Why I Read Edith Wharton (and Why I Think You Should, Too)
A Bit of Background
The first classic author Pretty Literate featured when we began our Monthly Book Club was Edith Wharton. The choice wasn't random and I had no prior experiences with Wharton that let me know the selection of her would be an automatic home run. (In fact, to my embarrassment it was quite the opposite! Keep reading to see why.)
The choice of Edith Wharton stemmed from the simple fact that we began in July, and since that is the month we celebrate all things America, I wanted to spotlight an American author right out of the gate. It was that simple.
Like I said, I had no prior experience reading any of Edith Wharton's 15 novels, 7 novellas, or 85 short stories. I was a blank slate, both with that first curated Monthly Book Box and with the author. (Apologies again to my Founding Members and massive kudos for sticking with me while I worked out the bumpier aspects of curating your monthly deliveries. You are why Pretty Literate's Book Boxes became what they are today. I couldn't have done it without you. Thank you!)
When we began the Monthly Book Club, I had the bright idea that we would read three works by the same author for three months in a row PLUS have the option of adding a fourth title by that same author via the Seasonal Book Boxes. The thought process was that we would immerse ourselves in one author's works for one quarter of the year before switching to a new author. I was pretty proud of the stellar organization I was giving to our book club and knew my Founding Members would appreciate it, too.
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
So in July 2021, I packed and shipped our first Monthly Book Club box to the 22 readers that took a chance on Pretty Literate delivering an engaging classic + a novel treasure that took the experience up a notch with a smile on my face and a congratulatory pat on my back. That book box featured Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth and while I revelled in the success of the launch on shipping day, over the next month the reality of how short I fell curating that first book box began to dawn on me.
First, I lost one of my Founding Members on the day she received that first shipment. Not only did she quit the Monthly Book Club like a bad habit, she shared an earful of why via a lengthy Dear John letter to me.
Second, once I picked my jaw up from the ground, I solicited feedback from my other Founding Members and learned that I had a...ahem...healthy margin with which to grow.
Third, I learned that not everyone was as elated with the edition I selected as I was. I chose purely aesthetically and honestly did not give a second thought to book or font size, learning some valuable insights early on regarding the all-important book selection.
Fourth, the truth that not everyone connects with an author, title, or main character the same way was brought to light as I learned that Miss Lily Bart, the well-born but impoverished main character in Wharton's 1905 classic, did not necessarily read as sympathetic a character to everyone as she did to me.
Finally, I discovered a thing or two about picking appropriate novel treasures to accompany the right book selection, creating a balance between the books and the bookish souvenirs.
I was eager to put all of this valuable feedback into practice with the second Edith Wharton novel I had chosen.
The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton
I won't go into all the details that went into this second book box featuring Edith Wharton except to say that both the edition and the novel treasure were universally applauded.
Ms. Wharton's story, not so much.
To say there was a love-hate relationship with The Custom of the Country inside our Monthly Book Club discussions that August is to gloss over the fact that it was just hate.
I was an anti-fan of Wharton's main character from the very beginning of The Custom of the Country, but since not everyone felt the sympathy I held for the main character in The House of Mirth the previous month, I thought this title would prove to be similar. I was even hopeful that some of the well-read members of the Monthly Book Club would help me find a way to understand why Wharton would write such a character as Undine Spragg. (And they did, but I think it was universally felt that it was a steep price to pay. To this date, there are certain members of PL's Monthly Book Club that get a little fiery and salty when The Custom of the Country is mentioned, so let's move on.)
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
In my resolve to spotlight American author, Edith Wharton, inside the BIGGER Seasonal Book Box at the same time we were reading a few of her titles in the Monthly Book Club, I was happy to learn that the author had written a Pulitzer Prize Winner. What would be better than choosing the writer's 1921 award-winning novel, The Age of Innocence? (Happily, this was a stellar choice. When in doubt, go with the Pulitzer Prize Winners.)
Known for her opulence, status, and wealth during America's Gilded Age, it was such fun to curate the Edith Wharton Book Box. Filled with glitz and glamour, this first of the Seasonal Book Boxes was a real hit across the board.
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
If you are wondering at this point why I have waited over 2 years before offering another book box by the first classic author we featured in the Monthly Book Club, the reason is this -
Our members cried "Uncle!"
What I mean by that is that after two Monthly Book Club boxes and one BIG Seasonal Book Box, I realized the singular focus on Wharton's writing and her viewpoint from the upper crust was wearing a little thin. Like a couple of our favorite FRIENDS, Ross & Rachel, we needed a break - from high society, social expectations, and the sense of entitlement that came from living during the Gilded Age in the 1%. (Another thanks to my Founding Members for always giving such great feedback so that I could keep pivoting to make our Monthly Book Club the best! If you're not a member, we invite you to check us out. We'd love to have you come read with us and we have some stellar classics on deck for this year you will not want to miss.)
