She wrote "Ethan Frome" and "The Age of Innocence" don't you know!
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We've had E M. Forster, Evelyn Waugh, Charles Dickens and Kazuo Ishiguro, and now it’s Edith Wharton’s turn to get the MerchantIvory treatment although this time it’s Martin Scorsese behind the cameras. His new adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence opens nationwide on 18th February (this was written in 1994 - BB), and looks set to become the first big film of 1994. It’s been a huge hit in the United States, where the presence of stars such as Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer among the cast, Scorcese’s reputation as one of America’s top directors, and the movie’s ‘Old New York’ setting have proved a winning combination.
Whatever you think of these "costume dramas" Commitments director Alan Parker recently described them as "the cinematic equivalent of Laura Ashley " there’s no denying their makers’ impeccable literary taste. Forster and Waugh have never been out of fashion, but the triumphant transfer to the screen of novels like Howards End and Brideshead Revisited has only boosted their already considerable readerships.
It would be excellent news if Scorsese’s film should do the same for Edith Wharton, although in her case it would amount to something of a revival. Despite the fact that The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth have never been out of print for long, they’ve always been considered minor classics, and Edith Wharton a ‘second-division’ writer who never completely emerged from the shadow of her great friend and literary idol, Henry James.
Neither of these judgements is fair. Edith Wharton’s finest work and that includes the novella, Ethan Frome, and a dozen or so of her stories, as well as the two books mentioned above ranks with the very best American fiction, and I suspect that reluctant admirers of Henry James - those who love Daisy Miller and The Portrait of the Lady, but find his later writings a little too tortuous for comfort - will be pleasantly surprised by her. The Age of Innocence is an absolute masterpiece, rivalling that other neglected classic of the period: Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier.
Edith Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones on 24th January 1862, the first and only daughter of Lucretia Rhinelander and George Frederic Jones. Hers was a wealthy New York family and she had a privileged if sheltered upbringing. Manhattan in those days was a much duller, less cosmopolitan city than it is now, and even surpassed London in its snobbery and obsession with ‘the done thing’. When the young Edith Wharton mentioned finances to her mother one afternoon, she received the crisp reply: 'Never talk about money, and think about it as little as possible.'
Among the other subjects that were ‘not talked about’ were sex and literature but, despite her parents’ distrust of books, Edith Wharton was a voracious reader from an early age, and her imagination was fired by the works of Scott, Dumas, Thackeray, Ainsworth and all the other great nineteenth-century authors. 'The imagining of tales... had gone on in me since my first conscious moments,' she later recalled in her autobiography, A Backward Glance. 'I cannot remember the time when I did not want to ‘make up’ stories.'
A Backward Glance is curiously reticent about her family, but it does include a description of one rather eccentric relative: “a mild and inoffensive old bachelor cousin, very small and frail, and reputed of immense wealth and morbid miserliness, who built himself a fine house in his youth, and lived in it for fifty or sixty years, in a state of negativeness and insignificance which made him proverbial even in our conforming class and then, in his last years (so we children were told) sat "on a marble shelf, and thought he was a bust of Napoleon"”
Between 1866 and 1872, Edith Wharton spent most of the time in Europe and particularly Italy with her parents, who had left America to escape the dire financial consequences of the Civil War. After the greyness and conformity of New York, she found ‘the Old World’ a liberation, and these early wanderings gave her a taste for travel that never left her (and one which both impressed and horrified the sedentary Henry James).
In 1872, her family returned to America, and their old narrow circle: Newport in the summer, New York in the winter visits, tea parties and sailing, with cultural activities restricted to occasional visits to the opera. Edith Wharton was educated at home by a governess, and in her spare time read widely: every thing from Lewis Carroll to Charles Darwin.
Her own efforts at writing were not encouraged, and her early stories had to be scribbled down on bits of old wrapping paper and other scraps. At the age of eleven, she began a novel, which she unwisely showed to her mother. The latter glanced at the manuscript, read the line, “If only I had known you were going to call, I should have tidied up the drawing-room, and immediately snapped back: Drawing-rooms are always tidy. The novel was not completed.
Lucretia preferred verse and, in 1878, even had 29 of her daughter’s poems printed in a slim edition by the Newport firm of C. E. Hammett. Needless to say, this book simply entitled Verses (wrappers; as ‘Edith Newbold Jones’) - is the rarest of all Edith Wharton’s titles, so much so that it’s impossible to price. A year earlier, Edith Wharton had finished a novella with the rather improbable title, Fast and Loose, but perhaps unsurprisingly her mother did not pay to have this published.
