The plight of women in unhappy marriages has been experiencing a bit of an upswing lately. Madmen, the TV series, probably marked the popular start. Its creator was inspired by Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road, which Sam Mendes has now turned into a film re-uniting the Titanic stars.
So it is worthwhile to consider that between Jane Austen (or maybe Samuel Richardson) and her unhappy heroines and these women of the 1950s, badly wedded or not, there is another generation of sorely treated women — and Edith Wharton has done a very good job of portraying them. The daughter of George Frederic Jones and Lucretia Rhinelander — it is said that “Keeping up with the Jones'” originated as a reference to her father’s family — she was born into the American version of the aristocracy. She married “up” as it were to Teddy Wharton, thus beginning a domestic disaster which ended with his nervous breakdown and divorce in 1913. She then headed to Europe, setting herself up in an apartment in Paris owned by George Washington Vanderbilt II (which, if you are trying to be contemporary, gives her a connection with Anderson Cooper of CNN, himself a Vanderbilt — but I digress).
The House of Mirth, published in 1905, was the first of her New York novels, a genre in which she excelled. It’s central character, Lily Bart, is in some ways the opposite of the women in Revolutionary Road or Madmen — the seeds of her tragedy are sown in her resolute desire not to be married. It is not that she doesn’t have the chance — or at least think she has the chance — it is that when finally marriage becomes the only option she thinks is open it turns out that it too has closed. Marriage in the 1950s may be a tragedy, in Wharton’s 1905 New York, not being married was an equal tragedy.
Wharton, a very modern woman when you think about it now, also published books about gardening (The Mount in Lenox, MA remains a testimony to her ability) and interior decorating, but she is probably now remembered principally as a poor person’s Henry James. Contemporary ex-pats in Europe, they both wrote novels, often looking back over their shoulder to America. For my money, James is the better novelist, but Wharton does a better job of capturing turn-of-the-century New York City and this first novel of that genre does a wonderful job of setting the table for what is to follow.
Every serious reader of novels has their own picture of the City as framed by novelists, be it Fitzgerald, Salinger, Wolfe or whomever. Too often, Wharton tends to be overlooked and that is a mistake. In some ways, the New York she both lived and wrote about is a bridge between Jane Austen’s landed aristocracy in England and Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities (fill in Gatsby and the Glass family along the way). The House of Mirth should be read in conjunction with The Age of Innocence (1920), where Wharton does explore the consequences of marriage and updates her impressions of New York and its restrictive society. In between, there is the wonderful novel, The Custom of the Country (1913), Wharton’s own exploration of the James’ story of the rich American woman in Europe.
The House of Mirth is not a gripping tragedy, but it is a timely one. As early 21st century culture contemplates the historical role of women, we should look back not just to the 1950s, but to a full century earlier. In some ways, as Wharton shows, for those women, not much has changed.
In fact, Wharton was very much one of them herself.
Tags: Edith Wharton