Mrs. Lidcote is a passenger on the Utopia, watching the harbor of New York loom closer. She thinks about how she cannot escape her past. In fact, she has spotted Mrs. Lorin Boulger, her former mother-in-law, on the same ship. Mrs. Lidcote barely leaves Florence anymore but the news of her daughter's divorce from Horace Pursh and remarriage to Wilbour Barkley has brought the past back too harshly. Mrs. Lidcote imagines that all of New York society will be saying that Leila has taken after her mother, making the same scandalous error. Mrs. Lidcote muses, "the past [is] bad enough, but the present and future [are] worse, because they [are] less comprehensible" (238).
Mrs. Lidcote's friend Franklin Ide is also on the Utopia, but she has avoided him thus far because she assumes that he pities her. However, right before they disembark, Ide asks Mrs. Lidcote if the Barkleys will be waiting for her. She says yes, and wonders aloud how Leila feels about seeing people after her divorce. Ide tells his old friend that things are different now because divorce is much more common. Mrs. Lidcote is skeptical because she has never "noticed the least change in [her] own case" (242). Mrs. Lidcote worries about her daughter's future, but shares with Ide that Leila has told her that her coming back to New York is unnecessary. Ide interprets this to mean that Leila is fine.
A message arrives for Mrs. Lidcote saying that Leila is with Wilbour in the country and that her cousin Susy Suffern will meet her at the train and bring her to the Barkleys'. Mrs. Lidcote thinks this is because Leila cannot bear to see anyone. Franklin Ide shyly asks if he can come see Mrs. Lidcote in the city, and she replies in the affirmative, observing, "the huge threat of New York [is] imminent now" (245).
Franklin Ide indeed comes to visit Mrs. Lidcote. She comments dryly, "there's no old New York left, it seems" (246). Apparently Susy believes that Mrs. Lidcote's conventional point of view is leading her to misunderstand Leila's situation. Mrs. Lidcote tells Franklin that Leila's apparent happiness is slightly discomfiting because she is used to Leila needing her. Before he leaves, Franklin Ide makes a confession to Mrs. Lidcote.
Sitting in the train the next morning, Mrs. Lidcote reflects on Franklin Ide's confession of his romantic interests. Many years ago, she muses, they had almost had something, but back then, Mrs. Lidcote wanted to focus on Leila. In addition, she felt that her life was over because of the shame from her divorce. Yesterday, though, Ide argued that since Leila is happy and settled, he hopes that Mrs. Lidcote will at least consider his offer.
Mrs. Lidcote is pleased about Ide's offer because "it [helps] her hold fast to her identity in the rush of strange names and new categories" (251). When she gets off the train, Susy meets her and goes on about Leila's happiness, and that Leila and her her ex-husband (who is engaged to be married again) are still friends. Mrs. Lidcote begins to wonder if the changing times mean that her own case will be vindicated.
When she finally arrives at Wilbour and Leila's lavish home, Mrs. Lidcote is thrilled to see how happy her daughter is, and how comfortable and established her relationship with Wilbour appears to be. She is a little morose with the realization that her daughter does not need her and that she has weathered the divorce just fine on her own. Admittedly, Mrs. Lidcote feels a pang of resentment, wondering, "if such a change was to come, why had it not come sooner?" (254).
Mrs. Lidcote greets Leila and Wilbour's friends, but only one girl, Charlotte Wynn, seems to enjoy speaking to her. Mrs. Lidcote desires a private conversation with her daughter, and they are finally able to spend some time together the comfort of her rooms before the evening guests arrive. Mrs. Lidcote observes that Leila seems tender and solicitous. As Leila goes downstairs to greet her guests, she encourages her mother to rest.
After Leila goes downstairs, Susy comes upstairs to visit Mrs. Lidcote and, like Leila, insists that Mrs. Lidcote stay upstairs to rest. She also comments that Charlotte Wynn has been called away. Before Susy leaves, Mrs. Lidcote says quietly, "Is it your idea that I should stay quietly up here till Monday?" (260). Susy laughs this off, but it is clear that Leila does not want her mother to come downstairs.
Mrs. Lidcote asks Susy who is coming to dinner and Susy admits that one of the expected guests is Mrs. Lorin Boulger. It is important that Wilbour impresses Mrs. Boulger because she could help him earn a diplomatic appointment in Italy. Mrs. Lidcote is surprised that Leila failed to tell her about Mrs. Boulger's coming to dinner. She expresses mild shock that she will be sharing a dinner table with the woman again, but Susy is silent. When Mrs. Lidcote presses Susy to find out if Mrs. Boulger even knows that she is at the house, Susy dodges the question. She keeps telling Mrs. Lidcote that she seems too tired to come downstairs, and Leila will never forgive her mother if she makes too much of an effort.
Leila comes upstairs while Mrs. Lidcote is getting dressed. Leila looks troubled and once again pressures her mother to stay upstairs and get some rest. Mrs. Lidcote asks her daughter if her guests even know that she is there, and Leila stutters that of course they do, and they would all understand if she did not come down. Mrs. Lidcote asks, knowingly, “Will they think it odd if I do?” (264). Leila blushes intensely, and Mrs. Lidcote finally tells her that she will stay upstairs and rest because she is tired.