In 1880, her father’s health began to fail and the family returned to Europe in search of a sympathetic climate. They settled on the French Riviera, but Mr. Jones’s condition gradually worsened and he died in 1882, whereupon she and her mother returned to New York.
For young women of Edith Wharton’s class, life held but one fate: marriage. Sure enough, in 1885, she was married to one of her brothers’ friends, Edward ‘Teddy’ Wharton, a man thirteen years her senior. He was hardly an ideal match - in true New York form, he despised literature, confining his interests to two things: travel and ‘Society’.
Although they shared some happy times in their early years together in 1888, they went on a four-month cruise in the Aegean, which is glowingly recalled in A Backward Glance their union quickly became one of convenience, and then one of decided inconvenience, especially after Teddy contracted a debilitating nervous illness in 1903. The unsatisfactory nature of Edith’s marriage was partly compensated for by her intense friendships (and they were nothing more than that) with a number of more literary-minded men, including the lawyer and critic, Walter Berry (whom she described after his death as 'the love of my life'), and, of course, Henry James, whom she first met in the late 1880s but did not properly befriend until 1903, when Edith Wharton visited him while on a trip to London.
Edith Wharton’s first commercially published book was The Decoration of Houses, which was issued by Scribner’s in 1897. This was co-written with a young architect called Ogden Codman, who four year's earlier had overseen the refurbishment of Land’s End, a house she and Teddy had bought in Newport. Much to her surprise, the book was quite successful, and proved to he a steady-seller throughout her life.
She had sold her first story, ‘Mrs. Manstey’s View’, to Scribner's Magazine in 1890, and in 1899 the publisher issued a collection of the best of her short fiction (chosen by Walter Berry) under the title The Greater Inclination. This, too, was a success - it was published in this country by John Lane in the same year and confirmed Edith Wharton in her vocation. “Thereafter, she later wrote, 'I never questioned that story - telling was my jolt'”
She followed this up with a novella, The Touchstone (1900); published by John Murray in the same year under the title A Gift from the Grave, a second volume of short stories, Crucial Instances (1901) and, a year later, her first novel, an historical tale entitled The Valley of Decision (1902).
Although none of these books was a bestseller, they won her a definite readership in both Britain and America. However, her own people - East Coast Society - were not sure quite how to take her success: 'I remember once saying that I was a failure in Boston because they thought I was too fashionable to be intelligent, and a failure in New York because they were afraid I was too intelligent to be fashionable'”
She also offended ‘middle America’: “Dear Madam, a man wrote to her after reading one of the stories in Crucial Instances, 'Have you never known a respectable woman?' She answered him very effectively in the pages of A Backward Glance: 'A higher standard of taste in letters,' she writes there, 'can be achieved only if authors will refuse to write down to the particular Mississippi Valley' i.e. ‘Bible Belt’ 'level of the day'”
In 1903, Edith published another novella, Sanctuary, following this with two books about her beloved Italy: Italian Villas and Their Gardens (1904) and Italian Backgrounds (1905). Then came the first of her great works (and also the first of her bestsellers): The House of Mirth.
Edith Wharton had always been aware that the world she knew - privileged, conformist, tradition-bound presented her with particular problems as a writer. Too little happened there; it was too narrow, too leisured. How could she hope to make great literature from such restricted materials?
Then, one afternoon it came to her: she finally realised that 'a frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance ‘only through what its frivolity destroys . . . in short, my heroine, Lily Bart'” Lily is that most wretched of things: a ‘Society woman’ without money. Not even her great beauty and spirit can overcome that one great deficiency, and her attempts to keep afloat in this privileged world are doomed to bitter failure.
