When people think about best selling authoresses, they most likely think either of JK Rowling earnestly writing away or Barbara Cartland lazing in a pink dress on a pink sofa with a pink spaniel on her pink lap. Pish, I say. If I am ever fortunate enough to become rich beyond my wildest dreams as a result of my writing (I know, unlikely – my wildest writing dreams involve earning enough to go on a nice spending spree in All Saints and maybe have a jolly good lunch somewhere) then it’s upper crust Edith Wharton that I’ll be modelling myself on.
Seriously, she lived in a gorgeous mansion with beautiful gardens, was supremely elegant and spent a large part of every year travelling around Europe. What’s not to love about that? She basically lived the lifestyle of her own characters, which just makes me love her books even more because when she writes about an awkward meeting at a ball, a flirtation in the English countryside or a tense aristocratic dinner then you know that she’s actually been there too.
Plus the fact she was basically a really fabulous writer with amazing descriptive powers, a charming lightness of touch and also a real feel for a great story. Her books often seem like light hearted comedies of manners but there’s a real grit beneath them that is reminiscent of Austen. I don’t know that much about Wharton’s own life (I really should rectify that and find a good biography) but it makes me think that maybe it wasn’t as perfect as seems to an onlooker so perhaps we shouldn’t envy her too much.
I can still remember the first time that I read one of her books – it was The Custom of the Country, which was one of my grandmother’s favourite novels, and I adored it. The heroine, Undine Spragg is undoubtedly an unpleasant and self serving piece of work but I loved her anyway as she bounced from husband to husband.
Her other books followed and I adore them all. I am a bit of a snob anyway so Wharton’s heady combination of high society, the clash of old and new money and personal drama is enticing stuff. I expect you’ve all read her books too but if you haven’t then I suppose you could say that they are like a collision between Henry James and Nancy Mitford with Cholderlos de Laclos as a gloating bystander.
People often compare Henry James and Edith Wharton and I have to say that I absolutely prefer the latter. I often feel like James is a bit snide and cold about his characters whereas Wharton is massively fond of them, warts and all and that’s what makes them so compelling.
My favourite of her books though is The Buccaneers, which is why I am currently working on a re-interpretation set in eighteenth century London and Paris. I’d like to think that Edith Wharton, grande dame and Francophile wouldn’t have minded too much even if she didn’t absolutely approve.
So Edith Wharton, on this the day of your birth, I salute you for showing us how it should be done.