Rebellious Writers: Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton
Category: Reading

This month marks the anniversary of the acceptance of Edith Wharton’s first short story, Mrs. Manstey’s View, to Scribner’s magazine in 1891. Wharton would go on to write 16 novels, numerous short story collections as well as non-fiction and poetry throughout her illustrious career. So we thought we’d pay tribute to a writer who was quite the maverick in an age of quiet convention.  

Wharton led a remarkable life at a time when women’s opportunities in society were limited. Her writing was incisive and elegant and her best known works ripped to shreds the hypocrisies of the secluded old New York society which she herself was born into. This cloistered community was dedicated to upholding tradition, often at the cost of personal growth. Opportunity and expectation for women was limited; they were often consigned to a superficial existence that included attending social events and, eventually, marrying into wealth. Marriage was both an indicator of social status and the means by which women could pursue the indulgent lifestyles inherent to the society they found themselves in (something Wharton references brilliantly in The House of Mirth).  

Wharton led a remarkable life at a time when women’s opportunities in society were limited

One of Wharton’s best known works, The Age of Innocence, is a fascinating critique of the upper classes of New York in the 19th century. Wharton presents her book through the eyes of Newland Archer, a wealthy bachelor who falls in love with Ellen Olenska, despite his engagement to the conventional May Welland. As a result of her divorce, Ellen is shunned by the majority of the old New York community and this leads, ultimately, to her and Newland’s unrealised passion. The book constantly highlights that Ellen and particularly Newland’s sense of autonomy is second to the will of the community and despite his detachment from the hypocritical society he finds himself in, Newland is unable to realise a life out with his community, and eventually marries May.

Wharton also comments on traditional gender roles within the book, particularly the way desire operates between men and women. Despite Newland's attraction toward Ellen, her overt sexuality undermines his mastery over her. It both excites and terrifies Newland who is unable to exert the control he possesses over the gentile and sexually inexperienced May. Ellen’s independence, too, is another thing that disconcerts Newland. Ellen lives alone, expresses her personality through art and design as well as spending time with people deemed morally suspect by Newland’s community. Given his status as a privileged male used to being the dominant force in his interactions with women, Newland cannot quite comprehend - or accept - Ellen’s autonomy. Ellen's confidence, self-sufficience and interest in art and design mirror that of Wharton's who was a keen interior designer and lived alone for a large portion of her life. 

Wharton’s willingness to write a book that was so open in its criticism of a society she herself was a part of took real bravery and conviction, and earned her the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1921. She was the first woman to win the award.

Wharton’s willingness to write a book that was so open in its criticism of a society she herself was a part of took real bravery and conviction

The stunted emotional growth of individuals within The Age of Innocence reflects Wharton’s own life. Despite her 28 year marriage, which eventually ended in divorce, and a brief affair with journalist Morton Fullerton her sexual naivety has been well documented and something she herself blamed squarely on her mother. Despite this, Wharton spent a lot of time in the company of men, particularly writers, whom she admired and seemed to be more at ease in the company of men than with the housewives of the upper classes.

At the turn of the 20th century, Wharton was becoming disillusioned by what she deemed the crude pursuit of wealth dominating American culture. She left America and eventually settled in France for the remainder of her life. Wharton had travelled in and around Europe since her early childhood so was well used to European culture. When the First World War began in 1914 many expected Wharton to return home but she stayed on in France working as a volunteer to aid the lives of refugees affected by the conflict. She was awarded the Chevalier of the Legion of Honour, France’s highest honour, for her efforts.

Nowhere is Wharton’s cynicism toward American social mobility more apparent than in The Custom of the Country. The book focuses on Undine Spragg, the daughter of a relatively wealthy business owner, and her pursuit of wealth, status and power which come at the cost of nearly all her personal relationships. Undine is single-minded, ambitious and manipulative. Through her, Wharton undermines the pursuit of the material for material’s sake. By the end of the book, Undine lacks any sense of fulfilment, despite her union with one of the country’s wealthiest bachelors.

While Wharton’s books are rooted in a very specific historical moment, and may cater to a specific audience, her astute observations of the difficulties individuals face in asserting their identity, as well as the danger of rooting that identity in material gain, are just as relevant today as they were when she was writing. Her characters are non-conforming, independent and highlight the contradictions of the societies they are a part of.

A woman of means, who lived independently, decided the trajectory of her own life, highlighted the inherent hypocrisies of high society, abandoned her loveless marriage, worked tirelessly to aid those less fortunate than herself and who was, fundamentally, principled and individualistic at a time when it was difficult for women to be principled and individualistic.

All in all, a bit of a rebel.

Need more strong women in your life? Have a look at our Strong Women from Scottish Fiction book list.  

Fancy yourself a rebellious writer too? There's still time to submit your story to our Rebel writing project. 

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