And yet despite its tragic tone, The House of Mirth is the first of Edith Wharton’s books in which her wicked humour really shines through. Take this description of Lily Bart’s fellow guests at a lavish dinner that takes place early in the novel:
'She looked down the long table, studying its occupants one by one, from Gus Trenor [her host], with his heavy carnivorous head sunk between his shoulders, as he preyed on a jellied plover, to his wife, at the opposite end of the long bank of orchids, suggestive, with her glaring good looks, of a jeweller’s window lit by electricity. And between the two, what a long stretch of vacuity! How dreary and trivial these people were! Lily reviewed them with a scornful impatience: Carry Fisher, with her shoulders, her eyes, her divorces, her general air of embodying a spicy paragraph’; young Silverton, who had meant to live on proof-reading and write an epic, and who now lived on his friends and had become critical of truffles; Alice Wetherall, an animated visiting-list, whose most fervid convictions turned on the wording of invitations and the engraving of dinner-cards; Wetherall, with his perpetual nervous nod of acquiescence, his air of agreeing with people before he knew what they were saying; Jack Stepney, with his confident smile and anxious eyes, halfway between the sheriff and an heiress; Gwen Osburgh, with all the guileless confidence of a young girl who has always been told that there is no one richer than her father'.
This sustained piece of invective must have made uncomfortable reading for those in New York society who thought her 'too intelligent to be fashionable'!
In 1907, the Whartons moved to Paris, where Edith Wharton spent the next thirteen years of her life. Between then and 1911, she produced a mixed bag of works, including a novel The Fruit of the Tree, (1907), a novella Madame de Treymes, (1907), a travel book A Motor-Flight through France, (1908) (Edith Wharton was always a keen motorist), and three volumes of short stories The Hermit and the Wild Woman, (1908); Les Metteurs en Scene, (1909); and Tales of Men and Ghosts, (1910).
Then, in 1911, her work took a new and unexpected turn with the publication of the novella, Ethan Frome. This dark tale of suppressed passion focused, not on the social butterflies of Newport or Fifth Avenue, but on a poor farming community in a very bleak corner of Massachusetts.
Edith Wharton’s descriptions of the unforgiving New England landscape will surprise those who associate the area with colonial villages and cookie shops. It certainly shocked her contemporaries, but she dismissed her critics in A Backward Glance with this typically (in print, at least) frank salle: 'In those days, the snow-bound villages of Western Massachusetts were still grim places, morally and physically: insanity, incest and slow mental and moral starvation ‘were hidden away behind the paintless wooden house-fronts of the long village street or in the isolated farm-houses on the neighbouring hills'” Shades of Cold Comfort Farm! Edith Wharton returned to rural New England six years later in her rather more sunny novella, Summer.
In 1907, Edith Wharton had met a young American journalist called Morton Fullerton with whom, after a certain amount of hesitation, she had had a passionate affair. By 1910, this had subsided into yet another intense friendship, but the relationship had already put paid to her unhappy marriage, and in 1911 she separated from her husband. They were divorced two years later.
Between 1911 and the outbreak of the Great War, Edith Wharton produced two novels: The Reef (1912) and The Custom of the Country (1913). The latter, an account of the life and many marriages of a beautiful but ruthless American socialite, is among her very best works.
Edith Wharton spent almost the whole of the Great War in Paris, where she worked indefatigably for the Red Cross, organising workshops and finding accommodation for orphans and refugees. To raise money for ‘the cause’, she edited an anthology of 'original articles in poems and prose' entitled The Book of the Homeless, which was issued in a limited edition of 175 copies (fifty on hand-made paper). She also wrote a guide to French Ways and Their Meaning (l9l6) for the American army, and a tribute to the forces of her adopted country, Fighting Frances From Dunkerque to Belfort, for which she twice travelled to the front. The French government awarded her the Legion d’Honneur it recognition of her heroic work during the war.
The conflict inspired two rather uninteresting novels, The Marne (1918) and A Son at the Front (1923), hut played an important part in the genesis of her verv best work. Alone in Paris, worn down by the cares of the war and her new-found responsibilities, she found herself thinking about the old New York of her childhood:
‘Meanwhile,' she wrote in A Backward Glance, 'I found a momentary escape in going back to my childish memories of a long-vanished America, and wrote The Age of Innocence. I showed it chapter by chapter to Walter Berry; and when he had finished reading it he said: 'Yes; it’s good. But of course you and I are the only people who will ever read it. We are the last people left who can remember New York and Newport as they were then, and nobody else will be interested.’
Berry soon had cause to eat his words: The Age of Innocence became Edith Wharton’s biggest success when it was published in 1920, and won her the Pulitzer prize the following year. It’s a simple story: a young lawyer called Newland Archer becomes betrothed to the 'right sort of girl’ memorably described by Edith Wharton as 'that terrifying product of the social system he belonged to and believed in, the young girl who knew nothing and expected everything' and then falls in love with a ‘woman with a past’, his cousin Ellen Olenska. He doesn’t have the courage to break off the engagement, and as a result loses Ellen forever. The novel ends with him, by now an old man, musing regretfully on his missed opportunity, and yet unable to pluck up the courage to have one last meeting with his old love.
