Is Edith Wharton the New Jane Austen?
By patebooks on August 21, 2012
Is Edith the new Jane? Going by the old feature writing rule -- twice can be coincidence but thrice is a trend -- Edith Wharton is posed to become the latest literary cottage industry a la Jane Austen. This summer, two first-time authors recast Wharton's novels in contemporary times, and in August there's a new novel starring Edith herself caught up in a passionate love affair. It's also the 150th anniversary of her birth as Edith Newbold Jones. "Keeping up with the Joneses'' supposedly refers to her father's aristocratic New York family, and, of course, it was her incisive novels and short stories of Gilded Age society that won her fame.
Francesca Segal's The Innocents (Voice/Hyperion) transposes Wharton's Pulitzer-Prize winning The Age of Innocence to the close-knit Jewish community Temple Fortune in North London. Adam Newman, 28, is finally set to marry his girlfriend of a dozen years, Rachel Gilbert, thus solidifying his comfortable position in her family and her father's business. Enter Rachel's younger but more worldly cousin, Ellie, back from the States where she has dabbled with drugs, married men and "art'' films. Adam is fascinated by free-spirited Ellie, but his pursuit of her is complicated by his relationship with Rachel and the life he thought he wanted.
Obviously, Adam, Rachel and Ellie are stand-ins for Wharton's Newland Archer, May Welland and Ellen Olenska, but Segal develops them as appealing stand-alone characters, although Adam is a bit of a stiff. Rachel's father, mother and grandmother also have significant roles, and Segal nicely updates the plot with relevant references to modern matters of money and class while detailing the ties of family and tradition. The book also has a gorgeous cover.
In Claire McMillan's Gilded Age (Simon & Schuster), Wharton's House of Mirth has been resurrected in Cleveland, where the young social set may smoke a little dope and hit on one another's spouses but correct manners and old money matter more. Ellie Hart returns to her hometown after a divorce in New York and a stint in rehab, soon realizing that she's going to need a husband if she wants to fit back in with her old set. But her search for a suitor falls victim to her own bad behavior (for Cleveland), and leads to nasty gossip. If you've read Wharton, you know that like Lily Bart before her, Ellie Hart is not destined for a happy ending.
The first-person narrative by Ellie's best friend from childhood, who is happily married and pregnant, works well, but the book falters whenever McMillan shifts to Ellie's third-person perspective. So the retelling reads unevenly as it charts poor Ellie's descent. Someone should have told her you can't go home again, at least not to stuffy Cleveland.
I haven't yet read The Age of Desire (Viking), Jennie Fields' novel about Edith Wharton's adulterous affair at 45 with dashing younger journalist Morton Fullerton and its effect on her marriage to the manic-depressive Teddy Wharton and her friendship with former governess Anna Bahlmann. This real-life Gilded Age story is told from the points of view of Edith and Anna, and Fields includes excerpts from Edith's letters and diary entries.
Open Book: I've read most of Wharton's fiction, and when I was going through my Downton Abbey phase last spring, I reread The Buccaneers with great pleasure. For more on Wharton, I recommend Hermione Lee's biography Edith Wharton (Knopf, 2007). And Susan Minot has written three good Whartonesque novels: Rapture, Folly and Evening. My favorite of all the film adaptations of Wharton is Martin Scorcese's The Age of Innocence with Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder and Michelle Pheiffer. I don't like Ethan Frome, the book or movie.
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