It is unfortunate that Edith Wharton (1862-1937) is usually thought of in connection with Henry James, as a sort of female imitation, because thereby her unique gifts are obscured. They seem to write about the same upper-class characters in similar milieux, European or American cities and resorts, and they are both said to write novels of manners, a phrase that vaguely suggests sophisticated characters swapping witty repartee. In fact, the characters needn't be sophisticated and the repartee can be almost wordless, because such novels are truly defined as being about a knowing group of people in a very mannered society, and that can be a poor rustic milieu, as in William Faulkner's The Hamlet or As I Lay Dying. I myself have written stories about the highly mannered folk society of Cape Breton. How the characters maneuver among the rituals, how they are (or are not) bound by them, how they interpret the maneuvers of others - these are the elements of a novel of manners. Here's an instance from a novella I wrote about in my essay on Henry James (15 of this series), Daisy Miller:
In the strictly mannered society of upper-class Americans in Rome, Daisy errs by being too familiar with a man, and Winterbourne, an American who has been thoroughly Europeanized, failing to see her act as an innocent mistake, drops her, only to realize his mistake after her death. But the damning point is made that he stays on in Europe, another in the long line of ineffectual dilettantes endemic in the American novel of manners.
So you see that manners and how characters interpret them, are crucial in such novels.
Note that James is making a moral point: Winterbourne is faulted for allowing manners to blind him to innocence, and he is judged a lesser man for it. Manners are always subordinate in James's work to a moral issue, because he was a moralist. Edith Wharton does not have such a strongly moral, masculine outlook; her judgments are subtler, and she is more interested in manners per se. Her experience growing up in the upper-class society of New York in the 1870s, in what seemed to her a rigidly mannered society about to undergo drastic change, seems to have left her with a lifelong fascination with the subject. She was so focused on the class of worthy New York burghers and their thrusting successors, the newly grossly rich, that she saw little else around her, and her imaginative world bears only the faintest of tangential relations to the material New York of the latter 19th and early 20th century. For that, you must go to Frank Norris and Theodore Drieser. What matters, as I never tire of repeating, is that the writer should bring his imaginative world to life for the reader, and to assess her success we must look at her work.
Mrs. Wharton began her writing career with short stories, and continued writing and publishing them until her death. She also published four long stories under the collective title Old New York, and I recommend them all. Some of her stories are among the best written by Americans.
Admirable as her stories are, it is for her novels that she is remembered. She wrote more than a dozen, but only three are really good. She could write convincingly only about the upper-class world as she had known it; she could neither describe nor understand the manners and underlying thoughts and feelings of people in other classes (like the rustics in Ethan Frome and Summer) or contemporary America (Hudson River Bracketed) - she lived in France after 1914. But three novels - The House of Mirth (1905), The Age of Innocence (1920), and The Children (1928) - will be read as long as American books are read.
Her most celebrated novel is The Age of Innocence, for which she won a Pulitzer, the first woman to do so. The most artistically satisfying of her novels, it is written with subtlety and great dramatic power. Until I reread it for this essay, I had not looked at it for over 50 years, but as soon as I picked it up, remembered scenes glowed again in my mind. The scene is high society New York in the 1870s, innocent in a good sense - by contrast to the manners (already looming) that are soon to follow - and a bad: innocence as a consequence of the stifling repression by those same elaborate manners and mores.
The book opens with an emblematic scene at the opera where Newland Archer observes his fiancee, May Welland, in a box with her cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska, who has fled form her husband in Europe, and at that point Archer's conventionality is stressed, uniting him with his fellow club members in their box, who think it daring of Ellen's relatives to show her thus in public. But as Archer sees more of her, he gradually becomes infatuated, and at one point after his marriage to May he decides to run off with her. When he begins to tell his wife, she interrupts to say she's pregnant - she has already told Ellen, who has left for Europe - and of course he gives up his dream of escape. Twenty-six years later, after May's death, he goes on a trip to Paris with his elder son. They are to have tea with Ellen, but when they get to the apartment house, Archer tells his son to go on alone. The son doesn't know what to tell Ellen, so Archer says "Say I'm old-fashioned: that's enough."
The immediate and obvious theme is the struggle of the nonconformists - Ellen and Archer - to free themselves from the rules of their repressive society, a theme that is managed with great art. We feel the weight of repression almost physically, a force pressing in from all sides, while the feelings of the two would-be rebels burn intensely in terse, powerful scenes, the ones I remembered after 50 years. Conventional society wins, and Archer is so cowed by it that even when he is free he cannot take up with Ellen; he is indeed old-fashioned, trained to the rules of New York society in the 1870s.
