The Writing Allstars – Edith Wharton

Ah, good conversation – there’s nothing like it, is there? The air of ideas is the only air worth breathing. (The Age of Innocence)

My introduction to Edith Wharton was short and sweet. It was a story about two mothers and their conversations regarding their past and their futures as they dealt with their grown children while on holiday. I think it was called Roman Fever. I think it was brilliantly written. I think the dialogue sparkled. All of that is fuzzy. But what I do remember as clear as day is the last sentence of the story. What I remember is reading, late at night, from a hardbound collection of short stories while my second born daughter nursed. The light was on low and my husband was asleep. Gentle snores and the sound of pages turning my only companions. I was reading faster and faster as the tension was building between the two mothers and then, Mrs. Ansley dropped her bombshell, calmly and gently, and my mouth dropped open. I read and re-read the sentences, making sure I was right. What an ending! I woke my husband up and read him the entire story. I still think about that night, especially when I have writer’s block. I think, I want to blow them away with the unexpected, just like that.

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)

Wharton had a way of infusing her stories with wit and lightness and grace that reminded me of a less somber Christie. While her material is just as heavy (House of Mirth, Ethan Frome, am I right?) she is able to leave the reader with an uplifted spirit due to her incredible use of humor. Wharton’s novels give the overall feeling that she really rather liked the world and was amused, rather than disgusted, at the facades and follies people engaged in to achieve their own ends. She was a master of setting a stage, relaying a conversation, making it all appear above-board all the while showing the seamy undercurrent of deception and desperation that lies at the heart of all conflict.

But I have sometimes thought that a woman’s nature is like a great house full of rooms: there is the hall, through which everyone passes in going in and out; the drawing-room, where one receives formal visits; the sitting-room, where the members of the family come and go as they list; but beyond that, far beyond, are other rooms, the handles of whose doors perhaps are never turned; no one knows the way to them, no one knows whither they lead; and in the innermost room, the holy of holies, the soul sits alone and waits for a footstep that never comes. (The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton)

Edith Wharton was a master at leaving the important things unsaid, all the while drawing the reader’s attention to them. It is in her characters looks, in their surface conversations, in the way they interact with their surroundings, that shows us the truth of what lies beneath our first glance. She could infer so much with a simple question about the weather, or what someone wore to a party. And by doing so, she made us complicit. She allowed the reader to discover the hidden meanings, the deep dark truths about humanity veneered over with a thin coating of respectability. We were the detectives, putting the puzzle together, finding the answers, understanding our selves through her characters. She caused us to question if we were as impenetrable as we once thought. And it is that ability that I seek to employ in my own writing; to cause the reader to question themselves and the world around them in the hopes that they discover something new.

We live in our own souls as in an unmapped region, a few acres of which we have cleared for our habitation; while of the nature of those nearest us we know but the boundaries that march with ours. (The Touchstone)

Because of Edith Wharton I look deeper than the surface when I interact with the world around me. Because of Edith Wharton I can smile at the idiosyncracies in myself and others. Because of Edith Wharton I found Henry James and Theodore Dreiser. Because of Edith Wharton, I am the writer I am today.


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