“Yoknapatawpha on the Hudson”? On the Novelistic Universe of Edith Wharton

From The Literary Hub:

Like William Faulkner or Thomas Hardy, and not unlike the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Edith Wharton loved some milieus too much for just one story. In its setting and characters, The Old Maid is quintessential Wharton, the New York-born author who wrote fifteen novels and novellas and became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Today she is most closely identified with the upper-class, hermetically sealed New York of her childhood and young adulthood, which she sharply indicted in The House of Mirth (1905) and satirized more gently in The Age of Innocence (1920).

Few realize that she wrote even more stories set in Gilded Age Manhattan. Indeed, Wharton summoned up the lost world of her childhood almost compulsively as an adult, long after she resettled as an expatriate in France. Edith Newbold Jones was born in 1862 into a grand New York family related to the Astors and van Rensselaers. As a novelist, she was a late bloomer. She wrote a number of poems and stories during her itinerant childhood in the U.S. and Europe, but her work was sidelined by her society debut at age seventeen and, a few years later, a long and miserable marriage with a Boston Brahmin named Teddy Wharton.

. . . .

The Old Maid, first published in 1924, was part of a four-novella collection called Old New York, which dedicates a story to each decade from the 1840s through the 1870s. They are set among the same mercantile elite of Dutch and English families as is The Age of Innocence, and their casts of characters sport familiar surnames like Archer and Van Degen, creating a sort of Yoknapatawpha on the Hudson. The Old Maid takes place a generation before the famous 1870s love triangle among Newland Archer, Ellen Olenska, and May Welland.

A couple of minor characters have roles in both novella and novel: Mrs. Manson Mingott is a convention-defying aunt instead of a convention-defying grandmother, and Sillerton Jackson, The Age of Innocence’s gossip-loving old man, is prefigured as The Old Maid’s bachelor-about-town.

And yet these surface similarities are a little misleading. The exquisite drama of The Age of Innocence revolves, above all, around characters yearning to be free: free from their custom-bound society, and free to follow passion over duty. “Women ought to be free—as free as we are,” Newland proclaims. His love interest, Countess Olenska, is equally given to statements like, “I want to be free; I want to wipe out all the past.” Of course, they can’t be free in those ways, and Wharton ultimately breaks up the would-be lovers with stylish, genteel, epigrammatic finality.

The word “free” never appears in The Old Maid. Its two main characters, Delia Ralston and Charlotte Lovell, don’t want to be free from their imbroglio, their society, or each other. Their predicament is a thorny one – and rather more risqué than what one might expect of this author in this milieu. (The Ladies Home Journal politely rejected the story for being “a bit too vigorous;” it was only published after the success of Innocence.) Charlotte has an illegitimate baby with an artistic dilettante and can’t bring herself to abandon the child to an orphanage. She pleads with her wealthy, married, older cousin, Delia, to support baby Tina, which she agrees to do—if, and only if, Charlotte breaks off her high-society engagement to become the titular old maid. To top it off, the father of Charlotte’s child was once the (chaste) love of Delia’s life.

The novella spans twenty years, from Charlotte’s pregnancy to the eve of Tina’s marriage. Delia and Charlotte each have intense maternal feelings for Tina: one biological but secret and the other based on both affectionate proximity and long-ago passion.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub