So You Want to Read Some Edith Wharton?
It’s no secret that I love Edith Wharton. I write about her a lot, both for the Attic and in the academic world, and I do this because Wharton writes like no one else. Her popularity comes from the incredibly subtle but incredibly biting way she writes about New York high society – and this keeps her relevant today, especially now that we’re seeing yet again how tragically destructive the unethically rich can be(/inevitably are) towards the world. I love this about her writing, but it isn’t what keeps me reading her work. What does is that she masterfully weaves this together with different aspects of human existence in a way that makes it all eventually revolve around aesthetics and feeling. Every page pulsates with detail, and I never walk away from one of her texts untouched.
When people ask me what Wharton they should read first, I never quite know what to say. Wharton was a prolific writer. She wrote over twenty novels and novellas in her lifetime, along with several short story collections, poetry, plays (though these are unpublished), and works of non-fiction on design and travel. I have an entire shelf dedicated to her work, and I’m still far from having read everything she’s written.
Where then to start?
The Age of Innocence – The Age of Innocence is, I feel, the most polished of Wharton’s novels and is perhaps not coincidentally the one to win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature (making Wharton, in 1921, the first woman to ever win the prize). I reread it last year after having spent the year before constantly rereading The House of Mirth, and its smoothness struck me. An incredible story of love, temptation, and restraint, The Age of Innocence is perfect for late winter days when you want to read about the shenanigans of incredibly wealthy and incredibly repressed people.
Twilight Sleep – The only “light” one of Wharton’s novels (yet still containing quite a dark subject matter), Twilight Sleep is a satire of the 1920s Jazz Age novel. Delicious and substantial (and touching on interesting family dynamics), it’s a great first Wharton if you’ve read The Great Gatsby a dozen times but haven’t touched anything from the decades preceding it.
The Custom of the Country – Did you watch a lot of Gossip Girl as a teen and root for the newcomers? Read The Custom of the Country. You’ll hate everyone, but you’ll have fun doing it.
The Buccaneers – A lot of Downton Abbey instead? If you were invested in the show and wondered how Cora came to be at Downton or if you’ve spent a lot of time reading about Conseulo Vanderbilt and all the women who made Transatlantic marriages to British men in the late 19th century, then this is the one for you. The Buccaneers is technically unfinished and was published posthumously, but Marion Mainwaring finished the novel thanks to Wharton’s detailed outline of the novel, and it’s satisfying enough.
The Glimpses of the Moon – Another 1920s novel that can be analytically tied to the Fitzgeralds and this time, to Tender is the Night, The Glimpses of the Moon is a very non-traditional story of newlyweds traveling the world and trying to hold on to the social ladder. Angsty but entertaining, it’s sitting in my reread pile.
Hudson River Bracketed – Are you a tortured writer/artistic type who loves love and also likes really long novels? Hudson River Bracketed is the one for you. It was the one that truly converted me to Wharton’s writing in my late teens and frankly, it’s the one I’m scared to reread in case it doesn’t live up to my memories.
The Children – Were you a child of divorce? Did you read a lot of children’s novels as a kid that took place decades or centuries ago and somehow involved traipsing around the Alps? Look no further than The Children.
If you still don’t know where to start, then I’d recommend picking up a short story collection that includes “Roman Fever” and going straight for that. It and its closing lines will tell you everything you need to know about Wharton and her style.
Just don’t start with Ethan Frome.
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Olivia Gündüz-Willemin is Editor-in-Chief of The Attic on Eighth. She is dedicated to reading her way through the world and trying to stay as calm as possible.