Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Edith, I Love You

I fell in love with Edith when I was in graduate school.

For the sake of my wife's suddenly-arched eyebrows, let me clarify:  I fell in love with Edith Wharton when I was buried up to my chin in required reading at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.  She was long dead by that point, so my wife had nothing to worry about.  Edith was dead, but her words lived on.  At that point in my graduate career, I had been nearly conquered by the dullness of other novels on the reading list (I'm lookin' at you, Mr. Henry James!) and I needed literature that would cut through the fog.  The House of Mirth proved to be a pretty bright lantern in all that gloom.  Reading Wharton's 1905 novel, I felt like Lawrence Selden himself in the opening paragraph:
Selden paused in surprise. In the afternoon rush of the Grand Central Station his eyes had been refreshed by the sight of Miss Lily Bart.

Today marks Edith's birthday and I thought I'd take a moment here at The Quivering Pen to celebrate her life and influence on my own writing.  Because I'm still on my diet (see: Jan. 1; also: resolution), I won't be having any birthday cake. (Insert lame joke about "having your cake and Edith, too.")   But, if you could see me now, I'm wearing a rainbow-colored cone-shaped hat and blowing a paper noisemaker that unrolls like a red carpet from my mouth.

Edith Wharton (who would have been a whopping 150 years old today) is well worth feting in such a potentially-embarrassing manner.  She combines everything I love about classic literature: the sharp realism of Flaubert and Dickens and the biting social criticism of Henry James (without, you know, all the dull parts).  My Wharton education is far from complete--I've yet to read The Age of Innocence or The Custom of the Country--but what I've read, I've loved.  In particular, I'm very fond of Summer.  It's one of her books that doesn't get as much notice as The House of Mirth or Ethan Frome, but I found it to be every bit the arrow-to-the-heart kind of reading I'd come to expect from Wharton.

Like Kate Chopin's The Awakening, Summer caused quite a stir when it was first published in 1917, primarily because it's about sex and the enjoyment thereof.  Supposedly, Wharton called it her "hot Ethan."  It tells the story of Charity Royall, a child of mountain moonshiners who "comes down from the mountain" to be adopted by a family in a rural New England town (this is one of the few times Wharton set one of her stories outside of New York City society).  Overcoming her abusive past, Charity gets a job as a librarian and eventually has a passionate affair with Lucius Harney, an architect who has come to the country to escape the Big City.  Complication: Lucius is secretly engaged to a society girl back in the B.C.  Ruh-roh, Raggy!

Yes, Summer's story is good, but I especially like Wharton's description of the rural New England setting.  Here, for instance, are the second and third paragraphs of the novel:
      It was the beginning of a June afternoon. The spring-like transparent sky shed a rain of silver sunshine on the roofs of the village, and on the pastures and larchwoods surrounding it. A little wind moved among the round white clouds on the shoulders of the hills, driving their shadows across the fields and down the grassy road that takes the name of street when it passes through North Dormer. The place lies high and in the open, and lacks the lavish shade of the more protected New England villages. The clump of weeping-willows about the duck pond, and the Norway spruces in front of the Hatchard gate, cast almost the only roadside shadow between lawyer Royall's house and the point where, at the other end of the village, the road rises above the church and skirts the black hemlock wall enclosing the cemetery.
      The little June wind, frisking down the street, shook the doleful fringes of the Hatchard spruces, caught the straw hat of a young man just passing under them, and spun it clean across the road into the duck-pond.

If all goes well with The Biography Project, you should be hearing much more about Edith Wharton later this year since Hermione Lee's 2007 biography of E.W. is in the queue to be read.  For now, I'll leave you with this little tease--the opening paragraph of Chapter 2:
A little American girl, born into the middle of the Civil War, is growing up in the 1860s and 1870s in a well-established New York family. She is a late child, with much older brothers, so her childhood feels like an only childhood. She is taken to Europe when she is very young, and has a bad illness while she is there, which makes her more anxious and fearful than she was before it. She enjoys her early exposure to Paris, Rome and Spain, and when the family gets back to New York, she finds it ugly and alien, and always feels like a stranger there. She is red-haired, awkward, shy eager to please, in love with the sound of words and passionate about dogs. She is happier when she is running about, swimming and boating at the family's seaside home in Newport, or alone in her father's library, than when her mother dresses her up and takes her into society. She is devoted to her Irish nurse, affectionate with her father, less fond of her mother and puts up with being teased by her brothers. She tells herself stories all the time. She is to have no formal education.


  1. Wonderful post! I've never read any Wharton before. I have a copy of Summer; sounds like a rewarding off-the-beaten-path place to begin with her.

  2. Loved this post. I just re- read The Age of Innocence for the umpteenth time and consider it one of the best works of (American) literature. Her best, too.