Edith Wharton and
Old New York
In her fiction, Edith Wharton often employed Old New York—represented by 19th-century high society—as both a setting and a character (and an often despotic one). Born into that Gilded Age enclave, Wharton cast a satirical eye on its conservatism, while showing compassion for those who struggled to transcend its constraints. Wharton moved to Europe, but her Old New York novels remain penetrating portrayals of a very American time and place.
Novelist and literary critic Henry James was born in New York’s elegant Washington Square neighborhood in 1843. Nineteen years later and roughly as many blocks north, Edith Wharton (née Jones) came into the world, part of the family said to have inspired the expression “keeping up with the Joneses.” The two writers’ first meaningful encounter was an exchange of letters in 1900 regarding Wharton’s story “The Line of Least Resistance,” published in Lippincott’s Magazine. One of her many tales about infidelity and discretion, it displayed Wharton’s ironic take on New York society, which James found delightful: “I applaud…I egg you on in, your study of the American life that surrounds you,” he wrote.
Over the next few years, James and Wharton became close friends and frequent traveling companions, Wharton ultimately calling the friendship the “pride and honor” of her life. Among their many mutual intimates was philandering journalist Morton Fullerton, with whom Wharton had an affair. Although Wharton was sometimes accused of too closely following in the footsteps of James, the master of the transatlantic novel (Portrait of a Lady, The Ambassadors), their letters show that the relationship was on a more equal footing than is sometimes presumed.
The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton’s most acclaimed novel, is set in New York of the 1870s, although she wrote it just after serving as a correspondent for Scribner’s in France in World War I. Wharton wanted to write a war novel but was unprepared to revisit the horrors of the front. Instead, looking for “a momentary escape,” she turned to the old-guard, upper-crust society she had been born into. There were changes brewing, of course, in Manhattan in the late 19th century, and around the world and in Wharton herself in the 1920s. Having lived mainly abroad for two decades, she had been dismayed by her native country’s prolonged neutrality in the war, and her frustration with American isolationism may be what made the book such an extraordinarily critical portrayal of Old New York. Wharton depicted a provincial and conservative metropolis, plagued with empty and superficial characters enslaved by a punishing social code. By contrast, in Europe she found a more modern, cosmopolitan society, one perhaps less hypocritical. The Age of Innocence explores the clash of these two cultures when Countess Olenska, an exotic character who represents free-spirited European ways, enters a stuffy and duplicitous New York inner circle.
Edith Jones Wharton was born into privilege—but her family’s wealth and status could not give her the freedom and opportunity she desired as a young woman. Her parents dissuaded her from pursuing writing and steered her into the marriage market instead. Her first engagement was discouraged by her intended’s mother, who was concerned about Wharton’s “preponderance of intellectuality.” Edward (Teddy) Wharton apparently found this no barrier; he and Edith married in 1885. Teddy was not his wife’s intellectual match—Henry James described him as “cerebrally compromised”—but he was of a similar, thus suitable, social status.
In The House of Mirth, Wharton explored the brutalities underlying the social system that required women to marry. The book’s heroine, Lily Bart, is too complex and intelligent to wed for mere security, yet she also rejects a match with a caring, compatible, but relatively unmoneyed man. Wharton offered Lily no alternative vocation to marriage: Failing to marry, Lily is out of options. Lily Bart’s story established Wharton’s literary reputation, and it was partly thanks to the book’s success that she was able to buck convention and divorce Teddy, who had become increasingly mentally unstable, after 28 years of marriage.
In the 19th century, Washington Square, a small, well-heeled enclave at the southern terminus of Fifth Avenue, was home to the pedigreed elites who dominated the New York social and financial scene. Henry James set his novella Washington Square there, revisiting the city of his youth and the neighborhood he considered “the ideal of quiet and of genteel retirement.” By all accounts, however, James didn’t think this well-loved story deserved its success with critics and readers. He was more attached to his transatlantic fiction, in which New World and Old World values clashed repeatedly, and the New World folks generally came across as earnest, if gauche, compared to the cynical and sophisticated Europeans.
By the time he was 25, James had settled in England. He rarely returned home and grew increasingly disenchanted with his birthplace, criticizing the rampant materialism associated with capitalism and the harmful effects of modernism. In his essay “New York Revisited,” he laments the loss of Washington Square’s “mild and melancholy glamour,” the city’s relentless spread up Fifth Avenue and, not least, a New York University building where his childhood home once stood, without so much as a plaque to commemorate it.
Walter Berry, an international lawyer and long-time Parisian, was a lifelong friend of Edith Wharton and, like her, a Knickerbocker—a New Yorker of the old Dutch stock. Berry predicted that as good as it was, The Age of Innocence would be a flop. He and the author, he mused, were the last two people to remember (or care) about Old New York and the set that ruled the city before its takeover by the robber barons—industrialists John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan and their ilk. The novel’s bygone New York certainly seems a small and stifling world, held together by a conspiracy of “silent organization” and “mutual dissimulation.” But while Wharton’s critique is harsh, the author shows compassion for those who cling to—and are imprisoned by—the social order.
Berry was wrong, of course: The Age of Innocence was phenomenally successful. It was profoundly resonant in the 1920s with a generation sobered by the brutalities of world war and keen to renounce the Victorian-era hypocrisies the book laid bare. A contemporary reviewer wrote of the novel’s ending, “The younger generation comes in like fresh air. Mrs. Wharton is all for the new against the old.”
Before Edith Wharton used it as a book title, The Age of Innocence referred to a late-18th-century painting of a young girl by British artist Joshua Reynolds. A proponent of what he termed the “grand style,” Reynolds promoted “a poetical manner, not confined to mere matter of fact” in depicting characters. In a series of lectures, Reynolds exhorted visual artists to idealize their figures rather than remain bound to a faithful and literal representation. “If a portrait painter,” he instructed, “is desirous to raise and improve his subject, he has no other means than by approaching it to a general idea.”
In the painting—of a young girl with bare feet, a trusting face and hands gently crossed over her chest—Reynolds depicts the “general idea” of innocence in such exaggerated fashion that the viewer might question its veracity. In using the painting’s title for her book, Wharton gave her text an added level of irony, suggesting a pretended innocence among the elites of Old New York, who in truth display a nearly obsessive interest in scandal. Unlike Reynolds, Wharton didn’t romanticize the virtues of her characters; a confirmed satirist, she instead amplified their flaws and vices.
In the drawing rooms of the Gilded Age upper classes, tableaux vivants—living still lifes with guests posed as characters from history or paintings—were a popular form of entertainment. The tableau vivant scene in The House of Mirth is a turning point for protagonist Lily Bart. After considering a rococo portrait of Cleopatra, Lily chooses Joshua Reynolds’s Mrs. Lloyd as her subject. The simple costume has no fussy accessories to distract from her “flesh-and-blood loveliness”; it even reveals her toes and a fair amount of bosom. Reynolds had chosen his subject’s attire with equal care. The portrait painter, he maintained, should not feature a female subject “in the modern dress, the familiarity of which alone is sufficient to destroy all dignity.”
Lily’s pose awes the audience, and for a fleeting moment she attains her social peak. Quickly, however, someone refers to her move as a “bold thing.” In the painting, Mrs. Lloyd is carving her husband’s name into a tree—a very forward action for an unmarried woman, one of what Lily herself called the “poor, miserable, marriageable girls.” Cue the impending downfall: Lily’s decision to try to carve her own destiny begins her undoing.