“True originality consists not in a new manner but in a new vision.” – Edith Wharton
Edith Wharton, Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist, short story writer, designer, and taste-setter of her time was born 150 years ago today. Huzzah!
Renowned for her novels: The House of Mirth (1905), Ethan Frome (1911), The Age of Innocence (1920), and last unfinished work, The Buccaneers (1938), Wharton was also an incredibly talented garden and interior designer writing two of my favorite classic design books in my personal collection: Italian Villas and Their Gardens (1904) and The Decoration of Houses (1897). Many of her works have been adapted into movies including three standouts: The Age of Innocence (1993), The Buccaneers (1995), which has thematic ties to the wildly popular mini-series Downton Abbey, whose second season is currently airing on Masterpiece Classic PBS, and The Old Maid (1939), the Warner Bros. classic starring Bette Davis. My mother introduced me to this movie as a teenager, and like her indoctrination to the classics by film with Pride and Prejudice (1940,) it piqued my interest enough to seek Wharton out and read the original novella. Thanks mom! Besides Austen and Cooper, Wharton is on my top five list of favorite authors.
In celebration of Wharton’s sesquicentennial birthday, author Lev Raphael has generously contributed a guest blog honoring Wharton, his fascination of The Gilded Age, Downton Abbey and his new novel Rosedale in Love.
Overwhelmed by the cascading changes at Downton Abbey, Maggie Smith’s indomitable Dowager Countess complains in Season One, “”Sometimes I feel as if I were living in an H.G. Wells novel.”
Watching Downton Abbey, I’ve found find myself feeling I’m living in an Edith Wharton novel. More than one, in fact. Wharton’s novel The Buccaneer, unfinished at her death, was all about American wealthy young woman like Cora who were launched like arrows to hit titled English targets. Born in 1862 to old New York money, Wharton observed this international exchange as America’s Gilded Age burst into lavish bloom. Her native city of New York was a frenzy of building, money, and that modern invention we take for granted: publicity, which the Downton family is desperate to avoid.
The series is imbued with the preoccupations of Wharton’s fiction. As in The House of Mirth, the Grantham girls have few choices aside from marrying a man, preferably one with money. New money like Sir Richard Carlisle’s may be suspect, but money is the drumbeat, even when people claim not to care about it. Acquiring money, and the status and safety it brings, obsesses Lily Bart, the heroine of The House of Mirth, Wharton’s 1905 best seller.
Wharton lived in France during World War One, whose impact we’re seeing in the show right now, and she wrote a powerful novel, A Son at the Front, about the surprisingly high cost of war for those who aren’t in the trenches. When war broke out, she worked with astounding energy to aid the French war effort through fund-raising and solving the refugee crisis. But she was more than a combination of Lady Cora and Mrs. Crawley: she visited the front and wrote about it, and her extraordinary efforts earned her the highest civilian honors Belgium and France could bestow.
Wharton challenged convention by being intellectual and an author. However, she was still a product of her class, which frowned on arrivistes of all kinds, especially Jews, who symbolized the vast social and financial changes rocking her comfortable world. In The House of Mirth, her one Jewish character, wealthy Simon Rosedale, is frantic for status and vainly pursues Lily Bart, the faded society flower who finds him repulsive when he isn’t ridiculous. Wharton relied heavily on stereotype to create him: he’s flamboyant, vulgar, buffonish, speaks bad English.
His portrayal is an aggravating flaw in a novel I’ve read many times and love for Wharton’s profound understanding of how shame can crush our hopes–something that plays out again and again in Downton Abbey. Having written two other books about Wharton, a mystery and a critical study, I decided to do something completely different: tell Rosedale’s unknown story. Rosedale in Love is a reply to The House of Mirth, a book that gives Simon Rosedale a soul, a past, a family–that makes him human, in other words.
I wrote in a period voice, which I channeled after two years of reading books set in The Gilded Age. And just as Downton brings a lost way of life into our homes, I wanted Gilded Age New York to live for my readers. I wanted them to feel the city’s obsessions, ride along its streets, dance at its balls, celebrate its weddings, marvel at its splendid hotels, dine at its elite restaurants, relish its remarkable extravagance, and savor its gossip.
So as you read the ebook, imagine it beautifully bound, pages freshly cut, being read by various denizens of Downton Abbey. Think of Lady Mary or Anna pained by the sad search for love, Thomas enviously following someone else’s success, and the Dowager Countess sniffing at a whole novel devoted to “one of those people,” but ultimately admiring the main character’s courage. After all, one of her ringing calls to action is “Don’t be defeatist, it’s very middle class.”
Lev Raphael is a former academic, radio talk show host, and newspaper columnist who’s published twenty-one books in genres from memoir to mystery with publishers like Doubleday, St. Martin’s, Faber and Walker. His fiction and creative nonfiction appears in dozens of anthologies In the US and in Great Britain, and he has taught in colleges and universities around the country.
A world traveler and lecturer, his most recent adventure was his second German book tour for his memoir My Germany last fall, sponsored by the American Consulate in Frankfurt, and he will also be reading from his novel Rosedale in Love at the Edith Wharton in Florence conference next June (Austen and Wharton were major influences in his career). Visit Lev at his website Lev Raphael, on Twitter as @LevRaphael, and on Facebook as Lev Raphael.
Happy birthday Edith Wharton. We know you have very little in common with the other Edith, Lady Edith Crawley, daughter of the Earl of Grantham in Downton Abbey, but we hope that screenwriter Julian Fellowes will give her a new direction and a second chance, just as author Lev Raphael has done for your character Simon Rosedale from The House of Mirth.
Other Edith Wharton Celebrations Around the Internet:
- New York Times: For Edith Wharton’s Birthday, Hail Ultimate Social Climbers
- The Telegraph: Edith Wharton: the ‘lonely hearted’ heiress with the fearless eye
- The Telegraph: Happy 150th Birthday, Edith Wharton, a genius on sex, love and class
- New York Times: Edith Wharton slide show
- Visit The Mount: Edith Wharton’s grand estate in Lenox, MA
© 2012 Lev Raphael, Austenprose