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Image: Culture Club, Hulton Archive/Getty
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BooksApril 4, 2020

Pertinent lessons from Edith Wharton, icon

Image: Culture Club, Hulton Archive/Getty
Image: Culture Club, Hulton Archive/Getty

Wellington writer Philippa Swan’s new novel The Night of All Souls is an homage to Pulitzer-winning and all-round fabulous American writer Edith Wharton. Wharton died in 1937 but, Swan writes, she’s very much of the moment. 

Nobody does social distancing like Wharton did. While Wharton was still comparatively young, she created the character of old Mrs Manstey, a solitary woman who lives in New York, confined to her small rear apartment by poverty and infirmity. Every day is passed in quiet contemplation of her neighbour’s magnolia tree. The world is small and everything minutely detailed. And when change comes – an event of no consequence to the larger world – it is devastating. What is this change? Her neighbours begin work on an extension that will obliterate the tree. Edith Wharton understands the small pleasures and devastations of life. She also understands the rapaciousness of New York real estate better than anyone. 

When Ellen Olenska (in Wharton’s most famous novel The Age of Innocence) returns to conservative New York from Europe, she is the focus of whispered suspicion: not only has she married a Polish Count, but, worse, she has separated from him! The misunderstood Ellen is exiled to West 23rd Street, a peculiar part of New York populated by people who choose to write for a living. Meanwhile, her grandmother, the enormous and impressive Mrs Mingott, chooses to self-isolate by residing in the East Fifties on Fifth Avenue, an address considered recklessly far uptown. 

When Ellen Olenska speaks to the older Mrs Welland of divorcing her Polish husband, the woman is resolute in not hearing a word, saying, “I like to keep my mind bright and happy”. This is a defining trait of many Wharton characters: a determined optimism in the face of unpleasantness. 

In Twilight Sleep, Pauline Manford relentlessly pursues happiness, her day scheduled with sessions of mental uplift and transcendental unity. She follows a strict regime for hip-slimming and self-improvement. Wharton was probably satirising a 1920s Hindi yogi who gave talks at Carnegie Hall on topics such as “Everlasting Youth: Psycho-Physiological Rejuvenation of Cells by Recharging the Body Battery”. She may also have been inspired by the publication Self-Mastery Through Conscious Auto-Suggestion, which advised readers to repeat in front of a mirror: “Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better.”

Obviously there are parallels between Pauline Manford’s attempts to perfect her life and the current fondness for hot yoga and paleo poke bowls. But, with self-isolation, our opportunities are limited. I suggest looking for a mindfulness app, or a fitness video on YouTube.

Winona Ryder and co in a scene from the 1993 film adaptation of The Age of Innocence, directed by Martin Scorsese (Photo: Sunset Boulevard Corbus Historical/Getty)

Does it help to know that the global economy is a perpetual cycle of boom and bust? Perhaps not. But neither does it help that most writers ignore the monetary realities of life. Not Edith Wharton. Although we associate her with the Gilded Age, she also witnessed many financial meltdowns, including the 1929 Wall Street crash. And she wasn’t immune from the fallout. Born into upper-class New York society, Wharton was not particularly wealthy – it was her commercial success as a writer that largely funded her lavish lifestyle. More importantly, as a divorced woman, money put her beyond moral judgement and allowed her to escape the limitations of a patriarchal society. 

She is drawn to the human stories beneath the hubris, exploring in detail those tossed and buffeted by economic storms – mostly the women whose lives were determined by the financial imperatives of society. In The Age of Innocence, the banking collapse of Julius Beaufort sends shockwaves through upper-class New York. The fate of Lily Bart in The House of Mirth also depends on Wall Street, when her father is driven into bankruptcy by her mother’s spending habits (a merciless recalling of Wharton’s own parents). 

Wharton concerns herself with the oppression of limited opportunities, the endless and terrifying consequences of debt. She is concerned for small lives destroyed by the financial machine, individuals sacrificed for the “collective interest”. This might seem surprising for someone of such privilege, but Wharton is a woman of many contradictions, and this makes her endlessly fascinating.

In times of unrest, people are apt to retreat into their homes (think the Middle Ages, which lasted for – oh – around a thousand years). Edith was well-positioned to advise on the importance of home. She was related to the Astor family (as in New York’s Waldorf-Astoria) and wrote books on garden design and home decorating. Tips: the family den should have plenty of books, easy-chairs, writing tables and lamps. She warns against too many table lamps (for reasons of circulation), recommending a marble statue or candelabra.

It may be better to follow her personal examples. In her last American home the books in her library were covered in the finest leather and arranged by colour, according to language. (Wharton never attended school, yet spoke four languages and read Dante for fun. She also received a doctorate in letters from Yale and was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for literature.)