That reading, however, is a little shallow. There is a counter-theme associated with May, the unadventurous, culturally dull, conformist wife who gently but remorselessly prevents her husband from wrecking their marriage. While Archer and his son are in Paris, the latter reveals that May, on her death bed, had told the son that "once, when she asked you to, you'd given up the thing you most wanted." The asking, of course, was metaphorical, but in that revelation we see May clearly for the first time as a woman of great courage, sense, and art - the strongest character in the novel. This gives the story a richness, a complexity, and a depth that a simple paean to nonconformity would never have, and now we see Archer's "old-fashioned" self-characterization as not wholly negative. Mrs. Wharton's accomplishment with this novel is beyond praise.
Her first successful novel, The House of Mirth, follows the doomed career of a social butterfly for two years until her death. Although she is only "fashioned to adorn and delight," Lily Bart is a very sympathetic character, more so than anyone in Age of Innocence. As she says herself, she is poor, she is extravagant, and she must marry money, but she has a history of muffing her chances, mainly because of scruples. Lily has one disinterested friend, Lawrence Selden, who can stand outside society and judge it, and he is the confidante of her hopes and fears, but like nearly all the men in Mrs. Wharton's novels, he is a dilettante, weak when he is tested. The reader is carried through the novel by interest in Lily's stalwart, decent character, for this is a novel of character, and it is a tribute to the author's skill that she could create such an interesting figure out of such limited material.
Artistically, House of Mirth is not nearly so well wrought as Age of Innocence; Mrs. Wharton did not have the control of her material in 1905 as she did 15 years later. The book, a third longer than Age of Innocence, is too long and poorly focused, and there is no thematic clarity. Obviously, we are meant to contrast Lily with her social set - the title is ironic, the set is shallow and cruel, and Selden's detachment is clearly praiseworthy - but even as we acknowledge such a theme, we brush it aside because our interest is so taken up with Lily, and her surroundings and associates are not painted with strength and color. Just because of the character of Lily Bart this novel remains a favorite with many readers.
The Children, not nearly so well known as the novels already discussed, is about an engineer in his forties who becomes interested in a group of seven children, some related and some not, who keep being pushed around and redistributed and neglected as their parents divorce, remarry, and live the high dissolute life at various European watering places. Martin Boyne comes to the aid of the children, helping them to stay together (what they desperately want), later becoming a sort of guardian to them for some time in Italy, all this at the expense of his relationship with the woman he's going to marry, Rose Sellars, who takes an unsentimental view of the children and wants him to leave them. The oldest child, their leader, Judith, just turned sixteen, is very appealing. Unknowingly (he keeps saying she's just a child) Boyne is falling in love with her, and near the end of the book, when it seems as if the band of children will be broken up, he suggests to Judith that he marry her and she laughs, thinking he's joking, because she's far from those sort of thoughts yet. Mrs. Wharton's handling of the scene is superb.
"If things went wrong, and you were very lonely, and a fellow asked you to marry him . . ."
"Who asked me?"
He laughed. "If I did."
For a moment she looked at him perplexedly; then her eyes cleared, and for the first time she joined in his laugh. Hers seemed to bubble up, fresh and limpid, from the very depth of her little girlhood.
"Well. That would be funny," she said.
There was a bottomless silence.
"Yes - wouldn't it?"
Boyne grinned. He stared at her without speaking; then, like a blind man, feeling his way, he picked up his hat and mackintosh, said:
"Where's my umbrella? Oh, outside"
- and walked out stiffly into the passage. On the doorstep, still aware of her nearness, he added a little dizzily:
"No, please - I want a long tramp alone first . . . . I'll come in again this afternoon to settle what we'd better do about Paris . . ."
Boyne and Rose Sellars part, and he leaves for a job in South America, but he returns on a short leave three years later and happens to observe Judith at a dance. Entranced, he watches her for awhile and then leaves.
It's another of Mrs. Wharton's tales of renunciation, but not because of the man's weakness.
Boyne, after all, is a strong character. A marriage to Judith would have been impossible, and giving up the very controlled (and controlling) Rose is no mistake. He is, as the last sentence says, "a lonely man," but that's the result of his strength, not weakness. What makes the book so enjoyable (it's my favorite) is the mastery with which the author portrays the wonderful children (especially Judith) and the forthright but sensitive character of Boyne, as well as her deadly accurate picture of the often-divorced parents and their "set" carousing on the Lido.
I have tried, inadequately I fear, to show the qualities that made Edith Wharton the fine artist she was. The best thing I can do is to point you to her work - the stories and the three excellent novels - and hope you will discover for yourselves this marvelous American writer. *