The Age of Innocence isn’t perfect: there is something insubstantial about both Newland and Ellen, and their love affair is unconvincingly presented; it just happens. But the novel is beautifully paced and constructed, and is an absolute masterpiece of concision. It is Greek tragedy transplanted to the world of Henry James, with the moribund conventions of New York Society ('a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs') taking the part of the gods.
The writing is unforgettable, mixing insight (a pubescent girl is described as displaying 'symptoms of lumbering coquetry'), deep pathos (thinking of Ellen in the last chapter, Archer nealises that 'she had become the composite vision of all that he had missed'), Wildean wit ('In the rotation of crops there was a recognised season for wild oats'), and moments of downright burlesque ('Lefferts thundered, looking like a young prophet dressed by Poole, and who had not yet been stoned') .
Edith Wharton can also be very cruel about even her most sympathetic characters. This is how Ellen’s grandmother, the vulgar but good-hearted Mrs. Manson Mingott (played by Miriam Margoyles in the film), is described in chapter four: 'The immense accretion of flesh which had descended on her in middle life like a flood of lava on a doomed city had changed her from a plump active little woman with a neatly-turned hat and ankle into something as vast and august as a natural phenomenon'” Here she almost seems to be making fun of her, something Henry James would never have done.
I urge everyone to read this book. Be warned, though: the last pages are, in their own quiet way, quite shattering. Have plenty of tissues to hand!
Incidentally, the first issue of the first edition includes a famous misprint on page 186, where May and Newland’s wedding is referred to as a 'burial' service!
Edith Wharton wrote eight novels after The Age of Innocence (seven-and-a-half really, the last was unfinished at the time of her death), but she never again scaled its dizzy heights. The best of her late fiction titles are probably the four novellas from 1924: False Dawn, The Old Maid, The Spark and New Year’s Day.
But the most interesting of all her final works is her autobiography, A Backward Glance, first published in1934. This has its dull moments — Edith Wharton has a habit of reeling off the names of beloved friends, rather like an actress accepting an Oscar, but it is full of amusing quips and insights.
She’s particularly good on the differences between New York, Paris and London Society. Of the last she writes that: 'the hospitable people who opened their doors to me in London... were as much exhilarated by the yearly stream of new faces as a successful shot by the size of his bag'” As for intellectual life in the three capitals, she notes that: 'Culture in France is an eminently social quality, while in Anglo-Saxon countries it might almost be called anti-social'” She makes ‘Old New York’ sound very dull, which might explain why so many Manhattanites came to live in Europe, so providing the American literature of the period with its greatest theme.
I found the chapter on the war deeply moving. In fact, no account of that conflict which I’ve read, not even those by serving soldiers, conveys more effectively the devastation it wrought upon European society. The preceding section ends with an account of the ‘golden years’ before Sarajevo, and the poignant line: 'They were vernal hours. . . but already the suckles were sharpening for the harvest'. No one who reads what follows can doubt the depth of her remorse over that terrible harvest.
On the lighter side, the book contains some very amusing anecdotes about Henry James. At times, Edith Wharton does become almost comically ‘plummy’ (recalling the 'admirable cook' at an English friend’s house, she asks rhetorically: 'Shall I ever again eat the like of her braised tongue?’), but she’s certainly not blind to that fault in others. At one stage, she recalls how poor James was cornered at a party by an ex-actress who promptly regaled him with tales of all the many ‘bounders’ who had pursued her during her years on the stage:
'And would you believe it, Mr. James?' she concludes. 'One fiend in human shape actually offered me cameos'” Well!
The funniest anecdote concerns the repeated attempts of various of Edith Wharton’s French friends to obtain permission to translate James’s works. 'Among the advances made by the latter,' she recalls, 'I remember two over which, when they were reported to him, his chuckles were particularly prolonged. In one case a fervent translatress besought me to recommend her to the Master as particularly qualified to translate The Golden Bowl because she had dealt successfully with a work called The Filigree Box; while another tried to ingratiate herself by assuring him that her deep appreciation of my own great work, ‘The House of Myrtles’. was surpassed only by her unbounded admiration for that supreme anatomical masterpiece, The Golden Bowel. Ah, how we used to come back from those parties bearing our sheaves of laughter...!' No doubt!
