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.

What Authors Never Say At Book Signings

airplane_0Being an author on a book tour can be a wonderful experience, until things go wrong: missed flights, poor turnouts, noisy and uncomfortable hotels, cab drivers taking you to the wrong book store in the wrong part of town, hotel WiFi crapping out–and a host of other problems that can work your last nerve.

So sometimes your charm can wear very thin, and you start to feel that the same kinds of remarks or questions you’ve heard before feel like swings people are taking at a piñata.

800px-pinata_in_san_diegoThe stress can leave you most vulnerable when you’re marooned at a table waiting for people to come over and get a book to be signed.  This isn’t after a reading, but when all the bookstore wants you to do is just sit and sign.  You end up feeling like you’re not much more than somebody’s desperate grandmother at a weekend yard sale trying to unload worthless junk rather than an artist selling a book you’ve slaved over.

LandscapeHere are some moments many authors have experienced, and what some of them might have been thinking in their weary, frazzled, tortured little hearts.

Scene: Customer rifles through a book for five or more minutes while the author sits at the bookstore table grinning stupidly and helpfully, imagining alternative realities that would have kept her home: a stalled car or a civil insurrection or just a plain old flu.

sick in bedCustomer puts book down and mutters, “I’ll get it on Amazon.”  Customer trundles off.

Author would love to say: “I won’t sign it on friggin’ Amazon!”

Or Customer asks, “Will I like it?”

Author would love to say, “You will adore it.  It’s gonna improve your sex life, give you a green thumb, help you lose weight (and seriously, honey, it’s time because have you seen yourself from behind?), get your kids into their first choice colleges, and make your dog stop peeing on the couch.”

guilty dogCustomer says out of the blue, after inspecting as if it might have bed bugs, “I don’t read much.”

Author would love to say, “I could tell from the vacant look in your eyes.”

Customer sighs after putting the book back upside down and face down, “I have so many books at home that I have to read first.”

Author would love to say, “This is way better than the trash you’re used to.”

Customer bustles up to you and scolds you at length for some plot point in your last book and says you better not have repeated the same mistake in the new one.

Author would love to say, “I’m so grateful!  That was amazing advice! Nobody’s ever pointed that out to me before!  I’m dedicating my next book to you!  Here, take a free book!  No, take two!”

Friend_hugLev Raphael is the author of The Edith Wharton Murders and 24 other books in many genres.

My Bastille Day Faux Pas in France

Edith WhartonYears ago when I was researching a book on Edith Wharton’s psychology and fiction, I visited her home north of Paris in Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt.  It was less than an hour north of the city and I’d written ahead long in advance to get permission to explore it and take pictures.  I didn’t realize my clueless publisher would have no interest in the photos, not even an author photo of me in her garden. The ways of publishing have always been mysterious….

Arriving in that small town of fewer than 15,000 citizens, and fluent in French, I was puzzled that nobody I asked on the street seemed to know where Rue Edith Wharton was.  I kept getting responses of “Desolé, M’sieu, connais pas.”  Sorry, don’t know. Finally I resorted to the Town Hall for a map to find the home Wharton called Pavillon Colombe, which was built in the late 18th century for an actress.  I later learned that the street had only recently been renamed for Wharton, which was probably why citizens couldn’t help me.

pavillon colombeThough the facade of her home is aloof and impersonal, it opened into a cool, dark hall, beyond which, through French doors, stretched a sunny parterre. A shy maid showed me into a gorgeous salon filled with beautiful paintings, tables, books, and bibelots. A bell rang somewhere and the maid said, Madame la Princesse vienne. I stood there trying to figure out why she was using the subjunctive tense to tell me that the princess was coming (what was wrong with the regular present?), and I felt that I was in way over my head.

But I couldn’t help relishing the elegant rooms opening onto each other and onto the parterre.  This was my first time ever in a French home of such grace and beauty.

Princess Isabelle von und zu Liechtenstein, the wife of Pavillon Colombe’s owner, strode up through the garden.  She was drop-dead chic in black and grey with a colorful Chanel scarf at her throat, her hair in a chignon. As she passed wailing peacocks, she called out to two bounding white borzois in a high piping voice.  It was an entrance like something out of a stage play, dramatic and somewhat intimidating.

Madame la Princesse gave me a brisk but exceedingly gracious tour through the house that bore no trace of Wharton’s former presence.  On my own I toured the garden which also had changed since Wharton’s day, but still showed signs of her planning.  In the Italian style, it was a tranquil, inviting progression of orderly spaces, light giving way to shadow, square spaces to round, grass to fountains.

Upon leaving and thanking my host, I struck the absolute wrong note.  Bastille Day was coming up and I made some reference to it, because I’d never been in France before on July14th and was looking forward to the fireworks.

eiffel-tower-fireworksWithout thinking, I asked if the Princess had any special plans.  “Je porte toujours le deuil,” she said with no change of expression: “I always wear mourning.”  She added that her husband was a descendent of Queen Marie Antoinette. My French failed me.  My English failed me. Had I spoken German at the time, that would have failed me, too.  Luckily, I was on my way out.  It does make a good story, though, something Wharton herself might have enjoyed.  I suppose the Princess’s version might be even more entertaining–if she’s ever deigned to tell it, of course.

Lev Raphael is the author of the mystery The Edith Wharton Murders and 24 other books in many genres.  This anecdote is taken from his study Edith Wharton’s Prisoners of Shame.