Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Reading Edith Wharton

When I decided to join up with The Classics Club, I chose 49 classic titles to read or re-read. Then, after some great suggestions left in the comments, I decided to add an Edith Wharton novel as the 50th book on my list. Not any one in particular, just something by Wharton. I chose her because I felt like she was an under-appreciated writer for me. Aside from Ethan Frome, which I liked immediately when I read it in high school, her novels have never really done much for me. I’ve read, or attempted to read, her big three: The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth, and The Custom of the Country, without having much luck. The plots are blurred together in my memory and I’m pretty sure that at least one of those was left abandoned along the way. But, since many people whose literary opinions I trust rave about her work, I began to think that the problem might have been mine, not Wharton’s. Maybe if I revisited her work now I’d be in a better place to appreciate it. And so, with that thought fresh in my mind, off I went to the library. The result: Not only did the last book added to my list become the first one I tackled, it became the first three books that I tackled. I picked up an edition that included Ethan Frome, Summer, and Bunner Sisters, and I ended up loving all of them.

 Since I'm covering three books in a single post, I'm going to try to keep plot summaries short and sweet, which should be easiest to do with Ethan Frome. Many people are already familiar with the story, in which Ethan's bleak, isolated life running a failing farm and caring for his hypochondriac wife is enlivened by a brief and tragic love affair with his wife's young, lively cousin Mattie. I think Ethan Frome is a pitch perfect novel, which made it all the more surprising to learn from the book's Introduction that it actually began as a French composition exercise that Wharton did as a means of studying the language. I find it amazing that a novel that feels as careful and deliberate as this one does would have such unorthodox and mundane origins. The Introduction (which, let’s be honest, is something I usually skip over, but I came away feeling so interested in these novels that I went back and read it at the end), also drew parallels between the character of Ethan and the knights who turn up as characters in some of the poems of Keats. These knights become wrapped up in an infatuation with a representation of an ideal woman, but are only able to sustain their love while they maintain a distance from her; once they get too close and realize their fantasy of love, it destroys them. I was especially interested to read this because not only does it capture the relationship between Ethan and Mattie, but it’s also the same theme that I studied and applied to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work in my college thesis. I felt like pulling out a copy of that and adding a new chapter on Wharton!

In many ways, Summer feels like a sister novel to Ethan Frome. It's set in a nearly identical rural world and the protagonist, Charity Royall, is like Ethan in that she has a passionate sensibilities but, being poorly educated and restricted to the confining culture of a small town, has no outlet for them. No outlet, that is, until young architect Lucius Harney arrives in town to study some of the historic buildings. They fall in love but, this being a Wharton novel, things end badly. Of these three novels, Summer felt like the most nuanced and the hardest to describe to someone who hasn't read it. Although the relationship between Charity and Lucius is the focal point of the novel, I actually found the peripheral subplots and the overall atmosphere of the book to be even more interesting than the romantic pairing. There's a sense of menace throughout the novel that comes from a mountain that's adjacent to the town. Locals think of it as The Mountain, a sinister and wild place that's populated by a group of the poorest of the poor who are not part of the larger community. Charity is actually from The Mountain herself, having been adopted from there by Lawyer Royal and his wife, who has passed away. All of Charity's home and family life is very murky, with The Mountain lurking mysteriously in her past and Lawyer Royal, who continues to serve as her guardian, infusing tension into her present life by being alternately leering and adversarial to her. The book culminates with a series to events that leave Charity feeling that she has nowhere else to go but back up to The Mountain. It sounds half ridiculous, half melodramatic describing it here, but Wharton manages to turn it all into an extremely compelling story.

In Bunner Sisters, Wharton leaves small town life behind for working class Manhattan. The title sisters are Ann Eliza and Evelina Bunner, two spinsters who live together in a single room behind the small ladies' shop that they own just east of Union Square. As the elder sister, Ann Eliza takes on a mothering role toward Evelina, allowing her privileges like pouring out the first cup of tea and taking the larger slice of cake. Their mundane routine is interrupted when Mr. Ramy, a German clock maker, enters their lives. Ann Eliza briefly places her hopes on Mr. Ramy and allows herself to imagine being married to him. Soon, however, it starts to seem that Evelina is his favorite of the pair and his preference becomes an accepted, if mostly implicit, fact between the sisters. Ann Eliza is therefore shocked when, after seeming to court Evelina, Mr. Ramy proposes to her instead. After spending a moment savoring his offer, Ann Eliza reverts into her mother role and refuses him, knowing that it would crush Evelina. Mr. Ramy eventually does propose to and is accepted by Evelina, but their marriage is far from a happy ending. I found Bunner Sisters to be another example of how Wharton is able to carefully and deliberately paint realistic and nuanced portraits of marginalized characters. One small example that sticks out in my mind relates to the German accent she ascribes to Mr. Ramy, where t’s are often pronounced like d’s, and vice-versa. After Evelina becomes engaged to him, there is an instance where she is telling her sister about something Mr. Ramy said or did, and she says “he heart about...” instead of “he heard about...”. That’s it. It wasn’t anything blatant or over-the-top, and she resumes her normal, correct pronunciation later in the same paragraph, but it was a moment of enough significance to show how much influence Mr. Ramy was gaining over Evelina, and I thought it was an incredibly skillfull piece of writing. The final highlight I'll mention about Bunner Sisters is that it includes not one, but two ferry trips over to Hoboken, which is described as a pastoral kind of place that offers a break from the urban crush of Manhattan. When in Hoboken, the characters take note of the fresh air and see chickens roaming around in yards that were probably just around the corner from my current apartment!

All three of these works are centered around a common class of people and depict the hardships of rural or inner city life, which is a departure from the high society, Manhattan drawing room world with which Wharton is most often associated. That fact makes it that much more surprising that these were the Wharton novels that finally clicked for me. I'm hoping that this is just the beginning, though, and am looking forward to giving some of her more well known novels another try.


  1. Thank you for your reviews of three Wharton books I don't know very well. i did read Ethan Frome a long time ago but now think it would be worthwhile to reread after your review. The others sound good as well. My favorite books by Wharton are House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence. Now I would like to read the ones you mention.

  2. How great that you went back to an author and discovered something new - and something you liked! I am giving Wharton a second chance in the Club too - with The House of Mirth. I hope my experience goes as well as yours! -Sarah

  3. I have never read Wharton...thank you for your reviews. This post reminds me of C. Bronte's Jane Eyre. The first time I read it (age16), I found it boring. Years later (early 20s) I picked it up again and loved it. It is one of my favorite books now.



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