Edith Wharton’s masterpieces are great precisely because they skirt the divide between profound human observations (about our inability to change or to put ourselves on a limb to aid each other, and the exquisite futility of our longing to transcend those flaws) — with the kind of prurient, petty gossip that inspired one of Wharton’s direct literary successors, Cecily Von Zisegar of Gossip Girl fame.
And that explains the heart of Wharton’s authorial profundity; we are social creatures, she argues, bound by the rules of our group even when we know those rules to be foolish. Our better impulses are often swallowed by the overwhelming need to keep up with (or at the very least not be cast out by) the Joneses, a phrase that was actually invented to refer to her own family — Wharton’s maiden name was Jones. Discordant notes of noble impulse get drowned out by the harmonious noise of groupthink; the only people who succeed in bucking the rules in Wharton’s novels are selfish manipulators like The Custom of the Country‘s memorable Undine Spragg.
But that second quality of Wharton’s, the slightly intoxicated scandal-mongering side which makes her haters cringe even when confronted with near-perfect novels like The House of Mirth or The Age of Innocence, is much more dominant in Wharton’s minor oeuvre. Forget about the preachy morality of Ethan Frome; most of Wharton’s less-known novellas and forgotten novels take place not under New England maple trees but under sultry French and Italian skies. They consist of schemes and counter-schemes, endless divorces, affairs, and forbidden love interests, and lots of motoring and train-travel from fancy watering-hole to fancy watering-hole, all in pursuit of something to fill a yawning vacancy in her characters’ lives.
Thus though, the gap in quality between Wharton’s best books and her worst is substantial, the gap in pleasure is mostly nonexistent. Wharton’s smaller novels are like better, meatier Gossip Girl books, and I tend to read them when I’m looking for something junky but also excellently, precisely written. They hover close to the realm of classic trash, but are slightly better; the perfect pleasure read.
In these novels, of which there are quite a few, admirable impulses may be present in the characters, but they are secondary to their author’s merciless dissection of the folly-laden comings and goings of the ultra-rich and their hangers on. A lot of them contain tropes hovering close to incest, a subject that fascinated Wharton. Parents steal their children’s fiancees, or in the novel I just finished on vacation, The Children, admirable paternal instincts turn to unrealized and inappropriate December-May lust, which — of course, because it’s Wharton — threatens to torpedo multiple characters’ chances at happiness.
In The Children, perennial bachelor Martin Boyne boards a steamer on his way to the Dolomites (as one does!). He’s headed there to have a rendezvous with the longtime object of his affection, Rose Sellars, who had been unhappily married for years and is now finally widowed and ready to give him a chance. But on board, he runs into the titular troupe of Wheater children, headed by the beautiful Judith, their beautiful teenage sister who acts as a mother. Their parents are divorced, re-reconciled, and utterly debauched, and the young ones, including step-siblings, are determined to stay together and be a family despite their parents’ best blundering efforts.
They’re desperate for adult guidance when Boyne bumps into them and essentially falls in love with them, becoming so infatuated with his role as their protector (especially of Judith) that the bond between him and Rose, who would be a good mate for him, and is his age, begins to waver. Does Martin really want to be father to the children or is he just so addicted to his lifelong freedom that he’s using them to escape marriage? Throughout the novel, Wharton explores the question of varieties of independence versus varieties of stability, while also unstintingly sending up the flighty parental self-absorption that created this mess to begin with.
Most painful is a sequence in which Martin goes down to the Lido (as one does!) to try to convince the children’s parents, the Wheaters, to keep the flock of offspring together. His effort is interrupted by a succession of fancy meals, entertaining diversions, and the appearance and disappearance of various dukes, tutors, divorcées, and other potential love interests for the fractious pair of parents, who are making ready to split again. These proceedings border on farce, and Martin fears he will never get an audience with them about their children. It’s funny, and sad, both, a perfect parodic tone.
These kinds of flighty, unhappy fad-followers are the main subject of another particularly absurd minor Wharton, Twilight Sleep, which follows one New York society woman through her obsession with Eastern religion, birth control, cults and other distractions from her wealthy boredom. This novel is even steamier and weirder, involving therapist-patient sex, father-in-law/daughter-in-law sex, suicide attempts and actual brutal violence. It’s ridiculous and delicious and borderline pulpy.
But my favorite of these lighter Wharton confections is The Glimpses of the Moon, the only Wharton I’ve ever read with a happy(ish) ending. Its characters are similar to Lily and Lawrence of The House of Mirth, a penniless but beautiful society girl and a detached, brilliant professional man, also penniless. They marry for love and plan to use their honeymoon year to mooch off all their friends in Europe, but make a pact to divorce each other should wealthier prospects come along; of course, those prospects do come along, and hijinx and hurt feelings ensue. It reads like the plot of a romantic comedy, but it’s enough to make you wish that Lily and Lawrence had been smarter and more cynical, and could hatch such a scheme together. But then of course The House of Mirth wouldn’t have been the epic-feeling tragedy that it is.
Sometimes, though, you don’t want an epic-feeling tragedy. An issue I have with a lot of contemporary reads is that the “pleasure” reads aren’t always well-written, while the “literary” reads are formulaic in their own way, less fun than they should be, hamstrung by publishing’s need for a dark secret, a climax just where it should be. The beauty of the Wharton back catalog is that it provides an endless supply of wit and wry observation, with soap-opera plots and satire to satisfy the reader in need of a quick fix.