Hello Wharton Abbey: In Celebration of Edith Wharton’s 150th Birthday: Her Novels and Their Legacy, by Lev Raphael

Author and designer Edith Wharton

“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.

Edith Wharton's works adapted into movies

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.


Wharton Abbey

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.

House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton (Oxford Worlds Classics) 2009The 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.

Rosedale in Love, by Lev Raphael (2011)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:

© 2012 Lev Raphael, Austenprose

44 thoughts on “Hello Wharton Abbey: In Celebration of Edith Wharton’s 150th Birthday: Her Novels and Their Legacy, by Lev Raphael

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  1. My apologies everyone, but I am still having problems with comments going straight into the spam folder. Please do not let it discourage you. I will retrieve it soon enough and you will not be overlooked. Thanks for your patience.

    Cheers, LA


  2. Happy Birthday, Edith. i have yet to catch Dowton Abbey. It’s sonmething I just discovered along with your blog. I’m behind so I’m checking out season one from the library.


  3. A lovely review for Mrs. Wharton’s birthday! I’m looking forward to reading Rosedale in Love and in the meantime, I’m off to (re-)read The House of Mirth!


  4. Happy Birthday Edith
    Now for the confession I have never read any Edith Wharton books so maybe now is a good time to start.
    Thank you Laurel Ann for the chance to read the blog about Rosedale in Love and learn about Lev Raphael


    1. The House of Mirth is a great place to start, ditto The Age of Innocence, or Old New York (four novellas). Another gripping story is The Custom of the Country, all about social climbing.


  5. Happy Birthday, Edith!

    When I was in high school, we were forced to read Ethan Frome, which I couldn’t stand. It put me off her books for a long time. But after watching the Martin Scorsese version of The Age of Innocence, I devoured that book, and The House of Mirth, too. I would love to read Rosedale in Love!


    1. I wish high school teachers thought these choices through, better. Ethan Frome is a very bleak, difficult little book. If you haven’t read Summer, that’s a kind of pendant to it, and really beautiful. Highly recommended.


  6. Happy Birthday, Edith!

    I’ve read a few of the novels and also have a re-issue of her book “The Decoration of Houses.” Wonderful to have it. She had a strong sense of interior design as well as for great writing!


  7. Thank you for this reminder of another great female novelist. I have read Ethan Frome and House of Mirth, and would love to read Rosedale in Love! I am glad Rosedale gets humanizing treatment from Raphael; Wharton did not do very well by him, though I realize that dictates of her time account for that.


  8. I hope some day to travel to her home in Lenox, MA! I have read only two of her novels, but I hope to some day read them all. Who can forget Liam Neeson in Ethan Frome or Daniel Day Lewis in The Age of Innocence or Eric Stoltz in The House of Mirth! What a wonderful way to introduce a new audience to her amazing writing. Thank you for this wonderful post in celebration of her birth 150 years ago.


  9. Happy Birthday, dear Edith Wharton. I love her novels, especially The Age of Innocence. This article on her life and work is superb. I am sure Edith would have liked to read it.


  10. Thanks she sharing this great info about Edwardian Era authors!! I am trying to compile a reading list of Downton Abbey inspired books or books simply set in the Edwardian Era and have found it surprisingly difficult time period to find books for!!

    I love Downton Abbey (as I see you do as well) and I’ve seen lots of articles recently on books that are similar to the show….but most are non-fiction books unfortunately.

    Normally I try not to shamelessly plug my own blog on my comments but I think you will enjoy this….I am trying to compile a reading list of Downton Abbey inspired books or books simply set in the Edwardian Era.

    So I am putting together a little scavenger hunt for books that are DA inspired or set in the Edwardian Era on my blog. I am calling on all my literary friends, bloggers, and authors to help out. If you find a book (any genre) feel free to link up on my blog! Here are the details of ‘Project Downton’ as I like to call it:



  11. Custom of the Country is my fav Wharton novel–Edith and Mary have both had their Undine Spragg moments.
    Happy Birthday, Edith! You were from the crazy rich family that gave us the expression “Keeping up with the Joneses” and you were cynical of wealth whole way through it.
    Also, I’m so glad people are doing Wharton fanfic that’s good enough to be published- kudos.


