Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century
by Annette Ferran
Edith Wharton is a prolific and reliable writer of the early 20th century who fits the category of true novelist. That is to say, though each of her novels certainly stands on its own, and it is possible to have a favorite among them, it is the cumulation of her insight and style that makes her work significant.
On the Modern Library’s list are The Age of Innocence (#58) and The House of Mirth (#69).
Like Henry James (who was a contemporary and friend) and Graham Greene, Wharton has a certain arena of life, a certain thematic thread, and a certain attitude on which she builds her stories, which make them recognizably hers.
Wharton was an early feminist—a disposition that would be clear from her novels even if you were not aware of the biographical detail. Her protagonists tend to be women who recognize the multiple layers of swaddling hindering them in their quest for identity and a place in the world. Reading these characters, it is not hard to see why the women’s liberation movement was bubbling up then.
These novels are not political polemics, though. They are good reads. They are solid stories told in clean prose of people in their ordinary lives (albeit from the distance of a century and with the details of “ordinary” that distance entails). They are witty, realistic, and sensory, with characters who stick with you, like people you know. The novels have the best quality a novel can have: You hate to reach the end.
Wharton, like James, wrote about the higher classes of society. Her realm was New York. The people in her stories are privileged, or once were, and move in fancy environments, or those in contrast to their fancy norm. Wharton writes about this milieu with knowledge but also with the stance of an outsider. There is compassion in her attention to detail, but it is layered with wry skepticism. She might seem to be celebrating this society and its better qualities, but she is also exposing its absurdities and, more to the point, its dangerous qualities: the psychologically denigrating expectations it imposes on its women. Love gets cynical coverage in Wharton’s hands. She is a masterful prose stylist and a masterful storyteller, so the dark side of romantic pairing can sneak up on you. And of course marriage eligibility and the necessity of young women to be married are scoffed at.
The Age of Innocence involves a planned marriage between two people well suited, in societal terms, for each other that is disrupted by the appearance of a woman who is everything but suitable for society. The Countess Ellen Olenska is an American who has married a foreign Count, which is good. But she wants to divorce him, which is bad. There is mutual attraction with a man who is destined for the aforementioned suitable marriage. Both behave honorably, but Ellen’s life defies the rules of her society, and so her actual behavior is irrelevant.
The House of Mirth involves a woman, Lily Bart, who at nearly 30 is almost too old to marry. She contrives to keep a suitable partner on the hook while she explores the possibility of another partner, but the gears keep moving around her, putting her acceptable destiny and her desired destiny both in jeopardy.
Wharton’s humor is biting yet artful; her insight is deep and multidimensional. She sees a whole world and has thoughts about it which she shares through nicely wrought scenes. The opening paragraphs of The Age of Innocence, for instance, are very funny, painting a picture of the New York opera society and its patrons that stops just short of parody. These are not comedies, however. Tragedy also permeates the novels, as it must when the central conflict is self against the world.
Annette Ferran lives in Philadelphia where she works as an editor for a medical publisher. She is also the Associate Editor for 10,000 Tons ofBlack Ink, a Literary Writers Network publication. She has a degree of dubious practical use, in German, and is a lifelong avid reader of fiction and lover of lists. She has had a few short stories published, most recently in RE:AL.