After two days of rest, Wilbour successfully gets his desired post in Rome, and Mrs. Lidcote decides to go back to Italy. Everyone, including Leila, wonders why she would want to leave so quickly, but Mrs Lidcote holds firm to her decision. She has started to think that her tiny apartment in Florence is the one place where “the past [is] endurable to look upon” (267).
In the days before she is to set sail, Mrs. Lidcote is not unhappy, just pensive. She decides that she does not want anyone to accompany her on the journey back to Europe and also refrains from calling Franklin Ide to inform him of her imminent departure. However, when she is back New York City (where her boat departs from), Ide shows up at her hotel. Mrs. Lidcote explains her reason for departing and claims that she had meant to write to him. Ide listens patiently and tries to convince Mrs. Lidcote that she is being paranoid about her daughter's intents, but she remains committed to her interpretation of the events. She says that despite Leila's divorce, “it’s simply become a tradition to cut [Mrs. Lidcote]. And traditions that have lost their meaning are the hardest of all to destroy” (272).
Ide continues to profess his love to Mrs. Lidcote and tells her that he desires to join her in solitude. She is beginning to think that he is onto something. Then, embracing her newfound confidence, Mrs. Lidcote proclaims that she wants Ide to accompany her downstairs to see Margaret Wynn, Charlotte’s mother. Franklin Ide tries to dissuade her, and she finally sees a dark blush stealing up his neck to his face – similar to Leila's reaction on the night of her dinner party. Mrs. Lidcote understands, and asks her porter and maid to help her pack.
"Autres Temps," which means "Other Times" in French, was published in 1911. Wharton wrote this cynical tale while she was considering divorcing her husband, Teddy. Their marriage had been particularly tempestuous because of his mental instability. As with many of Wharton's stories, "Autres Temps" deals with changing social norms and mores, generational conflicts, and the innate hypocrisy of society.
The story begins with Mrs. Lidcote looking out at New York from the deck of a ship. Wharton portrays the city as a monster - massive and vaguely threatening. This is an apt description for Mrs. Lidcote, because New York represents a world that has long been determined to destroy her. While thinking about how she cannot escape the past, she is sailing directly into it. She is fearful for her daughter, Leila, who has divorced and remarried just as Mrs. Lidcote did many years before. Based on her own experience, Mrs. Lidcote is certain that Leila is facing disapprobation and wants to retreat from society in order to save face. Over the course of the story, though, Franklin Ide, Susy Suffern, and Leila herself reveal to Mrs. Lidcote that Leila's place in society is secure.
The times have changed in New York, everyone tells Mrs. Lidcote. She observes it for herself when she first sees Leila in the wake of her divorce - she is dazzlingly happy. Leila and Horace (her ex-husband) are still friends, and in addition, society has embraced Leila and Wilbour as a couple. Mrs. Lidcote starts to come to terms with this "topsy-turvy world, with its headlong changes and helter-skelter readjustments, its new tolerances and indifferences and accommodations" (252). However, this realization is bittersweet for Mrs. Lidcote, who begins to wonder if Leila's situation will ease her own return to New York. For a contemporary reader, it seems as though Mrs. Lidcote's cautious optimism is warranted, but these fancies come crashing down as soon as she arrives at Leila's home.
Once Mrs. Lidcote realizes that she is a burden to her daughter, she returns to New York in order to catch the boat back to Italy. Although she does not want to see Franklin Ide, he arrives at her hotel room door and proves what Mrs. Lidcote (and the reader) have already discovered – that once a person is the victim of scandal and ignominy, that person is an outcast forever, even as society changes around her. Mrs. Lidcote's name is tainted and New York's well-to-do set have ignored her for so long that it is impossible for them to perceive her in any other way. Franklin tries to tell her that she is being ridiculous, but at the end of the story, he reveals that he possesses the same opinion as the rest of society. He wants to be in isolation with Mrs. Lidcote, but is not ready to take on the burden of appearing by her side in public.
Wharton does not make it clear whether or not Mrs. Lidcote is testing Franklin Ide's feelings for her or if she actually believes that it will be possible for them to go downstairs and socialize with Charlotte Wynn's mother, Margaret. Franklin Ide, Susy Suffern, and Leila all care about Mrs. Lidcote, but they do not want to upset her. Each one is conscious of the stigma Mrs. Lidcote carries, despite their superficial endeavors to convince her that "times have changed." Mrs. Lidcote, however, is the only character willing to confront her situation head-on. She also never experiences the deep, revealing blush that Susy, Franklin Ide, and Lelia do when their adherence to social mores tests the boundaries of their politeness. Critic Abby Werlock writes, "Mrs. Lidcote's strength of character is tested and found equal to the social ordeal she is forced to endure; of all the sympathetic characters in the story, she alone does not blush."
In typical Whartonian fashion, the ending is decidedly ambivalent. Mrs. Lidcote becomes aware that even Franklin Ide feels prejudice towards her. It is unclear whether or not Mrs. Lidcote is willing to accept only being with him in isolation. If she does, she will spend the rest of her life willingly avoiding social situations and pretending that ostracism does not affect her. However, she may very well go on to Florence alone, which is the only place where she can co-exist with her past. Wharton once again makes a veiled social comment about the choices that women had during that time. Mrs. Lidcote can either be alone and free or trapped with a companion. Meanwhile, none of the male characters carry the stigma of divorce, in fact, it is not even a concern.