"The Old Maid" is quintessential Edith Wharton -- it takes place in Gilded Age New York City, in the genteel upper crust where human passions are hidden under lace and gilt. And despite its length, this novella is a passionate one, focusing on two women whose ordinary, pleasant lives are disrupted by a secret they both share.
Delia Ralston has the "perfect" life -- a dependable husband, two children, and a lovely expensive home. But then her cousin Charlotte (newly engaged to Delia's cousin-in-law) bursts in with a shocking confession: a few years ago she gave birth to an illegitimate baby, fathered by Delia's ex-boyfriend. And if she goes ahead with the wedding, she will have to give up her daughter.
After the initial shock, Delia contrives a way for Charlotte to have her daughter. She must remain an old maid, and retire to the countryside with little Tina.
Fast forward a couple decades, and Charlotte is now living with the widowed Delia. Tina has grown into a beautiful, vivacious young woman, who considers Delia her "Mamma" and Charlotte as dowdy, fusty "Aunt Chatty." When a young man starts paying special attention to Tina, but reveals he cannot afford to marry her, both Delia and Charlotte begin to fear that history will repeat itself. But any solution means that one of them will lose her.
"The Old Maid" takes place in the same elegantly exalted New York as "The Age Of Innocence" -- many of the families and characters of that story are mentioned, and one even knows Tina. And in a way, it deals with a lot of the same problems: "the dark destinies coiled under the safe surface of life," with human passions safely hidden behind proper societal expectations.
Wharton's prose is elegant and polished, but often rips away the pretty veneer to show us the ugly and/or wilder side of human nature. The best example of it is near the end, where she lulls you with damask roses, orange and moonlight, and then unleashes all the hidden bitterness and sorrow that Charlotte had been hiding.
And she spins up a truly spellbinding pair of characters in Delia and Charlotte -- one is a woman of passion and intensity who must quash it down for the sake of her daughter, while the other is a dull "conventional" woman until that same girl causes her maternal love to bloom. The secret they share brings them together, but it also causes some ugly feelings to arise.
Like the society of Old New York, "The Old Maid" is elegant and beautifully written, but with highly-charged emotions running under the surface. A must read.
(Just a warning: this novella has been printed elsewhere as part of the "Old New York" omnibus.)