    1. You know what I just thought? Maybe Edith from Downton is named after Wharton! Is this a Fellowes inside thing? Any famous Mary or Sybil writers at that time?


  12. Happy Birthday, Edith Wharton!

    What a fascinating post, Lev!

    Sounds like it will be interesting to read “A Son At the Front” and then watch Downtown Abbey’s second season opener again too for the WWI bits.


    1. It’s a sadly neglected novel, maybe because people simply don’t think of her as capable of engaging in the subject matter, but see her only as a novelist of manners.


  13. Happy Birthday dear Edith. The characters in your novels can be so very love-hate but always memorable. You were ahead of your time in many ways. Wish I could invite you to a birthday tea from a fellow Aquarian.


  14. I lived 26 years in Newport, Rhode Island, another location associated with Edith Wharton. I worked as a cataloger at Newport Public Library, which maintained handsome collected editions of works by authors associated with Newport — Henry James, Edith Wharton, Thornton Wilder, …etc… If you ever watch the 1988 movie “Mr. North” (based on Thornton Wilder’s novel “Theophillus North”), starring Anthony Edwards, Robert Mitchum, and Lauren Bacall, you will see these books in the scenes showing the bookcases of the reclusive millionaire portrayed by Mitchum — the film crew borrowed them from our library, and I selected the ones for the movie’s bookcases. I was hoping to be mentioned in the “thank you” credits at the end, but, alas, was not. I was able to witness some of the filming. Although young Henry James never lived in Newport, he frequently visited his Newport friend, writer Thomas S. Perry (connected with Admiral Perry, who opened Japan to American trade, Thomas was an early enthusiast and promoter of Russian writers such as Dostoyevsky and Turgenev).
    But to return to Wharton — the famous picture of her displayed here always amused me — with all her wealth and literary talent, WHY did she pose so tackily overdressed — did she want to be portrayed as a battleaxe dowager adorned with the remnants of an explosion at a mattress factory? LOL


  15. Happy Birthday Edith Wharton! Edith Wharton is one of my favorite authors and I have read most of her works. One of my favorite movie adapations is The House of Mirth (2000) starring Gillian Anderson.

    I agree that many of Wharton’s themes are present in Downton Abby, especially the lack of rights for women that makes it so that marriage is their only option. I just hope that Mary doesn’t end up like poor Lily Bart.


  16. Happy Birthday Edith Wharton, I commemorate the occasion by reading ‘Ethan Frome’, a good winter read and look forward to learning more of this wonderful writer and courageous, adventurous woman.

    Wonderful post and review and your book sounds very interesting, must add ‘House of Mirth’ to the list too.


  17. How did I miss this guest post? Needless to say, Edith Wharton is one of my cherished authors. I read The House of Mirth when I was 19 or 20 and was knocked on my feet by its powerful story–and I re-read it regularly.

    My other Wharton faves include The Custom of the Country (Downton’s own Dan Stevens portrayed Ralph Marvell in the BBC4 radio production!), The Buccaneers, Madame de Treymes, and The Glimpses of the Moon (I must make time to read Summer and Ethan Frome *gasp*).

    Wharton’s gentle and acerbic skewering of Gilded Age New Yorkers and its entanglements with French society may not always have the happy endings of Austen, but they are similar in their outlook on society.

    Happy birthday to my favorite author!


  18. Dear Readers: I am still experiencing problems with WordPress not posting comments immediately. Please do not let it put you off the conversation if your comment does not appear instantly. They will be retrieved out of the spam folder and posted within 24 hours. I apologize profusely. I have been working to get this fixed with them for over 2 weeks and will continue to try to get is resolved.


  19. Happy Birthday Miss Edith — This post makes me want to pull out the book and dvds. Time to re-read and re-watch. I am loving Downtown Abbey — but am really curious about what you think of Shirley MacLain playing the character of Cora’s mother?

    Would love to read this new book as well – new to me book :)


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