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Edith Wharton's twenty-eight-year marriage produced no biological children, but she had a lifelong interest in the welfare of the young and created many fictional juvenile portraits. Children are the explicit focus of her short story ‘The Mission of Jane’ (1902), and her novels Summer (1917) and The Children (1928), but Wharton's explorations of child-rearing also appear in novels about women climbing the social ladder. Nowhere are the effects of parenting on childhood more evident than in The Custom of the Country.
The Custom of the Country is set in the early 1900s and published in 1913, and is in some ways a companion novel to The House of Mirth, set in the same period and published in 1905. Both novels of manners tell the story of poorly parented, beautiful and vain women in search of husbands. Both protagonists are essentially, even tragically, ignorant about the true source of happiness. However, Undine Spragg seizes every opportunity for success and is driven by a rapacious appetite for new experiences, money and social standing, in contrast to the more passive Lily Bart, who sows the seeds of success but fails to reap the harvest from her efforts. Beginning with the early reviews, readers have noted the novels' parallel depictions of American womanhood, but they have neglected a key aspect in Lily's and Undine's situations: their families.
Hegel's philosophy in general stands at the centre of modern Western thought. Hegel's system integrates major intellectual developments, such as the various streams of Enlightenment and Romanticism, into its own formidable synthesis. Hegel sees human history as a movement of consciousness towards self-conscious freedom and rationality. Hegel's lectures on aesthetics were delivered in Berlin in 1823, 1826 and 1828-9. According to Hegel, art fulfils an important function in giving sensuous form to a concrete spiritual content, but philosophy constitutes a higher mode of representing spirit. Hegel explains that these three general forms of art, symbolic, classical and Romantic, are realized in the specific arts of architecture, sculpture, painting, music and poetry. The collision of actions in modern tragedy does not rest on conflicts extrapolated or introjected from the ethical order but is accidental, though substantive moral ends may be engaged in a contingent manner.
Who, then, is Edith Wharton? What motivated her religious, spiritual, and philosophical quest? And what answers did she find? Despite her ability to portray social customs with faultless detail, critics are mistaken when they conclude, as does early commentator E. K. Brown, that her work is “indépendante du divin” (324, original emphasis). Nor is it true that her fiction exhibits no cosmic philosphy (Russell 432) or moral center (Dixon 211). It is the case that Wharton's religious sensibilities developed as a result of widely different influences – including genteel religion that often subordinated strenuous faith to sociability and comfort; a love of life's pleasures that competed with codes of truth telling and punishment for happiness; and a desire to strengthen woman's vulnerable position within the structures of patriarchy.
Edith Wharton was born an Episcopalian; she inherited a Calvinist sensibility; and she flirted with transcendental philosophies. She arrived finally at the door of Catholicism, but neither it nor Protestantism – whether homespun or genteel – could fully answer her spiritual needs. All religions fell short of the philosophical ideals to which she aspired – and none incorporated the qualities of the feminine to the extent that she would have liked. Wharton was a member of the group that Jackson Lears calls “tourists of the supernatural” (174), whose agnosticism and hardedged positivism prevented her surrender to historical nostalgia or simple belief, yet whose spiritual longings sustained the search for immutable values.
The world is a welter and has always been one; but though all the cranks and the theorists cannot master the old floundering monster, or force it for long into any of their neat plans of readjustment, here and there a saint or a genius suddenly sends a little ray through the fog, and helps humanity to stumble on, and perhaps up.
Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance
Adopting the Platonic dialogue, with all its archaeological formulae, seems to me enough to petrify or ossify any drop of new blood or morsel of live flesh & bone.
Edith Wharton, Letter to Margaret Chanler
Edith Wharton continued her search for spiritual meaning in the post–World War I years. In previous novels, she wrestled with questions of spiritual meaning and sought alternatives to the Christian mindbody split and prohibitions on the flesh. Old Testament teachings and Calvinist doctrines influence The House of Mirth and Ethan Frome; the wisdom and creativity of the ancient deity Sophia echo in The Reef; and Emerson's and Whitman's transcendentalism provide the inspiration for Summer. In The Age of Innocence, Platonic philosophy offers Wharton another base from which to explore familiar and haunting questions about love, duty, and spiritual values.
Although the heroine of Summer cannot realize the full potential afforded by Emersonian transcendentalism, Wharton herself continued to privilege Emerson's ideals, focusing, in particular, on the Platonic philosophy that informed his and other romantic theories of the nineteenth century.
No story teller … can do great work unbased on some philosophy of life.
Edith Wharton, “A Reconsideration of Proust”
It is easy to overlook the religious and spiritual dimensions of Edith Wharton's life and fiction if we view her primarily as a novelist of manners. The label “aristocratic lady novelist” – a designation revealing the biases of gender and class – also discounts her intellectual seriousness. In fact, Wharton infuses even her most socially minded texts with religious, moral, or philosophical reflection. And although she resisted the more vociferous forms of feminist activism at the turn of the century, her voice is often clear and dissenting, calling for moral as well as social equality for women. Concerns for ideals and for women's place in structures that often exclude or marginalize them are consistent motifs in Wharton's life and writing.
Morals and Manners
Although Edith Wharton thought of herself as a novelist of manners, she might have chosen a different designation had she foreseen the limitations of the term. To understand this category of realism, I take Lionel Trilling's definition: a novelist of manners writes of society's conventions, including not only etiquette and decorum but principles, rules, and laws that are established by tacit assumption (“Manners” 200–1). However useful the label “novelist of manners” may be, it exerts a subtle bias, allowing critics to focus on the social features of a writer's portrayals at the expense of her deeper levels of insight into human nature.
