Souls Belated is a short story written by Edith Wharton. It tells of the relationship dynamics between Lydia Tilottson, the wife of a rich New Yorker and Ralph Gannett, a young writer and the man she has left her husband for.
The pair embark on a far-flung sojourn that takes them to the more remote and obscure regions of continental Europe: from Sicily, Dalmatia, Transylvania to Southern Italy. They pass from one country to another, posing as a married couple, shrouding themselves in a web of deceit and false pretenses. They move from one place to another hoping to find a place where they might set down roots and where Gannett might feel inspired to write again.
One day, however, an official letter arrives for Lydia in the post- her divorce papers and matters must come to a head.
The day that the papers arrive the couple are travelling to the Italian Lakes by train. From there, the plan is to secure a secluded spot in the mountains for Gannett to write and for them to be isolated from society.
As the railway compartment gradually empties just beyond Milan, Gannett broaches the subject of marriage to Lydia.
She answers in the most unexpected way, telling him that it is not her wish to marry him, leading him to doubt her regard for him.
Lydia responds: Don’t you see it’s because I care-because I care so much? Oh, Ralph! Can’t you see how it would humiliate me? Try to feel it as a woman would! Don’t you see the misery of being made your wife in this way? If I’d known you as a girl-that would have been a real marriage! But now-this vulgar fraud upon society -and upon a society we despised and laughed at-this sneaking back into a position that we’ve voluntarily forfeited:don’t you see what a cheap compromise it is? We neither believe in the abstract ‘sacredness’ of marriage; we both know that no ceremony is needed to consecrate our love for each other; what object can we have in marrying, except the secret fear of each that the other may escape, or the secret longing to work our way back gradually-oh,very gradually-into the esteem of the people whose conventional morality we have always ridiculed and hated?”
The train brings them at nightfall to an Anglo-American hotel on the brink of an Italian lake. What starts out as a plan to stay a night turns into a more permanent stay. Both of them feel the need to be in a crowded place, so that they may be distracted from their predicament and from each other.
Lydia and Gannett converge into the company of the society that they have scorned for so long- the genteel society of the rich and privileged who stay at the hotel. It is only when the farce of Lydia and Gannett’s false marriage is on the point of being exposed to their companions at the hotel that Lydia must make the decision of whether it is better to stay and marry Gannett, or leave and live an isolated life of her own.
This short story of Wharton’s addresses a number of important issues. The sanctity of marriage, the pressure of society to enter the institution of marriage, the issues of freedom and choice. It is quite a sad tale, very beautifully told, of two souls, very much in love with one another, who have met each other belatedly, at a point in life where marriage is more of a necessity than a joyful choice.