Edith Wharton is one of the authors that I keep coming back to. I think she’s a master at creating fascinating characters, especially female ones. They’re always complex and never perfect. On the contrary, they’re often annoying but I actually appreciate that. It’s much more interesting than reading about people who are only good and selfless. Like many of Wharton’s novels, The Age of Innocence (1920) takes place during the Golden Age of New York. It’s about Newland Archer as he falls in love with Countess Ellen Olenska, a woman stained by scandal, while he is engaged to the more conventional May Welland. He is therefore forced to choose between his desire for love and his desire to do what’s expected of him in the eyes of society. It’s a very good book.
Ethan Frome (1911) is very different from the other Wharton books I’ve read. There’s no fancy New York setting. Instead, it’s bleak and grim and set in a small town. As a contrast to her other work, I like that. What it has in common with the rest of her books though is the theme of repressed love. Ethan Frome is unhappily married to Zeenie when he falls in love with Mattie Smith, a young woman they’ve hired to help out around the house. It’s hopeless from the start and while it’s not an uplifting novel, it’s beautifully writen and the atmosphere is haunting.
The House of Mirth (1905) centers around one of my all-time favourite fictional heroines: Lily Bart. She is completely fearless in her struggle to attain the good life she thinks she deserves. In order to achieve this she plays along with the rules of society, but only to a certain point. In other ways she refuses to conform and although she pays a high price for it, at least she never compromises her integrity. That’s not to say she is flawless, because she really isn’t – not at all. But she is consistent and I find that admirable. If you only read one Wharton novel, I think it should be this one.
The Custom of the Country (1913) is such a clever satire of shallow ambition and the longing to get ahead in society, as illustrated by the triumphs and failures of Undine Spragg. Although she is the main character, she is not the least bit likeable and as I was reading the book it struck me how rare that is. To have an unlikeable protagonist like that, it’s actually pretty refreshing. Undine is spoiled, careless and most of all selfish. She longs for more money and status and will let nothing stand in her way towards her goals. The problem is that when she reaches her goals she still finds herself unhappy and that is the most interesting aspect of the book. It’s such a good illustration of that emptiness you sometimes feel when you get what you want.
Summer (1917) takes place in a small and rather remote town in New England and tells the story of Charity Royall, a young inexperienced woman who falls in love and has a passionate affair with Lucius Harney, an architect from New York. Even as their relationship developes it becomes clear how difficult it is for either of them to go against the futures that have been set up for them. They both have duties that they can’t ignore and their different backgrounds make it even harder. I thought I would really like this book but much to my disappointment I ended up finding it pretty boring.
I think it’s interesting to compare Edith Wharton with Jane Austen because in some ways their work is similar. They both highlight how limited women’s choices were in the early 19th and 20th century, respectively. The main difference is that while Austen’s novels end in happiness and marriage, at the end of Wharton’s books love (and happiness) is always just out of reach. There’s something about that sadness (in the midst of such luxury) that I find compelling.