“The Valley of Decision” is Edith Wharton’s first long novel, being published in 1902 after her two collections of shorter works, “The Greater Inclination” and “Crucial Instances”, and the novella “The Touchstone”. It is an impressive work, and Wharton’s writing is outstanding as usual. The scope and detail are there, but the execution is not quite up to the level which she would later attain.
“The story takes place in the later part of the 18th century Italy, and focuses on the life of Odo Valsecca, a man who rises to power over the course of the four books which make up the novel. Odo has to deal with the powers in the form of the nobility, the church, the free-thinking movement, and of course the peasants. Wharton effectively details each of these forces, and creates interesting characters from each to form a novel of incredible richness and depth, but so much time is spent on explaining the period and politics that the development of the characters and the storyline suffer.
Book I is titled “The Old Order” and covers Odo’s youth. Here we learn about the impact which St. Francis Assisi has on his early years, about the poverty in which he was raised in spite of his noble bloodline, and of course the impact his father’s death has on his mother and of course on himself. It is also during this period that Odo meets two friends he will have for the rest of his life, a hunchback which he knows as Brutus, though he later learns his real name is Carlo Gamba, and Vittorio Alfieri, a Count from Asti.
Book II is titled “The New Light” and it picks up the story when Odo is a bit older. He has become a young noble, and is learning the ways of the world. He meets free-thinkers, and in particular Professor Orazio Vivaldi and his daughter Fulvia for whom Odo falls in love. Odo’s naiveté with regards to court intrigue and the spying which occurs nearly destroys the Professor and his daughter not just once, but twice. Odo goes to live with the Duke of Pianura, the title for which he is in line and for which it is becoming more and more likely for him to inherit. There he falls in with the free-thinkers again, and once again the spies are on to him. Thanks to the Duchess he manages to escape when de Crucis arrives having been commissioned by the Holy Office to look into the free-thinkers. Despite being on opposite sides of the free-thinker issue, Odo comes to like de Crucis.
Book III is titled “The Choice”, and during this period Odo is free to travel and learn from the free-thinkers thanks to the protection that the Duchess has provided. During this period he once again runs into Fulvia and learns of her father’s passing. Fulvia is in a convent, but not free to come and go. He plots an escape with her, but time and again he fails to understand just how much others are able to learn about his planning. With the aid of another sister though, they make their escape and Odo intends to travel with Fulvia into Switzerland. Just before they make their escape, they are found by de Crucis who informs Odo that the Duke has died and that Odo is to be the next Duke. Odo is willing to give it up, but Fulvia reminds him of his obligation to his people and refuses to let Odo accompany her any further.
Book IV is titled “The Reward” and covers Odo’s time as Duke of Pianura. He tries to push the agenda of the free-thinkers, pushed by his old friend Carlo Gamba and Fulvia Vivaldi, the woman that he loves. But he has been forced to marry the Duchess and play all the political games to deal with the church and the nobles, and it has cost him much popularity. Things come to a head around the constitution that Odo wants to give the people, but the other forces in society work to prevent that from happening.
This is a long and complex story, filled with historical and social information about Italy in the late 18th century. The explanations supporting the story ultimately detract from it overall, but it is still a remarkable piece of writing, and as Edith Wharton’s first long novel it is definitely of interest.