Society's Child

When a young Edith Wharton first met Henry James at a dinner party, the twenty-five-year-old New York socialite thought she knew just the thing to make a lasting impression: Deck yourself out in the latest French design. Needless to say, this had little effect on the stoic and reclusive James. “Those were the principles in which I had been brought up,” she would later write with some embarrassment, “and it would never have occurred to me that I had anything but my youth, and my pretty frock, to commend me.”

But Wharton would reinvent herself as a serious writer, at age forty-three, with her early novel The House of Mirth. Now just over a hundred years old, the book introduced the themes of Wharton’s life and future work—themes that, although framed in a now-musty setting of elaborate parlors and gilded ballrooms, remain as slyly subversive as in her day. Wharton was both a best-selling socialite author and an ambitious, early-feminist free-thinker. Her biting portraits of her society peers tell a brutally honest story of the imbalance between the sexes—and have actually managed to hold the attention of influential men, from James to Joyce and Fitzgerald. And before the end of her four-decade career, the author would cross many of the barriers of her polite New York upbringing to travel extensively, lead relief efforts during World War I, win a Pulitzer, find independence as an expat divorcée in Paris, and even take a lover known for his taste for both sexes.

Born Edith Jones into a wealthy family of merchants and lawyers in 1862, Wharton was tremendously conscious of the “noisy irrelevance” of New York society. Her mother, a respected hostess and great beauty, placed fashionable appearance above all else, and this attitude left its mark on her daughter. After she’d taken up writing as a profession, her class status stood in contrast to the often-rebellious ideas she explored in print. As Anna Quindlen says in her introduction to a 2000 edition of Mirth, Wharton wrote “lying in bed . . . in longhand on the second sheets of her engraved stationery, leaving the detritus about to be tidied up by the maids.” It’s telling that she did not publish her first novel until her forties: She spent years reimagining herself, testing the waters with tame stories for Scribner’s and a volume on interior decorating.

But while she was of society, the bookish Wharton did not fit easily into society. Her parents scheduled her coming-out a year earlier than was conventional, at seventeen, because, she wrote, they “decided that I spent too much time in reading.” (An unenthusiastic debutante, she soon after married her brother’s friend, former jock Edward “Teddy” Robbins Wharton.) When, years later, she began to focus on her career, Wharton found that her healthy book sales were not considered a victory in her circle. “My literary success puzzled and embarrassed my old friends far more than it impressed them,” she wrote, “and in my own family it created a kind of constraint which increased with the years. None of my relations ever spoke to me of my books.” She recalled being invited to a party that the hostess apologetically confessed to another guest would be “rather bohemian”—only to find that she was considered the bohemian element.

Wharton rejected the “society column” as petty and fatuous, but she also recognized that world as her artistic terrain. It was a dangerous landscape for a female author to take on—making her voice easier to dismiss—but she believed she could add a darker dimension to the dances and calling cards and summer retreats of her youth. “A frivolous society,” Wharton realized, “can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys.”

Lily Bart, the tragic beauty of Mirth, became her first and finest casualty. Bart was raised within an elevated social set, but her family’s financial ruin has left her with only her looks to trade on. (The character’s mother, like Wharton’s, brought her up “in the faith that whatever it cost, one must have a good cook.”) Like most women of her class in that era, Bart has no tangible skills beyond needlework and the ability to play bridge, leaving her qualified only for marriage. But at the shocking age of twenty-nine, she’s already put that off for too long, indifferent to the succession of Teddy Whartons. She longs for a seat at the center of society but wonders why the scene bores her to tears. A mysterious restlessness has taken hold of her. Trouble begins when the once-popular belle botches a socially advantageous match in favor of spending time with Lawrence Selden, a relatively impoverished intellectual who shares her wicked sense of humor. The specter of a partner who might actually be her equal prevents Bart, fast becoming a pariah, from scoring a proposal. With no shortage of nineteenth-century melodrama, this leads to a series of missteps and, ultimately, our heroine’s death.

