Edith Wharton: Then and Now

What is it about Edith Wharton and her work that is so timeless? Why are we still reading, relating and retelling her vivid stories?
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"A classic is classic not because it conforms to certain structural rules, or fits certain definitions (of which its author had quite probably never heard). It is classic because of a certain eternal and irrepressible freshness." -Edith Wharton

2012 marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Edith Wharton, one of the most ambitious and widely read authors of all time. It's only fitting that writers are clamoring to offer their literary tributes to this iconic writer.

Claire McMillan was having a discussion with her husband about Edith Wharton's work when the idea for Gilded Age, a modern retelling of The House of Mirth, came to her. "I remember saying that everything she wrote about was still happening today and the idea for the update was born," said McMillan.

What is it about Edith Wharton and her work that is so timeless? Why are we still reading, relating and retelling her vivid stories?

"Edith Wharton had a clear eye and sympathy for the constraining roles society can place on women. Of course, women have more options now than in 1905 when House of Mirth was written, but today women still can be limited by societal expectation," explains McMillan. "Her depictions of certain character types and their dilemmas are universal. Much like when I read Jane Austen and see the modern parallels of the relationships she depicted, in the House of Mirth I recognized the ways women sometimes butt up against convention and yet also hobble themselves. I see so many of the same patterns Wharton described playing out in society today. Bernie Madoff is a character that could have come right from her pages."

Jennie Fields, author of The Age of Desire, was on a business trip to Paris when her agent suggested she explore the life of her favorite author, Edith Wharton. The Age of Desire is a retelling of Edith Wharton's life with a focus on Wharton's relationship with Anna Bahlmann, Edith's governess turned literary secretary, who was also her confessor and confidante.

Fields explains her deep connection to Edith Wharton, "From the day I read the House of Mirth, I felt an emotional link to Edith Wharton. Her characters are not just influenced by society but trapped by it. They are bred to act a certain way, accomplish a preordained, limited future. But that future stands at odds with who they really are and what they are capable of accomplishing. As a woman growing up in the fifties and sixties, I strongly related to that dilemma. Internally, I felt I was capable of anything, but the girls around me were preparing for "women's jobs" such as secretaries, teachers, and librarians. I wanted more and I expected more of myself. Sadly, Edith's characters, such as Lily Bart, do not triumph. They are done in by their longings." Fields wanted to understand Wharton on a more personal level and did so by researching her life.

"Edith, herself, overcame the expectations on which she was raised. She wrote brilliantly, with focus, publishing over 40 books. She became famous. She is still loved and remembered. But the one part of her life which wasn't fulfilled was her love life. She was miserably married, had what in those days they called a mariage blanc, a sexless marriage. She felt she was somehow 'broken,' incapable of physical pleasure. And then at the age of 45, she met Morton Fullerton. For someone so sensitive, so realized, to have a sexual awakening at that age was a thrilling story that needed telling. She left behind a massive amount of material for me to work with: a love diary that expressed a tangle of desires and disappointments. And Morton Fullerton never burned her letters, though she begged him to 'cremate them' regularly. Those letters told me the tale of a brilliant woman, an unreliable man and a love affair far more complex than I could have hoped to find."

Debut novelist Francesca Segal took inspiration from Wharton to recreate The Age of Innocence for today's audience in her novel The Innocents, a story of a young man, newly engaged, who finds himself questioning everything he believed defined him. He is shaken by the arrival of his fiancé's wildly independent cousin Ellie who sparks an emotional journey of self-discovery. When Francesca Segal set out to explore New York in her own debut novel, she had no idea she would be following in Wharton's literary footsteps.

"I never intended to recast a classic novel but I had just moved to New York and was reading New York's writers with great intensity, and I think The Age of Innocence was probably the fourth or fifth of hers that I consumed in a row. There was just something that I recognized immediately in the social climate of that novel. It resonated deeply with a contemporary world I knew. But at its core is a dilemma that is both universal and timeless -- the choice between security and freedom; between conformity and independence. It could have been happening now; it could happen tomorrow," said Segal.

When asked why she felt Wharton's work is so timeless, she explained, "She had, like Jane Austen, a clarity of vision about her own time. She observes human nature with the impassive detachment of the anthropologist and records it with honesty -- and essential human nature is unchanging. Marriage; the challenges faced by the individual within a collective; the role and value of money (that vicious little novella The Bunner Sisters, for example, is devastating and underrated), the dependence or independence of women -- these things are perennially important, regardless of the context."

These three novels are authentic in their story lines, context and prose but each share a fascination with Wharton and her triumphant body of work. Edith Wharton embodied her own definition of a classic, eternal and irrepressible freshness, and her dreams and visions live on in the writers she inspired.

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