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Posts Tagged ‘Edith Wharton’

Readers will still find entertainment in the 1927 bestsellers, but not much besides entertainment. There’s not one of the novels whose plot I can recall beyond a sentence summary, even though I enjoyed all of them but one of them when I read them.

Despite their less than memorable plots, three of the bestsellers are well-written character studies, each of which I may reread when I finish my year’s required reading.

A Good Woman by Louis Bromfield

original "Good Woman" cover with author's dedicationEmma Downs is a Depression-Era Pharisee. Louis Bromfield’s A Good Woman lays her soul bare.

Emma lives by a strict religious code; she has no idea that it’s even possible for religion to be anything other than a list of do’s and do nots.

Bromfield makes clear on the jacket of the first edition that he saw America as full of women like Emma. He doesn’t treat her with scorn, but neither does he excuse her.

After reading  Bromfield’s 1927 bestseller, readers may debate whether America has more or fewer good women today than it had 90 years ago — and whether any change is for the better.

Twilight Sleep by Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton’s Twilight Sleep is also a study in personalities but one with a generous helping of satire. Wharton’s satire comes awfully close to sarcasm sometimes, leaving the impression that she really didn’t like her characters.

Twilight is a story of a the family of Pauline and Dexter Munford, well-off New Yorkers of the jazz age. Pauline Munford fills her life with activities to improve herself and her world.

Twilight begins to settle in mountains

Pauline’s world is as far removed as this from those of most  in New York City.

Pauline keeps herself well insulated from the unpleasant real world, hence the title which plays off the popular 1920’s name for the drug combination that was given during childbirth to provide pain relief and induce amnesia about any unpleasantness.

Unlike Bromfield, Wharton tells her story in such a way that that readers have to put the pieces together, almost as if they were reading a mystery.

When Wharton’s pieces come together, they go off like a bomb.

To-Morrow Morning by Anne Parish

women in art class about 1900.

To-Morrow Morning‘s Kate Green might have taken an art class like this one.

Anne Parish’s To-morrow Morning is far gentler than the other two character studies. Her technique is more like Ferber’s than Bromfield’s: Parish makes readers work to piece together the story.

In To-morrow, Kate Starr, who becomes Kate Green, is a silly twit with a very modest talent for painting but neither ambition or discipline to do anything with such talent as she has.

Kate marries a man who is her mental and moral equal.

Having lost the money clients gave him to invest for them, Joe dies suddenly, thus escaping the consequences of his actions.

Creditors write off Joe’s debts in for “sweet Mrs. Green,” enabling Kate to avoid ever having to confront the consequences of Joe’s dishonesty.

Kate raises their son to be as undisciplined and purposeless as his parents.

If you have some time for reading, you’ll find any of these three 1927 bestsellers worth a couple evenings’ reading.


May 6, 2017 Corrected name of author of Twilight Sleep, which I had attributed to Edna Ferber in a blinding moment of stupidity while looking at the title page!

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collage of 1920s photos and posters with surprint "The Jazz Age was delightful providing one wasn't actually awake during it."

Until chapter 32, Twilight Sleep is an amusing, satirical tale of an well-heeled family in New York City in the roaring twenties.

Pauline Munford fills her life with activities to improve herself and her world — a world from which she keeps herself well insulated.


Twilight Sleep by Edith Wharton
D. Appleton, 1927. 373 pp. 1927 bestseller #7. My Grade: B+.

Her husband, Dexter, fills as much of his life as possible with his law business so he won’t have to enjoy Pauline’s management of his life.

Pauline’s children, half-siblings Jim and Nora, see their mother’s faults, but afford her the courtesy of believing she means well.

Every one except Pauline worries about Jim’s flightly wife, Lita, who is more than ready to dump Jim for a movie screen test.

Fortunately, Dexter steps in, taking an interest in Lita, arranging for her to come to the Munford’s country home for a vacation while Jim goes fishing with this father.

The story is as light and purposeless as the ’20s — until chapter 32.

Then the off-hand comments of the first 31 chapters ignite in one brief, blinding flash that changes everything except Pauline’s refusal to see anything she doesn’t want to see.

Edith Wharton’s story is so frothy, you won’t realize how cleverly she’s plotted it and how well the characters are drawn until that extraordinary chapter 32.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, The Garden of Allah by Robert Hichens, and The Marriage of William Ashe by Mrs. Humphrey Ward are clearly at the top of the list of 1905 novels with that still have something important to say and say it well.

Despite each being 110 years old and each exploring themes at odds with contemporary culture, the three are remarkably accessible for contemporary readers.

The House of Mirth

The shortest of the three, Edith Wharton’s novel is also the best known today, due no doubt in large part having been translated into a TV production in 1981 and a movie in 2000.

