Edith Wharton, Harrison May, 1870. Photo: National Portrait Gallery, Washington. (How super cute is this?)
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 then it’s the upper crust and cultured Edith Wharton that I’ll be modelling myself on – although I think a Pulitzer Prize is WAY out of my reach.
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 thanks to her well heeled background.
Plus the fact she was a REALLY fabulous writer with amazing descriptive powers, a charming lightness of touch even when dealing with the darker side of human nature and a real feel for what makes a great story. Her books often seem like light hearted comedies of manners but there’s a grit, constant wry humour and faintest touch of misanthropy beneath them that is reminiscent of Austen. I suppose, as with Austen, this faint underlying hint of darkness is a reminder that her life, apparently so privileged, wasn’t as perfect as it seemed from the outside thanks to an unhappy marriage and other issues.
Edith Wharton. Photo: Unknown alas.
I can still remember the first time that I read one of her books – I was eleven and it was The Custom of the Country, which was one of my grandmother’s favourite novels. I adored it. The heroine, Undine Spragg is undoubtedly an unpleasant and self serving, nasty piece of work but I loved her anyway as she bounced from husband to husband in her quest to rise to the very top of the social pile – a hideous parody of the American heiresses launching themselves in European aristocratic society at the end of the nineteenth century.
I devoured her other books in rapid succession and adored them all. I must admit to being a bit of a snob so Wharton’s heady combination of high society, the clash of old and new money and personal drama was enticing stuff although the sharper bite of her words sailed right over my head until I hit my early twenties. I expect you’ve all read her books too but if you haven’t then I suppose the best way that I can describe them is like a glittering, bittersweet collision between Henry James and Nancy Mitford with Cholderlos de Laclos as a gloating bystander as the old and new worlds of America and Europe clash with immensely entertaining results.
Edith Wharton, Newbold Jones, 1907. Photo: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.
My favourite of her books is The Buccaneers though, which is why I wrote a playful 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.
Anyway, Edith Wharton, on this the day of your birth, I salute you for showing us how it should be done.
Blood Sisters, my novel of posh doom and iniquity during the French Revolution is just a fiver (offer is UK only sorry!) right now! Just use the clicky box on my blog sidebar to order your copy!