyre's Flaubert, sitting thin-lipped on the other side of the stage, could easily have hogged the limelight. But the speed with which they answered one another (more phone-call than pen-to-paper) served to emphasise his self-obsessed "male hysterics" and point up her quiet perseverance. What Worth left you with was not a literary reappraisal, but a reminder that small acts of endurance can have as poignant after- lives as great works - capable of warming old hands at the fire of life, as Wharton put it. Afterwards, dozens lined up to shake hands with Irene Worth. Grateful, that was the word they used.Reuse content