Where [Edith Wharton] has made her mark here is in the creation of that vivid young creature Sophy Viner. Sophy is real; she lays hold of that in you which makes yourself real.
H. I. Brock, review of The Reef
To name God in oneself, or to speak the word “Goddess” again after many centuries of silence is to reverse age-old patterns of thinking in which male power and female subordination are viewed as the norm.
Carol Christ, Diving Deep and Surfacing
[Summer] is known to its author & her familiars as the Hot Ethan.… I don't know how on earth the thing got itself written.… Anyhow, the setting will amuse you.
Edith Wharton, Letter to Gaillard Lapsley
“If I ever have children,” Edith Wharton wrote in her autobiography “Life and I,” “I shall deprive them of every pleasure, in order to prepare them for the inevitable unhappiness of life” (1091, original emphasis). Ethan Frome and Mattie Silver are, figuratively, two such children. However, Wharton had others less afflicted. She followed the compressed bleakness of Ethan Frome with a prodigious outpouring of fiction and nonfiction, including The Reef (1912), The Custom of the Country (1913), Xingu (1916), Summer (1917), French Ways and Their Meaning (1919), In Morocco (1920), and The Age of Innocence (1920).
I don't believe in God but I do believe in His saints – and then?
Edith Wharton, commonplace book, qtd. in Lewis
Religious thought is certainly a great power. The greatest of all. It embraces everything.
Edith Wharton, qtd. in Elisina Tyler, Diary
Later [Edith Wharton and I] talked a little of religion. The Roman Catholic Church ranks highest, as a great social force for order, and for its finest ritual, its great traditions, its human understanding. We said that it is really not difficult to believe.
Elisina Tyler, Diary
If Wharton flirted with agnosticism in midlife, she came to faith in her later years, expressing a confidence in heaven and its ruling deity. Such belief is clear from her correspondence. About the death of her friend Lily Norton's aunt, Wharton wrote in 1926, “I hope she is now in some happy world talking over Montaigne with a group of sympathizers, or, better still, talking to the Great Man himself” (Letters, 12 June). In 1934, she again commented to Lily: “The thing that moved me most in your letter was the inscription on the war-graves: ‘Known to God.’ It was an inspiration” (Letters, 19 October). Increasingly, this faith became aligned with Catholicism, constituting – to borrow the title of her 1934 short story – Wharton's personal case of “Roman fever.”
I was a failure in Boston … because they thought I was too fashionable to be intelligent, and a failure in New York because they were afraid I was too intelligent to be fashionable.
Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance
Discoveries in science, which played key roles in the late Victorian struggle with faith, are crucial to understanding Edith Wharton's religious choices. Especially important is her effort to develop her intelligence and claim a role for herself, as female, in the world of ideas and art. Wharton's intellectualism, impressive by any measure, was astounding for a nineteenth-century woman with no formal education. Wharton placed great importance on learning and strove to develop her innate intelligence through reading, writing, and conversation. Her keen rationality helped to unlock doors to philosophy, theology, and metaphysics, thus deepening the possibilities for her spiritual inquiry. At the same time, her intelligence also competed at various points in her life with her ability to suspend judgment and accept on the basis of faith alone.
Especially early in her life, Wharton resisted religious teachings because they omitted the important faculty of reason. As the philosopher Vivaldi explains in the novel The Valley of Decision (1902): “against reason the fabric of theological doctrine cannot long hold out.… We have not joined the great army of truth to waste our time in vain disputations over metaphysical subtleties” (1: 154).
Edith Wharton: Matters of Mind and Spirit, first published in 1995, makes the case for Wharton as a novelist of morals rather than of manners; a novelist who sought answers to profound spiritual and metaphysical questions. Focusing on Wharton's treatment of Anglicanism, Calvinism, Transcendentalism, and Catholicism, Carol Singley analyzes the short stories and seven novels in the light of religious and philosophical developments in Wharton's life and fiction. Singley situates Wharton in the context of turn-of-the-century science, historicism, and aestheticism, reading her religious and philosophical outlook as an evolving response to the cultural crisis of belief. She invokes the dynamics of class and gender as central to Wharton's quest, describing how the author accepted and yet transformed both the classical and Christian traditions that she inherited. By locating Wharton in the library rather than the drawing room, Matters of Mind and Spirit gives this writer her literary and intellectual due, and offers fresh ways of interpreting her life and fiction.
That Calvinist sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin, from whose visitations, in some shape or other, no deeply thinking mind is always and wholly free.
Herman Melville, Hawthorne and His Mosses
That heart of New England which makes so pretty a phrase for print and so stern a fact, as yet, for feeling.
Henry James, The American Scene
Life is the saddest thing there is.
Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance
Edith Wharton's elite social background places her in the tradition of genteel Protestantism. Yet a closer look reveals another sensibility that can only be characterized as evangelical – the spirituality commonly associated with Calvinism. Wharton's relationship to Calvinism is complex and even paradoxical, not only because Calvinism contrasted sharply with her upbringing, but because she resisted, on intellectual and aesthetic grounds, the austere doctrines to which she felt spiritually drawn. Her life and fiction reflect these ambiguities: deep moral belief tempered by rational skepticism, love of life's pleasures restrained by fear of their cost. Throughout Wharton's writing we can see this battle between conscience and convenience. In her New England fiction, particularly in Ethan Frome, Wharton gives full rein to her Calvinist impulses. She rejects the sunny interpretations of Darwinian theory that dispensed with God, sin, and punishment; she returns instead to the austerity of Calvinism, using it as a trope for the modernist condition of uncertainty and alienation.