The Haunting Quality of Edith Wharton

Edith WhartonIn her insightful article Why Edith Wharton Haunts Us Still, Anne Kingston speculates about why so many novelists these days are being compared to Edith Wharton. As Kingston observes, we’ve never stopped being obsessed by the very wealthy or by people trying to claw their way up the social ladder and Wharton is the master of the form. “Gilt lit” is the term Kingston uses for this new Wharton wannabe genre.

I’ve discovered that the “reminiscent of Edith Wharton” designation stretches beyond books about modern-day heiresses and social climbers. Sasha Weiss, in her review of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman references the “highly codified” nature of Wharton’s literary worlds of “manners and hierarchies” as a stark contrast to the contemporary Brooklyn literary world of Nathaniel P in which “characters are set adrift in a world without clear rules, and they torment themselves trying to figure out if they’ve in fact violated some ill-defined conventions of courtship and sexual etiquette.”

We are haunted not only by Wharton’s masterful novels of manners but by the question that hovers in the background of her work as a whole: Are we better off with strict rules to follow or set adrift in a world with no social signposts to guide us? As a 1922 critic put it:  Edith Wharton “laughs at the…tyranny of…rigid social taboos.” But at the same time, “she has painted them at full length, to hang upon our walls, where they…utter a silent reproof to our scrambling vulgarities.” (see The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton, p. 135).

Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge, Author

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