|An overview of Edith Wharton
Mad Scientess Jane Expat
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A couple of months ago, I spent a whopping £0.72 to purchase the “Works of Edith Wharton (31 Books)” for my Kindle. I have since read 20 of them, making this e-book the best value for money of all I’ve purchased thus far - barring all the free ones, of course. Two of the books - The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth - were re-reads. I’ve done a little overview of the titles I completed below the cut for those who may be interested. I bolded the ones I enjoyed, italicized the ones I found tedious or forgettable and underlined the ones about which I have complex feelings. Summaries of varying lengths are provided for each work.
- Afterward - A chilling ghost story. (short)
- The Age of Innocence - A tale of love thwarted by inescapable adherence to the customs of the day. A bit like C.P. Snow in that the setting is rigidly confined to a certain subset of nineteenth century upper crust New York, but unlike C.P. Snow in that there are compellingly drawn male and female characters. (long)
- Autre Temps... - I detect the seeds of the above novel in this story about the dreadfully long-lived malevolence of the social classes with little to do besides foment scandal. (short)
- Bunner Sisters - A moving portrayal of two spinster ladies in a much lower social class than Wharton typically portrays, one wise and the other less so. A bad marriage is made, separating them. No good can come of this happenstance. (long)
- The Choice - Bored rich people make fatal mistakes. (mercifully short)
- Coming Home - A war story about the bravery of a young French feminist who saves her fiance’s family from persecution at the hands of the Germans. Lacks Wharton’s usual faintly derisive detachment, but still enjoyable. (short, with shades of Guy de Maupassant)
- Crucial Instances - Seven short stories in wildly differing settings linked by two common themes: the folly of sacrificing an artistic or intellectual appreciation for a romantic passion, and the converse. Deft, humorous and cynical.
- The Custom of the Country - This is a remarkable novel for me, because its heroine is a shallow, ambitious gold-digger by whom I should normally have been thorough repulsed and hence failed to finish reading about. However, there is just enough of a faint glimmer of hope for her development and sufficient airtime given to much more sympathetic characters for me to be captivated by her story. (long)
- The Descent of Man and Other Stories - Morality tales for authors who expect to be interpreted and appreciated for their original intentions.
- Ethan Frome - The poignant story of a poor man’s repeated grasps at things that might bring him happiness, which only ever end with him holding a handful of shards. (medium)
- Fighting France - An autobiographical perspective on Paris at the start of the first World War. For a writer who was so good at portraying the complex factors informing the emotional state of others, Wharton’s travelogues are weirdly dry and lack her usual penetrating insight. (long, would not recommend)
- The Fruit of the Tree - For the first two thirds of this novel, I was convinced it was going to eclipse all of my previous favourites of Wharton’s. In the last third, however, she compels her heroine to behave in a manner that completely contradicts her fine, honest nature. I found the very thin plot point on which this contradiction was built to be utterly unbelievable. Others may not. Either way, I shall neither re-read this nor be able to forget it. (long)
- The Glimpses of the Moon - Portrays the lives of a couple of hangers-on to the wealthy New York elite. They marry frivolously, with the intent to separate when better opportunities come along. Unfortunately, they find they can’t get along without each other when they’re apart. (long)
- The Greater Inclination - Short stories in which people pay a high price for overly ambitious attempts at intellectual recognition and/or defying social convention.
- The House of Mirth - The compelling story of an intelligent but dangerously unsheltered young woman tries to survive on her own in fashionable New York circles and is cruelly used by others. One of those books where you think repeatedly, “Now, it can’t get worse for her than this.” And then it does. (long)
- In Morocco - Another travelogue that falls rather flat. A couple of flashes of feminist perspective on the treatment of Moroccan women couldn’t save it. (medium)
- Sanctuary - A painful illustration of the futility of trying to do “the right thing” in the eyes of others. (medium)
- Summer - Set in rural New England, an unusual locale for Wharton, but executed beautifully, this could easily be viewed as a treatise for education and easy access to birth control. It spells out pretty clearly the opinion that the consequences for submission to passion should not have had to be so high for young and unprotected women in the early twentieth century. (long)
- The Triumph of Night - In real life, good doesn’t always triumph over evil. A rather obvious fable. Though the characters are wonderfully fleshed out, as usual, the story lacks lustre. (short)
- The Valley of Decision - I didn’t manage to finish this. The setting, which wasn’t late nineteenth century Europe or America as is typical for Wharton’s longer works, never felt believable. Couple that with a lack of impetus provided by the plot and my attention petered out. (long)
Still to read:
- The Early Short Fiction of Edith Wharton (Vol 1 & 2)
- The Hermit and the Wild Woman
- Tales of Men and Ghosts
- The Touchstone
- The Reef
- Madame de Treymes
- The Long Run
- Artemis to Actaeon & Other Verses (this is badly formatted for the Kindle, sadly)
I hope this convinces at least a few of you to give Wharton a whirl, and an idea of where you might like to start. Her mastery of both short and long form storytelling gives readers plenty of options. If anyone would like to recommend that I should favour one of the unread books over the other, please do!