While in her mid-forties, Wharton left The Mount, spending the rest of her life in France. Her house in Hyères provides the best lesson in home-making. The living room was lined with books, there were comfortable chairs and definitely too many table lamps. Her little dogs scampered about the house. Whenever she was at home (Wharton did a lot of travelling), she adhered to a strict routine: mornings were spent writing in her bedroom, afternoons in the garden. When houseguests stayed, they would all dine together (her wine was notoriously terrible) and afterwards – on the terrace or beside the fire – Wharton would read aloud her current work. 

There is a lesson in this. Enjoy the company of close friends. Find things that bring happiness: books or gardens, picnics (Wharton loved picnics) or gathering flowers. Pets are always a good thing. Look for small joys in life.  

A Wharton home on 25th Street, New York. Edith was married here and this photograph is from her personal collection (Photo: Bettmann/Getty)

Wharton wrote thousands of letters throughout her life. Those written during wartime provide an invaluable record, while others detail the micromanagement of her career. But most simply reflect the value she placed on her lifetime friendships, none more so than with Henry James. 

So, people, email your friends and stay in touch. Better still, pick up the phone and call. Even Wharton’s characters managed to communicate via telephone message, although it’s only later that characters such as Pauline Manfort got to enjoy a proper chat. 

While living in Paris, Wharton was partial to sending a petit bleu, a closed blue card delivered by messenger. This was particularly useful when she needed to conceal her private affairs from the staff (yes, there’s a story in that). The modern equivalent of a petit bleu or telegraph is to send a text or direct message. Wharton even had her version of Twitter, courtesy of Mrs Heeny in The Custom of the Country. Employed as a manicurist and masseuse to high-society women in New York, Mrs Heeny was never without her black bag stuffed with clippings from daily papers such as Town Talk. Mrs Heeny was constantly updated on the latest parties – the guest list and fashion, gossipy innuendo – along with more concrete information such as divorce settlements. Watching the rising fortunes of young Undine Spragg (a strong contender for the original material girl), Mrs Heeny laughed, saying: “Did you read the description of yourself in The Radiator this morning? I’ll have to start a separate bag for YOUR clippings soon!” The original tweet-gone-viral. 

This novel predicts modern America: the flash of cameras, fashion and celebrity, the sycophantic entourage. Relentless materialism and – always – money. Towering blocks on Wall Street. Tycoons and playboy millionaires. The forces of capitalism. Insider trading and stock-market speculation. Acquisition and power. Everything Wharton despised. 

Her most startling character is Elmer Moffatt, a boom-and-bust guy with a financial interest in railroads, real estate, and a spanking-new hotel. Remind you of anyone? Big and brash, Moffatt’s home on Fifth Avenue is a gilded copy of the Pitti Palace. Blustery and untrustworthy, he’s got a habit of pushing out his lower lip in a half-comic pout. There’s a sharpness of contrast between the white of his forehead and the red fold of neck above his collar. The vulgarity of his bodily appearance looms huge and portentous. And if you’re still in doubt, there’s more: his redness; his glossiness; his baldness and the carefully brushed ring of hair encircling it; the square line of his shoulders. 

Philippa Swan, shot by Rebecca McMillan.

Living in France, Wharton didn’t just survive the First World War – she positioned herself at the frontline. Accompanied by her chauffeur (of course!) and best buddy Walter, she made several trips to the front as a war correspondent. Her writing is gold. Her scenes of warfare and death have a surreal and devastating beauty; throughout she shows a startling stoicism and insatiable curiosity. And Wharton never loses her eye for the ironic and absurd.

Despite loathing charity work, Wharton threw herself into the war effort to an astonishing degree: I’m not used to philanthropy. As soon as peace is declared I shall renounce good works forever! Even friends noted that she visibly hated what she was doing. It is hard to grasp the scale of her achievements, so let’s stick to the figures: opening a sewing factory for the unemployed, setting up hostels for 1000 refugees (along with associated social services, such as medical clinics, lunchrooms and nurseries), housing 800 Flemish orphans, and establishing four war charities and a tuberculosis cure programme for returning soldiers.

Many of her friends were losing family members and still the war continued. From her letters: I get lonelier & lonelier as the weary months go on. And when war finally finished she retreated into domesticity. Of her home in Hyères, she wrote: Meanwhile the heavenly beauty & the heavenly quiet enfold me, & I feel that this really is the Cielo della Quieta to which the soul aspires after its stormy voyage. Edith Wharton shows us that in overwhelmingly difficult times we may discover unlimited reserves of energy within ourselves. We may develop a surprising capacity for charity and goodwill. It’s possible we are braver than we ever thought possible. We may even discover unknown talents or take advantage of unexpected opportunities. Or we may simply get through. And maybe that’s enough.

The Night of All Souls, by Philippa Swan (Random House New Zealand) is usually available from Unity Books. For now we recommend buying it as an ebook

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