Edith Wharton is not a writer you tend to think of on Valentine's day. Her marriage was unhappy and the affair she had in her forties was with a faithless cad (it was a secret until the 1970s).
No wonder that love in her novels is so often curdled, thwarted, or hopeless. Think of Ethan Frome, The Reef, The Custom of the Country, The Mother's Recompense, The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence.
But there's so much to love and admire in her work: the wit, the dissection of social fossilization, the gimlet-eyed study of women's objectification, the elegant knife-sharp prose, the passion under the surface.
(The Mount: Edith Wharton's Home in Lenox, MA)
Wharton's The Age of Innocence ends with a quiet nod to a possible lost love of Henry James, as Cynthia Griffin Wolff wrote in her study A Feast of Words. Wharton knew a touching story that James had told to a mutual friend: when he was younger, James had once stood for hours somewhere in Europe, staring up at a balcony window, hoping to see a face. He hadn't said whose face it was and Wharton recast the story in her own way at the end of The Age of Innocence. It was a loving private tribute to a man, now dead, who might have exasperated her sometimes but whom she had been devoted to.
Wharton exasperated me with her stereotypical Jew Simon Rosedale in The House of Mirth. How could such a gifted author betray her gifts like that?
When I re-wrote her novel after in a period voice as Rosedale in Love, I did my own version of her gesture to James: I gave it a surprise happy ending. And why not? I've been devoted to her fiction for years and it's inspired me in my own writing to strive for the best. It might not be what she would have done, but I doubt she would have expected someone re-imagining her novel all these years later, either. Or that she would have been been one of the major influences on a young Jewish writer growing up the amid the remnants of her Gilded Age New York, but with none of its privilege.
Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery. His other Wharton-inspired book is a mystery, The Edith Wharton Murders.
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