Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Edith Wharton vs. Henry James

I'm always tempted to call Edith Wharton the female Henry James since they both wrote about and were part of upper class society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There are other similarities as well. Both were Americans who spent many years abroad and shared an appreciation for European culture. They were also friends, and James, Wharton's senior by almost 20 years, was an early mentor of Wharton's who encouraged her to write novels of manners, which were part of his oeuvre as well. Their greatest similarity and strength, however, in my opinion, was their ability to capture on the the page the tiniest shadings and nuance of feeling--emotions that elude description by all but the best writers.

Although they are both psychologically acute chroniclers of the human heart and although I love some of James's books, particularly Washington Square, I think Wharton is the better and more consistent writer of the two. And more accessible, too.

Which makes me think I should instead refer to Henry James as the male Edith Wharton, his greater name recognition aside.

Although Wharton won the Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence, her first great success was the novel The House of Mirth. Its heroine is Lily Bart, a woman born into wealth but no longer wealthy who is also beautiful, charming, witty and perceptive. But at 29 she is still unmarried, a precarious position for a woman in 1890s New York, particularly a woman with extravagant tastes and little money. Thwarted by pitiless opportunists and missed opportunities, as well as her own scruples, Lily is a complex heroine whose growth and descent coupled with Wharton’s exquisite style made this 1905 novel a controversial bestseller and an influential classic.

We'll be discussing The House of Mirth at the next Tuesday morning book group on June 1st at 10 am. Stop by the 3rd floor Readers' Services desk to register for the discussion and pick up a copy of this masterful novel. Or check out one of her other compelling titles which include The Age of Innocence, Ethan Frome, and Old New York, the latter of which includes the novella The Old Maid, the basis for the classic Bette Davis movie of the same name.

If you've read both Henry James and Edith Wharton, do you prefer one over the other? Do you love both? Or like the John Cusack character in Grosse Pointe Blank, do you still bemoan the English teacher who made you read Wharton's Ethan Frome in high school?


Jo said...

I like both authors but I find them both a little tough on the ladies. The women are always doomed in their novels, whether they are naughty or nice.

Lynne said...

I have always enjoyed both authors as well, but I have to say Edith Wharton is my favorite of the two. I loved Ethan Frome. It was wonderfully dark.

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