I have a strange fascination with Edith Wharton, as I have with anyone who can both adore and eviscerate New York City. Growing up in the shadow of the metropolis, I always felt like it was home even though it was always intimidating and strangely, always just out of reach. But if anything can top the allure of contemporary New York City, it’s 19th century New York City, a city dominated by a High Society populated by old-world Americans. Americans whose recent ancestors founded the country. It’s almost magical, historically. And Wharton dissects and criticizes it with the same brand of poison pen that Jane Austen so deftly wielded. Yep, I love Edith Wharton. Let’s explore.
Edith Wharton was born into the New York society she would later write about so carefully. Born wealthy and privileged among Fifth Avenue Society, she started writing at the young age of 11, featuring many of the real-life characters she knew in her life. Even though she was quite a prolific young writer, she was not officially published until she was 41 years old. She won a Pulitzer for The Age of Innocence, and published 37 other books, including the one featuring one of my favorite characters in literature, Lily Bart: The House of Mirth.
In high school, I knew Edith Wharton as the author of Ethan Frome, a novel which I hated down to my very core. It wasn’t until later that I discovered her most popular, Pulitzer-winning novel The Age of Innocence and my personal favorite, The House of Mirth. I love reading about society, about the particular eccentricities and hypocrisies of people, and yes, I do love reading about ballrooms and nosegays and big dresses. And I love, love reading about what New York used to be, even if it was filled with terrible people doing terrible things. That’s mankind, innit?
Right now I’m reading The Age of Innocence for the first time since I was 16 or so, and there is so much I don’t remember that it may as well be the first time I’m reading it!