George’s Hand

Dinah Birch

  • A Son at the Front by Edith Wharton
    Northern Illinois, 223 pp, $26.00, November 1995, ISBN 0 87580 203 6

Edith Wharton’s reputation is finally disentangling itself from the long, fastidious shadow of Henry James. Only film and television could make the case in the public mind that Wharton is more than an imitative appendage of James. Scorsese’s intense version of The Age of Innocence found admirers, and the capering flounces of last year’s televised Buccaneers, with bosoms hardly out-swollen by the subsequent inflation of Pride and Prejudice, found many more. In Wharton’s case, displays of exuberant costume and calculated gloss make some sense. She understands the exhilaration of ‘swaying pyramids of pasteboard’ emerging from a Parisian milliner, and knows that the ‘long unerring lines’ of sophisticated dresses are to be taken seriously. Great clothes could be akin to great art in Wharton’s mind. This is one of the reasons for later habits of condescension towards her work. To sensibilities formed by Modernism, her frank preoccupation with wealth seemed crude and dated. Wharton insisted that grace, particularly women’s grace, was the product of money, and this made her an object of distaste to those who wanted to see culture and beauty as distinct from the polluted energies of capitalism. The celebrated stories of ‘Old New York’ represented what persisted of her fame: they were seen as period pieces, curious relics of a lost world.

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