Then I discovered Ethan Frome in 2023, a complete 180 degrees from any of the author's previous works we'd read together. I knew immediately that this was the novel to break our Edith Wharton dry spell, the perfect piece of frosty fiction to begin 2024 reading together. From the characters and setting to the symbolism throughout, this out-of-the-ordinary Wharton novel focuses on the other 99% via the thoughtful and sensitive New England country farmer, Ethan. (Visit the Pretty Literate SHOP for more on the Ethan Frome Book Box or any of the other classic book boxes we've shared in the Monthly Book Club here.)
Photo Credit: Yale University Library
Why I Read Edith Wharton
Why am I sharing all of this with you? Because I came to the realization earlier this month that while we (as a book club) have the messiest range when it comes to where we fall on the Edith Wharton love-hate spectrum (We're talking Jackson Pollock messy.), the woman certainly makes us think.
Her writing kidnaps the imagination (and passions!) of her readers, refusing to let go until the last page is turned.
Her writing includes personalities that inadvertently compel the reader to analyze herself alongside the characters - flaws and all.
Her writing engenders a very b r o a d range of emotional responses (hence the love-hate spectrum analogy above).
Her writing is beautifully descriptive, painting portraits of days gone by with rich language and captivating visual imagery.
Her writing, like so many other classic female authors we admire, gave voice to the countless women who paved the way for the freedoms we enjoy as the fairer sex today.
Her writing and characters stay with you, long after you've finished reading.
Edith Wharton, circa 1905. Photo Credit - The New York Times
Why You Should Read Edith Wharton
Dear reader, it has taken over two years for me to begin to realize what an impact Ms. Wharton's writing has had on me as a reader, and as a woman. Two years ago, I was just getting to know the author, her writing style, her motivations. I read her works on a surface level, for pleasure (or in the case of The Custom of the Country, displeasure). I read them and simply moved on, congratulating myself on adding another author and a few of her titles to my growing list of completed classics.
Today, I am beginning to realize there is so much more to glean from Ms. Wharton's stories. And I find that I want to learn.
With that in mind (and to hopefully help you fast-forward through two years on your own), I hope you'll consider these last few reasons why YOU should read Edith Wharton, too.
Time (and Station) Travel
Yes, yes, yes. I know you're thinking, Wouldn't that be true of any classic? And the surface answer would be yes.
With Edith Wharton's writing, nine times out of ten you get the added benefit of a peek behind the curtain at the 1%. If you're a fan of HBO's The Gilded Age (starring one of my favs, Carrie Coon), you owe it to yourself to indulge in some of Wharton's high-society stories - including The Custom of the Country.
Remember earlier when I said the members in PL's Monthly Book Club helped me to understand why Wharton would write such a controversial and unlikeable character as Undine Spragg? That was accomplished when a member shared that Undine was a compilation of all that Wharton herself disliked of living in New York society, likely a mashup oh-so-many young ladies that came out in society in her heyday as one of the original Joneses from the old saying keeping up with the Joneses. (Wharton's family of origin was literally THE JONESES whom the saying references!)
Undeniably, Edith Wharton creates compelling characters that demand the reader feel SOMETHING about them as they read. From the aforementioned Undine Spragg (who was loathed by one and all, but of whom we still talk about over two years later!) to the lowly and "stuck" Massachusetts farmer, Ethan Frome, Ms. Wharton's characters stick with you and keep you thinking. Her stories are overflowing with thoughtful and relatable topics - which is only heightened by reading in community.
You really learn a lot about the woman behind the pen, so to speak, when you read one of Edith Wharton's novels.
Ever wonder what it would be like to navigate high society in New York? Read The Custom of the Country, a chronicle of the art of social climbing by an OG "industry insider."
Ever fantasized about exchanging city life for country living, embracing a "simpler" lifestyle? Read Ethan Frome and uncover the striking similarities between the humble title character and the affluent author who (ironically) created him.
Have you ever felt hemmed in by the present because of the choices you made in the past? Read The House of Mirth, Wharton's condemnation of the societal system (of which her family reigned during the turn of the 20th century) whose constraints led to the impoverishment (both physically and emotionally) of the women born into them.
It is impossible to read a Wharton novel without learning about the author through her characters, settings, and stories.
PHOTOGRAPH BY HULTON ARCHIVE / GETTY
What Do You Think?
I hope you'll share your thoughts on why you read Edith Wharton, and why you think others should read her, too.
I look forward to reading your thoughts on Edith Wharton and her stories in the comments.
And if incorporating more classics into your reading life resonates with you, I invite you to come read with us inside PL's Monthly Book Club this year. We have a full year of classics just waiting for you to experience inside our Classics Community. (Learn more here.)