Edith Wharton and Secret Love

Edith Wharton isn’t a writer you tend to think of on Valentine’s day. Her marriage was unhappy and the very secret affair she had in her forties was with a faithless cad.

No wonder that love in her novels is so often curdled, thwarted, or hopeless. Think of Ethan Frome, The Reef, The Custom of the Country, The Mother’s Recompense, The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence.

But there’s so much to love and admire in her work: the wit, the dissection of social fossilization, the gimlet-eyed study of women’s objectification, the elegant knife-sharp prose, the passion under the surface.

Wharton’s The Age of Innocence ends with a quiet nod to a possible lost love of Henry James, as Cynthia Griffin Wolff wrote in her study A Feast of Words. Wharton knew a touching story that James had told to a mutual friend: when he was younger, James had once stood for hours somewhere in Europe, staring up at a balcony window, hoping to see a face. He hadn’t said whose face it was and Wharton recast the story in her own way at the end of The Age of Innocence. It was a loving private tribute to a man, now dead, who might have exasperated her sometimes but whom she had been devoted to.

Wharton exasperated me with her stereotypical Jew Simon Rosedale in The House of Mirth. How could such a gifted author betray her gifts like that?

When I re-wrote her novel as Rosedale in Love, I did my own version of her gesture to James by including a secret love and giving my book a surprise happy ending. Why not? I’ve been devoted to her fiction for years and it’s inspired me in my own writing to strive for the best.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery. His other Wharton-inspired book is a mystery, The Edith Wharton Murders.

My Life With Edith Wharton: A Birthday Blog

It’s not surprising that I fell in love with Edith Wharton, given that I grew up in Gilded Age New York. The building on upper Broadway in Manhattan that I was raised in was one of two massive apartment blocks built circa 1900 by Harry Mulliken.  Like Mulliken’s more elaborate Lucerne Hotel on 79th and Amsterdam, it had gorgeous tapestry brickwork and stone detailing,

The public library I visited every week was a Venetian palazzo designed by McKim, Mead, and White. This was a temple of books, a sanctuary, and a doorway to another more elegant world.  Perhaps most enthralling for me as a young boy was our family’s regular bus route downtown that took us along Riverside Drive past one Gilded Age mansion, brownstone, and apartment building after another.

The past was all around me as it might not be in other parts of New York City, and so discovering Wharton in college was like claiming part of my own history.  I bought every single book of hers then available in Scribner paperbacks and read them many times, awed by her wit, her powers of description, and her sharp eye for hypocrisy and foolishness.  In the summer of 1975 I read R.W. B. Lewis’s riveting Pulitzer-winning Wharton biography that helped launch the revival of her work, and through reading about Wharton’s life I felt even more inspired to pursue my own career as a writer.

That career of publishing twenty-five books in many genres has led me back to Wharton three times. In the early 90s I published a study of the emotion of shame in her writing and her life, something that had never been noticed or discussed before.  A few years after Edith Wharton’s Prisoners of Shame, I invented two fictional Wharton societies and pitted them against each other in an academic mystery,The Edith Wharton Murders.  It was my first book to be reviewed by the New York Times.

More recently, I’ve re-entered her world in a far more intimate way: I’ve radically re-visioned The House of Mirth from the point of view of Lily Bart’s Jewish suitor Simon Rosedale.  I’ve given Rosedale a home, a family, a history, dreams, and a tormented heart.  In writing Rosedale in Love, I haven’t tried to imitate Wharton’s style, but I have written the book in a period voice after two years of immersing myself in fiction and nonfiction from the early 1900s. I don’t know how Wharton would have felt about my novel, but for me, it’s been one of the most exhilarating collaborations of my career.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery.