Reading Edith Wharton is such a pleasure. Long ago I read most, or at least many, of her books, and there was a period when I thought she was the greatest American writer. Although I was young, I may not have been wrong. After neglecting her for many years–I’m more an anglophile than a reader of American literature–I am rereading her and amazed at her skill and intelligence.
She writes better than anyone I’ve read in a long time.
I’m rereading her because of her 150th birthday. What a great way to call attention to Wharton! And really it is just as great an occasion as Dickens’s bicentenary.
If people would just read Wharton…
I can’t stop reading her.
I finished The Age of Innocence, Wharton’s most famous book, which won the Pulitzer in 1921. It is a beautiful, complex novel, descriptive of houses, dinners, and furniture as well as mores, wherein love leads to unhappiness. It is not a tragedy like The House of Mirth: I can’t read about extreme agony 24 hours a day. But The Age of Innocence describes manners, customs, and hypocritical morals that cause much anguish, because they are deemed more important than feelings.
It all has to do with what people think. What people think–what people with old money think in Old New York in the 1870s–is more important than emotional intergrity. So when Newland Archer, a sensitive lawyer, and the unconventional Madame Olenska, the cousin of Archer’s fiancée, May, fall in love, it is too complicated to act on, in both their views. Ellen Olenska, who has left her European husband, wants a divorce, and she can imagine a future with Archer. But the uptight Archer, confused, thinks divorce would be a mistake–and shoots himself in the foot thus when he later falls in love with her. Although finally Archer is ready to break his engagement with May, he proves his own worst enemy, giving her opportunities to thwart him, so that he can’t marry Ellen. May, the winner of an archery contest, is compared throughout the novel to Diana, and seems singularly unsexy. She and society control Archer: they shoot him and Ellen with their lethal arrows–not the arrows of Cupid.
Finally, near the end of the novel, Wharton comments directly on society. She shows us both Archer’s cowardice–which has been great throughout the novel–and the changes in morals. Thirty years later, Archer, widowed, looks back and realizes there would have been no agonizing conflict in the 20th century. He would have married Ellen.
And there is hope for the future. His son does not face similar conflict over marrying someone outside his class.
The culture has changed in the 21st century–but perhaps not that much.
According to statistics, fewer marry. More families are broken.
In my generation, we DID divorce. Then the next marriage worked. I know many, many people who have been happily married on their second try.
Edith Wharton would have approved.
What would she have thought of the looser, unmarried drifting of families today (if indeed this culture exists, as the stats say)? Changing partners is a great struggle, if the stats are indeed true.
But Wharton seems matchlessly modern. And she probably would have accepted the culture.
THE HOUSE OF MIRTH MOVIE. I watched the film The House of Mirth, starring Gillian Anderson (Lily), Eric Stoltz (Selden), Elizabeth McGovern (Carry Fisher), and Laura Linney (as a very scary Bertha). It is very good. One criticism? The character Gerty Farish is cut out of the story.
Gerty is a very important character: a young woman who lives in her own flat, not a participant in aristocratic New York society, but of upper-middle-class origins, and the cousin of Selden, whom Lily loves but doesn’t consider seriously because he isn’t rich. Gerty does not need the luxuries Lily needs. She also is a philanthropist: she tries to provide decent housing and amenities for working girls out on their luck.
Can’t imagine what the director or screenwriter was thinking of to cut her out… We need the generous Gerty for contrast with the narcissistic Lily, and to show the life she could have chosen, even if it might not have been quite what she wanted.
The acting in this movie is great, I absolutely loved it, but it’s not quite The Age of Mirth.