What happens when a girl is raised to be nothing more in life than ornamental? When the outer and inner life of a woman must center on a man? When the substance of a human being is trained toward one goal and one goal only: to marry well and serve her husband and children until death?
These, to me, seem the essential questions asked by Edith Wharton throughout her entire extensive body of work.
And you can bet they are answered in the most disatrous of ways.
This spring and summer I have so far read:
Ethan Frome (read in January, actually)
The House of Mirth
The Age of Innocence
The Custom of the Country
…and there’s nary a happy ending among them.
Because what happens when a woman is raised to believe her existence is purely ornamental–that is, the point of her being alive is to appear prettily on the arm of a man–is that she becomes a wholly social creature, existing only for others with a vacuousness of heart and mind in place of an actual personality, her needs and desires replaced (or suppressed) by her own constant social striving.
And that’s when she survives at all.
As you may know, Wharton famously writes of New York City socialites during the Gilded Age. She and her family were players in this scene and she writes from an insider perspective, even including characters which may remind you of real life socialites you’ve heard of: Nan St. George, protagonist in The Buccaneers, was modeled on Consuelo Vanderbilt, who married the British Duke of Marlborough, representing a trend–rich American marries cash-poor English gentry–made familiar to contemporary audiences by by Downton Abbey.
To me, Wharton’s genius is demonstrated in her depiction of social climbers.
In each of her major novels the world of upper-class New York is laid bare, its players representing each “type” in that world. For example, the Custom of the Country features the Spraggs, midwesterners who made it big in their hometown but struggle in New York–they represent the “new money” crowd.
I won’t go into detail on each book here because I’m separating them out so that Karen of Books and Chocolate, host of the classics challenge, has an easier time tallying my books.
But I wanted to write an overall sort of intro. first.
Spending so much time in Wharton’s New York (and Western Europe) has been so pleasurable and interesting. I see myself rereading these novels for the rest of my life, partly because the characters and writing are so engaging and partly because, well, I just love to see what rich people get up to.
p.s. Do you know of a good Edith Wharton biography? I hear the Hermione Lee bio is the place to start, but I’m open to suggestions.
p.p.s. Has anyone figured out how to insert special characters into their text? I’d really like to find the em dashes in this block editor! Clue me in if you know. 🙂