The Valley of Decision by Edith Wharton

Title: The Valley of Decision
Author: Edith Wharton
Published in 1902

Plot Summary from Goodreads: Wharton combined her insider’s view of America’s privileged classes with a brilliant, natural wit to write humorous, incisive novels and short stories of social and psychological insight. Wharton’s first full-length novel, The Valley of Decision, is set in eighteenth-century Italy. Here Wharton pits folks inspired by the antireligious thoughts of Rousseau and Voltaire against the orthodox leaders of the day. Soon enough Wharton’s nigh-constant theme comes through: this, like most other violations of personal convention, will come at a terrible cost.

Who would have thought that Edith Wharton’s first novel was so far afield of the rest of her work – a piece of historical fiction set in the late 1700’s in The Piedmont area of Italy, before Italy was anything other than a collection of small feudal states. The Valley of Decision follows the life of Odo Valsecca as he grows from child to man. Odo is the nephew of the Duke of Pianura, who ultimately ascends the position of Duke himself after both his uncle and his cousin die, his cousin, the ducal heir, in young childhood.

The Valley of Decision is divided into four parts. The first covers his childhood and the last his ascension to the throne. The middle two are chiefly concerned with Odo’s interest in the liberal ideals of philosophers like Rousseau and his involvement with free-thinkers, who are at great risk in the Italy from both crown and church. During this youthful period of intellectual growth, Odo falls in love with Fulvia Vivaldi, daughter of a philosopher who ends up having to flee because of, at least in part, Odo’s lack of care in spending time with the elderly man, which draws the attention of the authorities to him.

This book involves a lot of the same themes as Wharton’s later works – the impact of society’s rules on the people who must live by them, the stultifying meaninglessness of those rules, the doom that pretty inevitably falls on characters who flout the rules. It’s odd to have her playing out these themes in the context of the 1790’s in Italy, though, and isn’t completely successful. The free-thinking Odo only partly came alive for me. It’s hard to imagine how someone could be quite that obtuse after being forced to flee from his ideals repeatedly.

As always, Wharton’s writing is polished into a shining, perfect surface, without so much as a word out of place. However, I found it difficult to engage with the story, and felt, at times, like the book was a slog. The final half moved much more quickly than the first half, and the ending, while certainly not shocking given my experience with Wharton, did manage to raise an emotional response in me.

I don’t know if someone told Wharton to write about the New York society that she knows so well and brings to life with such intensity, but, to the extent that someone did, we owe that person an incredible literary debt. This is a well-written book, but is ultimately unsatisfying and I can well understand why it has slipped into relative obscurity.