Thursday, June 7, 2012

Edith Wharton Rebooted: Gilded Age by Claire McMillan

Gilded Age
by Claire McMillan
Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by Mary Vensel White

There is a famed story about a meeting between Edith Wharton and F. Scott Fitzgerald.  It was 1925.  The Great Gatsby had just been published and Wharton wrote to thank Fitzgerald for sending her a copy.  A tea was proposed.  Zelda, refusing to be made to “feel provincial,” begged off, and Fitzgerald called on the literary legend outside Paris with Teddy Chanler, a Wharton family friend.  As the story goes, Fitzgerald was nervous and drank too much on the way out.  He stumbled around Wharton’s elegant sitting room and told a story about an American couple who unknowingly spent several days in a Paris bordello, thinking it was a hotel. Wharton summed up the meeting in her diary: “To tea, Teddy Chanler and Scott Fitzgerald, the novelist – awful.”

This story makes the rounds partly because it’s entertaining to imagine the matronly sophisticate at the end of her career meeting the tipsy prodigy at the beginning of his, but also because of the tie-ins to their work.  Fitzgerald was born in Minnesota and wrote famously of the migration from Midwest to East Coast in Gatsby; Wharton’s family were long-established New York aristocracy and of course, she wrote famously of the contemporary world of very rich Easterners.

The publisher of Claire McMillan's novel declares the intentions of Gilded Age right up front:  A debut author transforms Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth into a powerful modern story of one woman’s struggle for independence and love.  McMillan has set her story in present-day Cleveland, which has its own aristocracy descended from the iron and steel magnates of the industrial age.   When you rewrite a classic so openly, there would seem to be much opportunity and risk; the story may appeal to readers on a familiar level and yet, it is vulnerable to comparison with the original.   Further, the exercise of writing it could begin to feel like plugging puzzle pieces into a pre-determined framework.  Sometimes the pieces fit perfectly; sometimes they must be jiggled in.

The novel is not a loose interpretation of The House of Mirth; in fact, most of McMillan’s characters share surnames with Wharton’s, and the plot follows a very similar outline.  I had read Wharton’s novel but did not re-read it before beginning Gilded Age.  I had a general recollection of the book: memorable characters, especially the misguided but good and truthful Lily Bart, a sense of hopelessness in her circumstances, and a vivid portrait of New York society at the start of the twentieth century.

McMillan’s story is told mostly from the perspective of a nameless observer the author acknowledges was influenced by Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway, a Midwesterner returning to the society of New York.  McMillan’s Ellie Hart has done the reverse: after a fortuitous marriage in the big city, she is returning to Cleveland after a stint in rehab, a divorce settlement in hand.  The narrator has recently moved home herself, after attending an eastern university and finding a suitable husband, an “import—used to vary the breeding stock” back in Cleveland.  She tells us Ellie has always been beautiful, yet also “self-concerned” in disconcerting ways.  A lifelong friend, she appreciates Ellie’s flair and forthrightness yet worries both have been enhanced by life in the big city and are now at odds with the conventions of their Midwestern society.

From the moment Ellie arrives, she begins to size up the single men in their circle, making no bones about her intentions to marry well and become established in Cleveland.  It is one of the tragedies of Ellie’s character that she can only see herself in relation to the men who pursue her, and because the novel is set in modern times, this comes across more as a psychological defect than something determined by class position and opportunity.  As a young girl, Ellie expresses her interest in the legal field and her mother tells her: “With your face, I think it’d be easier to get one man to take care of you than to get a courtroom full of men to think you’re smart.”  Upon her return, she moves in with her mother because “a young woman in possession of her own house…intimidated a man.”

Ellie is inconstant and unfocused, deciding at first to pursue the boring but well-connected P.C. Gryce, then shifting gears immediately when someone else beats her to the punch.  Her behavior becomes increasingly erratic.  She dates Randall Leforte, a stuffy attorney with a bulging sense of entitlement, and even makes a pass at her childhood friend’s husband.  Ellie is driven to excesses in the areas of sex and drinking, with much opportunity for both at the parties of her wealthy friends.  These are privileged thirty-somethings who meet at each other’s homes, follow antiquated rules for dinner seating then smoke marijuana in the sitting room afterwards.

This clash between past and present reverberates through the novel, sometimes convincingly, sometimes strangely.  Often there is phrasing that seems forced or inconsistent with the contemporary setting, such as when McMillan refers to a “young woman in possession of her own house,” or when the narrator finds that Gus Trenor, an older man who offers to invest money for Ellie, “would have declared Miss Eleanor Hart a most decorative woman who should marry, and marry well, as soon as possible.”  These are characters who curse and text each other, who use slang and make “booty calls.”  Such outdated wording or ideas often seems awkward.

The narrator of Gilded Age traces her family and the families of her friends to the “very beginnings when Cleveland was considered the West,” when “a hundred years ago Cleveland’s iron and steel barons built the neoclassical art museum” and the concert hall where all the good families still hold season tickets.  Everyone returns, she says, for the sense of identity and community.  We certainly get a feel for the pecking order of Cleveland’s high society.  An old boyfriend of the narrator’s, Cinco Van Alstyne, is tied to his family’s decaying mansion and the property surrounding it.  His sense of obligation keeps him there.  Less convincing are Ellie’s aims to stay and rise in society.  It’s hard to ascertain why she would feel she had no other options.  Perhaps she has never quite fit in.  The external factors seem secondary to a psychological weakness, which is perhaps an interesting way to accommodate the modern story in the framework of the prototype.

In fact, the examination of sexual mores and modern feminism may be one area where the puzzle pieces had to be finessed quite a bit.  McMillan portrays a Cleveland aristocracy still weighed down by rules of the past yet embracing the freedoms of the present; this dichotomy is played out with the character of William Selden, Ellie’s true love.  Selden is an English professor specializing in the Romantics, a self-professed free spirit who, inevitably, can’t get over Ellie’s promiscuity although he has recently had an affair with a married woman himself.  The younger set has progressive opinions on most matters and yet Ellie laments that young women still “live by men’s whims.”  In her case, it feels that she has chosen to do so.  And when Gus Trenor expects sexual favors from her in return for his financial services, it’s hard to believe the modern Ellie would be so na├»ve.

The narrator was also, at times, a slippery character.  She loves her husband yet begins to fantasize over her ex-boyfriend.  She continually claims Ellie as one of her closest friends yet turns her back on her.  Pregnant with her first child, she barely notes the experience other than to lament her widening body and what it must mean to her appeal.  She is slave to her social position as much as she turns from it, noticing what each woman is wearing and in one poignant moment, realizing the extent to which Ellie has fallen by her lack of a new purse for the season.

Gilded Age is the modern telling of a classic tale.  As a love story, it is realistically convoluted, and as a glimpse of the somewhat cloistered society of upper class Cleveland, it’s fascinating.  The characters were not as compelling as I remembered Wharton’s to be, nor did the setting have the rolling feel of inevitable catastrophe.  Perhaps that’s merely a sign of the times, the fact that the world has opened up, literally and imaginatively, since Wharton’s time.  Some things remain the same—relationships are difficult to navigate, rife with shifting expectations and requirements, and McMillan’s characters stumble along as characters have always done.

Mary Vensel White is the author of The Qualities of Wood (HarperCollins, January 2012).  She blogs about writing, books and life at

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