Lily Bart, Wharton’s leading lady, is a lovely young woman who wants to marry for love, providing the man she loves is incredibly wealthy.

Wharton’s presents the story in precise detail that piles criticism on New York City’s late Victorian high society, making The House of Mirth feel like a true account of the ultra-rich circa 1900.

The weakness of The House of Mirth is Lily herself. She’s all adolescent drama, no adult sense—a real drawback for an adult heroine in today’s book market.

The Garden of Allah

The Garden of Allah is about as different from The House of Mirth as it possibly could be.

It’s long.

It’s set in the vast vacancy of the Sahara Desert.

And its leading characters focus on moral, ethical, and spiritual problems: They wouldn’t know what make of Lily Bart.

Hichens makes the novel part mystery, part spiritual biography, part travelogue.

He makes the Sahara sands come alive with color, sound, and unceasing movement. Intrigue and danger seem to lurk around every corner, terrible and enticing.

The characters, too, are alive with color, sound, and movement: They breathe aloud in the pages.

Now that I know how the story ends, The Garden of Allah is definitely a novel I’ll pick up again to linger over.

The Marriage of William Ashe

The Marriage of William Ashe is, in an odd way, a sort of midpoint between the other two novels.

There’s an upper class male who must marry an upper class female who will be the vital hostess for his promising Foreign Office career: the male equivalent of Lily Bart’s situation.

There are also moral, ethical, and religious values to be considered, ones not terribly different from those faced by the main characters in The Garden of Allah.

Ashe promised his wife he would give her freedom and support her choices. When those choices are a more exciting life with other men, alcohol, and drugs, does he let her go?

And when the consequences of her choices take their toll on her, what does he do then?

Addendum

A couple other observations before I leave the 1905 bestseller list.

First, against less-strong competition The Gambler by  Katherine Cecil Thurston would have had a good chance of being short-listed.

Second, The Clansman, a badly written novel, is worth reading for its perspective on slavery and history.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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The House of Mirth is a Jane Austen plot set in 1900’s New York City in which everything goes wrong.

Like Miss Eliza Bennett, Lily Bart must marry money soon.


The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1905, 1951. 329 pp. My grade: A.


Beautiful and witty, Lily is already 29, living on the charity of an aunt who dislikes her, and racking up debts for her bridge losses.

Lily’s choice would be bachelor lawyer Lawrence Seldon, but they both know he hasn’t enough money to satisfy her.
Lily examines a crowd of potential husbands from beneath her parasol.

Lily hooks one of the city’s most eligible bachelors, but when it’s time to reel him in, she can’t bear the thought of living with him.

She vamps a friend’s husband into investing money for her—his money, not hers—and when he wants payment of her gambling debts in services, she bolts.

Bertha Dorset invites Lily on their yacht, then dumps her in Europe, giving friends the impression Lily had been having an affair with her husband.

Within two years, Lily is dead in a rooming house.

Edith Wharton’s characters are more complex and self-aware than Austen’s, but without their practicality and willingness to make do.

New York is as rigid a society as Austen’s England, only far more savage.

Instead of social snubs, Wharton’s characters administer body blows.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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January 24 will be the 150th birthday of New York City author Edith Wharton.

Pat Ryan has written a retrospective for the New York Times mingling historical perspective on Wharton’s work with insights into the  American fascination with British aristocracy as evidenced in the popularity of the  mini-series “Downton Abbey” currently in its second season on PBS.

Check out the accompanying slide show for marvelous photos of people and places of Wharton’s era.

I reviewed  Wharton’s famous 1921 bestselling novel, The Age of Innocence, here last year.

Linda Gorton Aragoni

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As Edith Wharton’s title sugests, The Age of Innocence is a picture of an era.

The story opens in the 1870s. Newland Archer, from whose perspective the story is seen, is a New York nob with a law practice as a hobby; he doesn’t need the money.

Engaged to much younger May Welland, Newland urges a speedy wedding to counter the unpleasantness surrounding the reappearance in New York of May’s cousin Ellen Olenska, who left her European husband under unsavory circumstances.

Once married to May, through his inlaws, Newland gets roped into seeing whether it is feasible for Ellen to get a divorce.

It’s a touchy situation.

Divorce is considered scandalous; it would diminish the social status of all Ellen’s family. Besides that, Newland’s sympathy for Ellen has been interpreted by the family with some acuity as a love interest.

Wharton blows up the hyposcrisy of America’s late Victorian social leaders that’s ridiculed by their less-innocent children.

Wharton is a keen observer and fine writer, yet for all its literary merit the Age of Innocence has little punch. The fault is not Wharton’s writing. The problem is that shallow characters do not make deep books.

The Age of Innocence
By Edith Wharton
D. Appleton,  1920
365  pages
1920 bestseller # 4
Project Gutenberg Ebook-No. 541
My Grade: B+
© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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