Edith Wharton's The Children concerns the lives of expatriate Americans in the 1920s. Martin Boyne is bachelor of 46 who is traveling to Europe to meet an old flame who is now widowed. As his ship sets out, he ponders his unexciting life and his lack of adventure. He travels often but never meets any interesting people and never falls in love. His situation, however, is about to change drastically.
As he leans over the railing, his eyes are drawn to a face:
Men of forty-six do not gasp as frequently at the sight of a charming face as they did at twenty; but it hits harder. Boyne had not been looking for a pretty face but for interesting ones, and it rather disturbed him to be put off his quest by anything so out of his present way as excessive youth and a rather pathetic grace.
As he soon learns, the face belongs to the fifteen year old daughter of a former Harvard schoolmate and a woman for whom he had once felt a romantic attraction. The girl, Judith, is traveling to Venice with the entire Wheater entourage of seven children, a governess, Mrs. Scopes, and a nanny. The parents, Cliffe and Joyce Wheater (whom the children refer to by their first names or more often simply as "The Wheaters") are to meet them there.
The children are a mish-mash of offspring resulting from their parents marriages and divorces. Judith and a set of twins were born in the early days of the Wheater's marriage. Then, they divorced and Joyce married an Italian prince who already had two children from a prior marriage to a circus performer. When they in turn divorced, Joyce took the two children. In the meantime, Cliffe married a movie star, had an daughter, divorced, and got custody of the girl. Finally, the Wheaters remarried and had another son, now just a baby. The seven children have been shuttled about the world and are now all together and plan to stay that way. They've sworn an oath on the book that has seen them through all their trials - Mrs. Scopes' "Cyclpedia of Nursery Remedies'.
Martin is first captivated by Judith, who mothers all the other children, and then falls under the spell of the whole assorted bunch and they adore him. When the parental Wheaters arrive, he is coaxed into procuring a tutor for one of the twins. He spends all his time with them before he moves on to meet Rose.
Once he arrives, however, he is again ensnared in their ongoing drama. The Wheaters are divorcing again - Joyce has fallen for the tutor Boyne obtained for the son - and the children are to be split up once more. Judith flees to Boyne with all the children and their caretakers to plea for his help in keeping them together. Boyne can't refuse her. He's confused over his feelings for her and feels for the children who are continually subject to their parent's carelessness and irresponsibility.
When he goes to see the Wheaters to convince them to say together for the sake of the children, the discussions are attended by numerous parental relations and their current romantic attachments. Boyne sees that "in the Wheater set they could deal with things only collectively; alone, they became helpless and inarticulate. They lived so perpetually in the lime-light they required an audience - an audience made up of their own kind. Before each other they shouted and struck attitudes; again like savages. But the chief point was that nobody could stay angry - not however much they tried. It was too much trouble, and might involve too many inconveniences, interfere with too many social arrangements. When all was said and done, all they asked was not to be bothered - and it was by gambling on that arrangement that he finally gained his point."
The outcome of the talks is not what he expected - he is made temporary guardian of all seven children. Boyne takes it on magnanimously but Rose is skeptical. However, confused Boyne is over his feelings for Judith, Rose soon sees it for what it is and steps out of the picture. Left with the children, Boyne realizes that any moment they can be snapped up again by the wayward parents and he will be left alone. Just as he comes to grips with his feeling for Judith, the inevitable happens and Joyce Wheater wants to collect offspring - steps and all.
The story is wonderful and the characters equally so. Wharton gives all seven children unique, engaging personalities which is no small task when creating fictional children. Judith is a warm, loving, mothering hen often much older than her years. Terry longs for an education and his twin, Blanca is obsessed with fashion. The two Italians cling to each other and have stormy, emotional Continental personalities. Zinnie, whose mother is a movie star, is always expecting presents from everybody and Chip, the baby, is boisterous and cheerful in spite of the unsettled lifestyle he is subjected too.
The rollercoaster lives of Joyce and Cliffe Wheater make me think of The Great Gatsby and the havoc that would have ensued if Daisy and Tom Buchanan had seven children! The novel explores the effect on the lives of children of the denial of guilt, the avoidance of responsibility, and the pursuit of happiness at all costs that predominated in the years after the first world war.
I was unfamiliar with The Children and I am so glad I came across it. It was a wonderful read.