The prospects of Wharton’s other great female character, Ellen Olenska, are no less constrained. The romantic lead of the 1920 Pulitzer Prize–winning The Age of Innocence, the smoky and slightly world-weary New York native was swept off at a young age by her eccentric aunt to wander Europe, eventually marrying an “abominable” (if impressively well-off ) Polish count whose extravagant estate is peopled with both princes and performance artists. At the start of the novel, Olenska, after a scandalous separation from her husband, has returned to the city seeking refuge with her family. “I want to do what you all do,” she confides. “I want to feel cared for and safe.” But after living as an expat for so many years, her impression of the comforts and correctness of New York society is misguided. With a pioneer’s spirit, she sets out to reclaim her freedom in New York—only to discover that the young city is perhaps more constrained by Old World values than the Old World itself. “New York society is a very small world compared with the one you’ve lived in,” family friend (and future lover) Newland Archer warns Olenska. “And it’s ruled, in spite of appearances, by a few people with—well, rather old-fashioned ideas.” In other words, a divorce for Olenska, and the fresh start it would provide, is out of the question.

While the unhappiness in Wharton’s own personal life did not culminate in death, as it did for Bart, she did have her Lawrence Selden—in Walter Berry. Wharton wrote of the lawyer, her lifelong friend and rigorous editor, “I suppose there is one friend in the life of each of us who seems not a separate person, however dear and beloved, but an expansion, an interpretation, of one’s self.” But like Olenska, the author could find no easy way out of a marriage that was dragging her down. Though she recounted the regular travels during its early years—to England, France, and Italy— as the time when she “really felt alive,” Wharton quickly found Teddy to be a weight around her neck. Within a few years, he had transformed into a homebody, using weak health as an excuse to cut London visits short—even as Wharton’s novels were being celebrated there. And when Wharton found she was making strides in her writing while at their country estate, Teddy would experience a burst of energy and insist on returning to the city. In her darkest words on their marriage, Wharton wrote, “It is always depressing to live with the dissatisfied.” In a wild move for a woman of her generation, she began an affair with freewheeling American journalist (and bisexual) William Morton Fullerton.

But in spite of this boldness and her independent income, Wharton, like most women of her time and set, could still be undercut by a divorce. Nearly three decades passed before Wharton and Teddy cut their losses.

By then, Wharton had settled permanently in Paris—she visited America only once in the last twenty-four years of her life—and, a few years after the divorce, published Innocence, perhaps her most mature work. Notably, the novel resists the melodrama of Mirth’s ending and the clear moral contained therein, instead flashing forward nearly thirty years, to a time when the rigid social mores of Olenska’s (and Wharton’s) generation are slowly falling out of fashion. The book closes with a view of the Paris apartment where the countess, in self-imposed exile, has lived since her painful social rejection in New York. A generation has passed, and now it all seems so tame, for a woman to live on her own terms. What could be so radical about that?

Before Virginia Woolf, Wharton was an advocate for a room of one’s own, for the right to a private space that her heroines fight so hard for. In the end, the struggles of Bart and Olenska have less to do with a quest for romance than with their desire for independence and opportunity. Rather than love, Wharton was writing about politics. And with her gift for mapping out the subtleties of the social machinery, it’s tempting to imagine what smart fiction she’d make of our new realities—from the rise and fall of Martha Stewart to egg freezing as the professional woman’s answer to the biological clock. The battleground has changed, but the rules of engagement remain the same.

By her later years, Wharton, the expat divorcée author, wrote from Paris that she believed the New York scene of her youth had experienced “total extinction,” and along with it many of the social pressures that had shaped her life and art. But aren’t those conventions simply less visible now? This is the bitterest pill when rereading Wharton’s work: how contemporary her portraits of Lily Bart and Ellen Olenska remain. A century later, we could use another House of Mirth.

Alex Mar is a writer based in New York.