Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Happy birthday, Mrs. Wharton!

The Mount
The Mount, Edith Wharton's home in Lenox, MA
On this day, 150 years ago, in New York City, Edith Newbold Jones was born. When she was 23 years old, she was married and traded the last name "Jones" for "Wharton". Edith Wharton would go on to become one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century (if not for all time) and was the first woman to win the Pulitzer prize for literature.

My first introduction to Edith Wharton was back in college. I read The Age of Innocence after seeing the film with Michelle Pfeiffer and Daniel Day-Lewis and then went on to read The House of Mirth for a lit class my sophomore year. Edith Wharton is a great writer, but a teller of sad stories (although not as sad as Thomas Hardy). Let me rephrase that: she is the teller of stories where her characters have to settle for less, which is very real. Her words paint a very interesting picture of the upper classes during the Gilded Age, especially the tightrope that a woman would be forced to walk in "society".

I am currently reading Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country. I started it over the summer, but I put it down because the main character, one Undine Spragg, makes me want to revoke her card in the sisterhood of women (and smack her upside her vacuous head.) That being said, it is an exceptionally well written book, and when I do sit down to read it, I virtually inhale its lines. I read in an article in the New York Times today that The Custom of the Country was one of Julian Fellowes inspirations for "Downton Abbey"!

A couple of years ago, our book club read her novella Summer and held our meeting at The Mount, Edith Wharton's house in Lenox, MA. It is a beautiful house and has exquisite gardens. The historical society that carefully rescued the house after years of general use/abuse (first by a school, then by a theater company) has done a great job of restoring Edith Wharton's show place of balanced design and decorative taste (she wrote a books on design that is still in print.) If you are out in Lenox over the summer, say for Tanglewood, I recommend going to take a peek at the house and having some refreshment on the terrace!

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