Today is Edith Wharton’s 150th birthday, and I’m thinking about ways to celebrate, in addition to rereading her work. There’s a short birthday video on the website of The Mount, the house Wharton designed and built in the Berkshires; there are recent articles on her as a role-model for latter-day feminists, by Anita Brookner, and on rich American Wharton heroines who marry European aristocrats, by Pat Ryan; there is a New York Times slideshow that focuses on Wharton-related landmarks in New York City; and there’s a guest post at Austenprose by Lev Raphael, who remarks that when watching “Downton Abbey,” he feels as if he’s “living in an Edith Wharton novel. More than one, in fact.” Pat Ryan also analyzes connections between Wharton’s novels and the world of “Downton Abbey,” and says that Julian Fellowes, creator of the PBS miniseries, points to Wharton’s The Custom of the Country (1913) as one of his influences.
The heroine of The Custom of the Country, my own favourite Wharton novel, is always in search of “something still better beyond,” something “more luxurious, more exciting, more worthy of her!” Disappointed with her early forays into society, Undine Spragg vows, “I’ll never try anything again till I try New York.” Disappointed with New York, she tries Europe, but no matter what combination of money and power she enjoys, even when she has “everything she wanted,” she still feels, “at times, that there were other things she might want if she knew about them.”
Wharton satirizes Undine’s ambitions, but she also understood them. In a diary entry twenty years after the novel was published, she made a note about satisfaction: “Satisfied! What a beggary state! Who would be satisfied with being satisfied?” Late in her career she wrote, “As my work reaches its close I feel so sure that it is either nothing or more than they know. And I wonder, a little desolately, which?” Current critical opinion is quite certain that it is far more than “nothing.” Two of the highlights for me among recent books are Hermione Lee’s biography, Edith Wharton, and a volume of essays on The Custom of the Country, edited by Laura Rattray. There are lots of other even more recent books and articles on Wharton and her work, and many more birthday tributes on the web. I wonder if Wharton would be satisfied with the things we say and write about her? (And I wonder what she’d think of the way her photograph is animated in the video from The Mount, to make it look as if she’s blowing out the “150” candles?)