‘There are two ways of spreading light… ’ wrote Edith Wharton in The Age of Innocence. ‘To be the candle or the mirror reflecting it.’
Wharton was Jane Austen’s successor, Virginia Woolf’s precursor, Scott Fitzgerald’s inspiration, and in her way, she achieved more in her writing than all three. On reading this, the various Jane Austen appreciation societies are reaching for their wax to make an effigy to attack with pins before bedtime tonight, but that’s because they haven’t read their Wharton.
I came across her by a happy Amazon mistake, when I hit the purchase button and downloaded her complete works. It had cost 99p, and it seemed churlish to cancel the order. I soon discovered what a life-changing moment that second of inattention had been. Here was Austen, the analyser of polite society and the wicked lampooner of the idle rich. Here was Woolf, and her juxtaposition of those who pick and choose their entertainment and those who decide to work for the betterment of society. While Wharton has Woolf’s understanding of the tortures of mental illness, her analysis is not as stark. Wharton’s protagonists who can’t cut it don’t defenestrate. They disappear through a carefully prepared society hole so there is no mess. And Wharton showed Scott Fitzgerald how to suffocate his heroes on too much cake. Unlike Wharton, Fitzgerald wrote for his bread and butter. Maybe this provided Wharton with a safety cushion Fitzgerald couldn’t afford, and made Wharton the more liberated writer of the two.
Wharton was born into a wealthy American family in 1862 and had first to reject the society that would suffocate her. It wasn’t easy. Her family travelled extensively, and she became fluent in French, German and Italian, and obsessed with words. She tried her first novel age 11. At 15 she secretly wrote the novella Fast and Loose – an early rejection of the hypocrisy of her class. She wasn’t encouraged to pursue a career in literature. Her mother forbade the reading of novels until she was married. Biographers claim she kept to this regime. Balderdash! When did we ever comply with our parents’ reading wishes, but Wharton’s childhood and youth remained a problem. She was a victim of a mother determined to enforce a regime of what ‘nice girls,’ should do. That wasn’t much in the 1880s, apart from looking pretty, saying little and getting hold of a rich husband. But travel broadens the mind, and she was unable to return to the corset of upper-crust New York. She dumped a fiancée at the last minute, married Teddy Wharton, a marriage that was described by Henry James as the worst mistake she had made in her life. To escape the suffocating social enclosure of Newport and other high-society haunts, Wharton finally eloped to France where she found more inspiring companionship amongst the artists and writers she befriended in Paris. Throughout her life, Wharton received only destructive criticism from her mother. Despite her talent, she had her first novel published at the age of 40. If that was due to her mother’s influence and negativism, Wharton surely paid the price for being good and polite.
In France, Wharton became a philanthropist and didn’t flee Paris in 1914, but set up sewing workshops for destitute women to enable them to have an income. She also built shelters for refugees and became a war correspondent with reports published in Scribner’s Magazine. As well as being a novelist, Wharton was a poet, an essayist, a friend of politicians and anyone important in the world of literature and art. She went on to become the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1920 with her novel The Age of Innocence. She was nominated for the Nobel Literature Prize three times and was an early travel writer.
It is said that every novelist is somewhere within one of their novels.* I think Edith Wharton was Countess Olenska, from The Age of Innocence. Alice Wickham who recently reviewed this book described the Countess as, ‘the spanner in the works’ and ‘a bohemian and free spirit, who is at odds with the rest of her American peers, socially and sexually liberated. She fraternises openly with the dubious, lives among artists and writers, and in general, represents a menace to a carefully constructed universe.’ Unlike Olenska, Wharton can’t have been, ‘innocent of the severity of her impact on society’. She did it out of badness. And there we have the Wharton rub. Men could, within limits, play the enfant terrible, and poke two fingers at the society they were born into, and yet remain part of that society. Women couldn’t, maybe still can’t and maybe still have to elope to France.
Is Wharton’s work better than Austen’s? Or is it simply that the language is more modern and therefore more relevant? Virginia Woolf rather cuttingly said of Wharton and Wharton’s lifelong friend, author Henry James, ‘They do not give us anything we have not got already’. Yet, often Wharton is regarded as a more interesting writer than Woolf. Undeniably, Woolf’s language is breathtaking in its beauty and elegance. So too is Wharton’s, but she does it less ostentatiously and also uses a language directed more towards her audience. Why is she a better writer than Scott Fitzgerald? Her novels are more cleverly constructed, more incisive, and provide a deeper analysis of her social setting than anything Fitzgerald ever achieved. The Great Gatsby remains an absolute favourite of many readers, so if you are a Gatsby fan, imagine the fun waiting for you in Edith Wharton.
*For example, my recent novel, The Last Stop, has received five-star reviews, but fan correspondence asks if I am my male protagonist and how did I research the action within the sex industry? Calm down! It’s called imagination.