It’s a total coincidence that I read Wharton’s juvenilia, a novelette written when she was but 14, just after Austen’s juvenilia, Lady Susan. But the contrast between the two is startling. Just as Lady Susan was sharp and spirited, Fast and Loose is still quite immature. The story is the wasted life and love of an egoist young woman, who spurns her sincere loving cousin to marry a rich(er) old baron.
It’s not awful, and we find echoes here and there of the brilliant psychological analysis that Wharton will develop later on. But both beginning and ending are rushed, under the pretext of being light, and the characters aren’t quite believable: we’re told that the two young people are depraved, but we don’t see any proof of that. The tone of the story is moralizing, so we don’t care if the poor spoiled young woman wastes the rest of her life crippled with remorse. Later on Wharton has beautifully expressed how suffocating society rules push women towards wrong choices, but here it’s seen as entirely her fault, the result of her whim and lack of maternal direction. The “good wife” who eventually marries the desperate cousin is boring and melodramatic, a mere cardboard character. Surely she wanted to make a contrast with her tragic heroin, but the result is not convincing.
Overall, I find this hit-and-miss novel quite comforting. We get to see how much Edith Wharton has improved over the years to achieve her most brilliant novels. It really is a proof that writing is not an innate gift but needs hard work.