A Backward Glance was reissued in this country by Constable in 1972, and this makes an excellent substitute for the first edition.
Edith Wharton died at her home in St. Brice-sous-Fôret, just north of Paris, on 11th August 1937. She was buried at Versailles near the grave of her great friend, Walter Berry, who had died exactly ten years earlier.
A number of interesting works have appeared since her death, notably her Letters (Simon & Schuster, 1988), her Stories (two volumes; Simon & Schuster, 1988/89 edited by Anita Brookner), and her collected Ghost Stories (Constable, 1975). Edith Wharton was a superb writer of supernatural tales, and included in the last volume are such classics as ‘Afterward’, ‘The Lady’s Maid’s Bell’ and ‘Pomegranate Seed’ (I was less impressed by the much-anthologised ‘The Eyes’).
Recent months (back in 1994, don't forget! BB) have seen a flurry of activity from publishers keen to capitalise on the inevitable success of Scorsese’s film. The Age of Innocence has been reissued by Penguin in a tie-in edition), and they have also published paperback editions of The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country and Ethan Frome, as well as a selection of Edith Wharton’s short fiction, The Muse’s Tragedy and Other Stories.
Their main rival, Everyman, have the following titles in print:: The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence, Ethan Frome, The Custom of the Country, A Backward Glance, and Wharton’s uncompleted last novel, The Buccaneers. They have also put together a generous selection of her tales (including some supernatural ones), Souls Belated and Other Stories. On the whole, the Everyman editions are better value, as they include long introductions, very comprehensive chronologies of Wharton’s life, plot summaries and suggestions for further reading.
The Buccaneers has also been reissued (in hardback) by Fourth Estate, who have commissioned Marion Mainwearing to complete the novel, using Edith Wharton’s own notes.
For those who want to know more about Edith Wharton’s remarkable life, R. W. B. Lewis’s 1975 biography can be highly recommended. A Backward Glance presents a very selective view of her career. Nothing is said about the failure of her marriage nor, perhaps unsurprisingly, about her affair with Morton Fullerton, and Lewis fills in the many gaps.
Finally, a word about first editions. From The Age of Innocence (1910) onwards, most of Edith Wharton’s novels (as well as A Backward Glance )were published by Appleton & Co. on both sides of the Atlantic, in what were effectively ‘joint-editions’. The American first edition is also the British one, and vice-versa.
Macmillan issued many of her early titles in this country, and several of these were actually printed in America and then distributed in Britain with a new title-page. Don’t be surprised, then, if you come across a reprint that describes itself as the ‘First True British Edition’ (as in Eveleigh, Nash & Grayson’s 1924 reissue of Ethan Frome) :it’s not a first, but it’s still worth having.
I suspect that part of the reason for Edith Wharton’s comparative obscurity is that she wrote in an unmistakably old-fashioned idiom: that of turn-of-the-century and upper-class New York and Rhode Island. She was certainly no Modernist: although she was one of the first to recognise Proust’s genius, she was decidedly unimpressed by both Ulysses ('It’s a welter of pornography,' she wrote of it to a friend, 'and unformed and unimportant drivel') and The Wasteland (Eliot she dismissed as an 'American songster'). Nowadays, such an attitude is regarded as a sort of blasphemy for which no author of the period can be forgiven - a rather shortsighted view that has surely itself become something of an anachronism. Wharton was wrong about Joyce and Eliot, but she was right about much else - and who can blame her for writing about her own world in its own rhetorical but expressive language? Few people have been as scathing about ‘High Society’ as she was, and much of her work is genuinely satirical in tone. Henry James without the hot air (but with a sense of humour), E. M. Forster without the preaching (and, it has to be said, vision) - what more do you want?NOVELS AND NOVELLAS
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This article was adapted from one written by Crispin Jackson published in the March 1994 issue of Book and Magazine Collector Magazine.
Further Edith Wharton links;
Philip K Dick Isaac Asimov Edith Wharton Angela Brazil John Fowles Robert Heinlein Raymond Chandler John D MacDonald Wilfred Thesiger Sylvia Townsend Warner Elizabeth Jane Howard Hugh Walpole Nevil Shute Vita Sackville-West Close-ended Questions