One hundred fifty years after her birth, many people are still trying to figure out Edith Wharton. Aside from creating the most famous sled scene outside of “Citizen Kane,” the American novelist is probably best known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Age of Innocence,” a story of romantic love stifled by the weight of convention.
That capsule description hardly does justice to the complexity of Wharton’s story, and yet it’s the way many people remember it. On the surface, the book appears to be a polemic against the defenders of stuffy, soul-destroying tradition—“a band of dumb conspirators . . . an armed camp,” as Wharton phrases it in the climatic scene. That view tends to appeal those who, somehow, still believe that our society’s biggest problem is too much repression and inhibition.
But if Wharton had been the kind of novelist who merely went on clichéd rants about inhibition, her works would not have been as deep or rich or enduring as they are. Instead, she skillfully explored the tension between tradition and freedom, between the need to fulfill one’s obligations to others and the longing for personal fulfillment.
As Newland Archer muses near the end of “The Age of Innocence,” reflecting on his life: “After all, there was good in the old ways. . . . There was good in the new order too.” For Newland, as for most of Edith Wharton’s characters, there are no easy answers.
In Wharton’s sesquicentennial year, how do her favorite themes hold up? Or perhaps we should ask, do they still hold up at all? Three novels published this year, based on Wharton’s life and her works, provide useful test cases.
Francesca Segal’s “The Innocents,” an update of “The Age of Innocence,” is a particularly interesting example. Segal’s choice of setting, a Jewish enclave in London, is a sort of tacit admission that, in our larger society, the forces of tradition have taken a severe beating—because if she had set it almost anywhere else, her story would not have worked.
In Segal’s story, the relatively sheltered Adam is newly engaged to the even more sheltered Rachel, but he pines after Rachel’s cousin Ellie, who’s been expelled from Columbia University for making what is tactfully called an “art house” film. In today’s world, not many people would bat an eyelash over this scenario. It’s the threat that Adam and Ellie’s potential romance poses to the safety and sanctity of Adam’s tight-knit Jewish community that raises the stakes.
Not that the characters seem particularly interested in personal sanctity; when Ellie assumes that Adam and Rachel are practicing premarital abstinence, Adam laughs at the very idea. Unlike May Welland, her counterpart in Edith Wharton’s novel, Rachel is not a sexual innocent. This fact seems to signal that virtue, in this world, matters far less than the preservation of family ties and traditions.
In any case, the title “The Innocents” can hardly be interpreted other than ironically. In Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence,” both May and her romantic rival, Ellen, are innocent in their own way. Before and then during their marriage, Newland is both fascinated and frustrated by May's innocence, which seems to cut her off from the real world. Ellen, for her part, is accused of many things, when in fact her only crime is being unlike everyone else in genteel New York society, and having seen too much of the world.
But after a long, torturous relationship, Ellen is finally about to capitulate to Newland's advances, when May, surrounded and backed up by her family and her society, quietly steps between them and saves her marriage—and arguably saves the two of them from themselves. Wharton seems to suggest that innocence, for all its perceived drawbacks, has a wisdom and a power all its own.
In Segal’s update, Ellie has done everything she is accused of, and more; and Rachel’s innocence is little more than mere provincialism and an expectation that everyone will protect and care for her. And by the end of the story, Rachel has lost even that. Family traditions, conventional obligations, and concern for others still carry their weight in this world, but that weight is not heavy enough to keep the now-married Adam from sleeping with Ellie near the end of the book.
And though guilt finally drives Adam and Ellie apart, the loss of Rachel’s innocence in the wake of their affair is seen as, on balance, a positive development: “Life had taught [Rachel] suffering. Maybe [Adam] himself had taught her suffering—he could not bring himself to pursue that line of thought. But with the sacrifice of her innocence, it was undeniable, she had bought her strength. To Adam, she had never been more beautiful.”
If Edith Wharton was conflicted about the value of innocence, Francesca Segal seems to set very little store by it at all.
Another Wharton update, “Gilded Age” by Claire McMillan, lacks even the modicum of tension that Segal’s story has. “Gilded Age” is based on “The House of Mirth,” Wharton’s tale of Lily Bart, a young woman with too much integrity to survive in her glittering but brutal society. McMillan relocates the story to 21st-centry Cleveland, and tries to make the case that Cleveland’s gossipy, hypocritical upper class is as restrictive as Wharton’s 19th-century New York. It’s not much of a case.
Wharton’s Lily, who lives among the upper class but has barely enough money to sustain herself, is driven by the conflict between her needs and her conscience. She longs to compromise her ethics and do whatever it takes to fit in, but she cannot bring herself to lie, blackmail, or marry for money, as so many of her friends do.
But McMillan’s main character—like Segal’s character, also named Ellie—never has to deal with such a conflict. Her erratic and promiscuous behavior earns her a bad reputation and loses her the one man she really loves, but she has other options. As a modern woman, her entire survival does not depend on catching a rich husband. Nonetheless, driven by self-destructive inner forces, she finally suffers the same tragic fate as Lily Bart—but without having a chance to grow in maturity or show any of Lily’s redeeming qualities.
It’s Jennie Fields’s “The Age of Desire,” based on Edith Wharton’s own life, that comes closest of these three books to recreating the tensions in Wharton’s work. Fields offers a fictionalized account of some of the most important relationships in Wharton’s life, primarily her close friendship with Anna Bahlmann, her former governess turned secretary.
But the crux of the story is Wharton’s affair with journalist Morton Fullerton. For in her personal life as well as in her fiction, Wharton wrestled with the questions of morality and duty versus passion and freedom. Trapped in a loveless marriage with a man who was showing increasing signs of mental illness, the middle-aged Wharton grabbed at what she thought was a chance for happiness. Instead, she ultimately found disappointment and disillusionment.
It’s quite possible that this episode helped Wharton to recognize that traditional morality had its advantages. Fields’s depiction of Wharton doesn’t spare her, or make excuses for her. But Fields does show her coming to the understanding that her behavior has hurt, not only herself, but others as well. Perhaps the real Edith Wharton realized that the closely woven social fabric that sometimes seemed so stifling had its purpose. At its worst, it could shut people out, but at its best, it could help people learn to consider and protect others.
Freedom, while it undoubtedly has its attractions, also has its price. As the other two novels reviewed here show, whether their authors intended it or not, a society in which a common understanding of morality and decency has vanished has lost something of infinite value. Edith Wharton, more than likely, would have been among the first to acknowledge this.
Note: All three modern novels reviewed here contain profanity and/or sexual descriptions. Image from the Edith Wharton Collection at Yale University.
Gina Dalfonzo is editor of BreakPoint.org and Dickensblog.
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