Edith Wharton’s Gilded Age
An interior from the Hôtel de Varengeville in Paris, circa 1740, MOMA, New York.
Born in 1862 into an affluent and socially prominent New York family, “Old New York,” a magnificent city in a Gilded Age, was to become the focus of Pulitzer-Prize winning author Edith Wharton’s literary and lifelong obsession.
She called it “incurably ugly,” yet found it endlessly fascinating.
“When I was young
it used to seem to me
that the group in which I grew up
was like an empty vessel
into which no new wine
would ever again be poured.
Now I see that one of its uses
lay in preserving a few drops
of an old vintage too rare
to be savoured by a youthful palate.”
Wharton’s parents, George Frederic and Lucretia Jones, lived comfortably on the profits of numerous real estate ventures. The Joneses divided their time between a New York brownstone off fashionable Fifth Avenue; a waterfront home in Newport, Rhode Island; and summer rentals in Europe.
Historians attribute the phrase “Keeping up with the Joneses” to Edith Wharton’s well-traveled family.
In “Old New York,” one was either on or off the fabled “Astor social list.” (Also known as “the Four Hundred” list to restrict the number of people in their social circle). At times, over dinner, with furtive glances and shakes of the head, the members of the Four Hundred remarked on a wayward friend or relative who had stepped out of their insular world in search of a more enriching life.
It was this insular world of Old New York that Wharton, herself, would subsequently leave as well, but would recreate with precision throughout her life in her novels.
“It was the old New York way
of taking life “without effusion of blood”:
the way of people who dreaded scandal
more than disease,
who placed decency above courage,
and who considered that
nothing was more ill-bred than “scenes,”
except the behaviour of those
who gave rise to them.”
[The Age of Innocence. 1920]
Following her marriage to Edward Wharton, Edith settled in to a life of writing and domesticity. She sat in bed each morning, her inkpot teetering precariously on her knee, and wrote until it was time to rise and prepare for a day of social activities as Mrs. Edward Robbins Wharton. She later admitted her 28-year marriage had been “her greatest mistake.”
“In spite of illness,
in spite even of the archenemy sorrow,
one can remain alive
long past the usual date of disintegration
if one is unafraid of change,
insatiable in intellectual curiosity,
interested in big things,
and happy in small ways.”
[A Backward Glance, 1934]
Wharton continued writing until her death, lying in bed and dropping each finished page to the floor to be collected when she finished. A fitting and deliciously appropriate image for the woman deigned to be the first female to win the coveted Pulitzer.
“This place of ours
is really beautiful…
the stillness, the greenness,
the exuberance of my flowers,
the perfume of my hemlock woods,
& above all
the moonlight nights
on my big terrace,
overlooking the lake…”
–Edith Wharton in a letter to Bernard Berenson, August 6, 1911 describing her beloved estate, The Mount, built in 1902 in Lenox, Massachusetts, which survives today as an example of her design principles.
Images: Reenter the Gilded Age: Featuring recreations from The Wallace Collection, London, and The Wrightsman Galleries at the Met, New York (NYTimes)
The Mount: Photo by Erika Koss
Writings and letters of Edith Wharton