Edith Wharton: Sex, Satire and the Older Woman, By Avril Horner and Janet Beer

Wharton's late works hit the motherload
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The Independent Culture

Do Edith Wharton's final works really represent "a falling-off from her greatest novels", as so many critics have claimed? Avril Horner and Janet Beer don't think so, and given my fondness for The Children, Hudson River Bracketed, The Gods Arrive and the novellas that make up the collection Old New York, I don't think so, either.

One of those novellas, The Old Maid, published in 1924, was made into a film with Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins. Clearly Hollywood felt that her last works were "great" enough, too.

But that link with the mass market, in this case Hollywood, is perhaps one reason for the generally held belief that Wharton's literary talents slid away from her when she was in her sixties. Horner and Beer argue, in this scholarly but accessible approach to Wharton's last six publications, that she was merging different genres, concocting a new "hybridity" with her mix of the popular and the more highbrow (the former element ensuring she always sold well, even if it meant she was regularly misunderstood by the critics). Ghostly Gothic elements haunt these novels, in which she tackles the taboo subject of older women's sexuality. The Mother's Recompense, for example, explored the relationship between a mother and daughter who both fall for the same man. Yet for all its sexual transgression, the novel was seen as "old-fashioned". Wharton despaired, and wrote of boxing gloves trying to pull apart the petals of a flower.

The mother-daughter relationship is crucial to The Old Maid, The Mother's Recompense and The Children, and Wharton's treatment of selfish mothers, or mothers who still saw themselves as sexually attractive, was both popular and revolutionary. Consumerist mothers she attacked for typifying what was wrong with America, and its slide into a leisured and moneyed society that cared only about goods and not about souls.

Horner and Beer show that Wharton was happy to take sentimental or inferior stories written by other women (Grace Aguilar's The Mother's Recompense; Margaret Kennedy's The Constant Nymph) and rework them into more complex explorations of female consciousness. And in respect of female consciousness, the authors argue, she has much in common with Virginia Woolf. Like Woolf, Wharton can be placed at the end of a long European lineage that includes George Eliot. "The supposedly reactionary values implicit in her late works that have been attributed to her growing conservatism and nostalgia for the past," during her last years in France, are values that can be found in the great 19th-century European novelists, and ones that Wharton reshaped for a new generation.

Her mix of modernist elements, popular genres, and taboo subjects made Wharton's last novels extraordinary. This study is a welcome correction to the great misunderstanding that has been done to them.

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