Solving My Edith Wharton Problem
I have seven shelves of books by and about Edith Wharton, including some first editions. I’ve written a psychological study of her life and fiction, Edith Wharton's Prisoners of Shame (now out of print), and an academic mystery, The Edith Wharton Murders.
So you could justly say that Wharton’s been a major part of my literary life. But there’s a problem: her take on Jews.
Wharton loved F. Scott Fitzgerald’s anti-Semitic portrait of Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby. When he sent her a gift copy of his novel, she first deprecated her status in the literary world among younger writers, saying that in the eyes of writers of his generation, she must be “the literary equivalent of tufted furniture and gas chandeliers.”
That having been said, she offered FitzGerald some criticism of Gatsby, regretting that he hadn’t told readers more about Gatsby’s early years. But she went on to list what she enjoyed about the novel and praised his “perfect Jew” as “masterly.” In fact, it was to her mind one of the chief treasures of the novel.
Wharton had created her own “perfect Jew” over a decade before in her runaway hit novel The House of Mirth. That novel’s Simon Rosedale is a minor but pivotal character, and pure anti-Semitic stereotype: unctuous, vulgar, shifty-eyed, and worthy of everyone’s contempt, even though they would love to be as rich as he is, and some society folk cultivate him for stock tips.
Now, I had read R.W.B. Lewis’ Pulitzer-prize winning biography of Wharton, so I knew her patrician background well and understood that she wrote bound by her class and time. But the portrait nagged at me, especially because The House of Mirth was in every other respect one of my favorite novels for its cutting wit, its portrait of impossible love, its survey of a heedless society dedicated to money and pleasure.
The book also blew me away with its devastating portrayal of the power of shame. Scandal-plagued, poor Lily Bart, the book’s heroine, is utterly dependent on a skinflint aunt and rich friends who use her as a secretary and one even manipulates her into helping hide an adulterous affair. When Lily’s served that nasty purpose, she’s discarded and the public humiliation turns her into a social pariah in New York. There’s amazing brutality—including attempted rape—in a book so focused on surfaces, but Wharton wrote that “A frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys. Its tragic implications lie in its power of debasing people and ideas.”
Before her miserable decline, Rosedale pursues Lily Bart as an investment. He’s convinced that her beauty, charm and connections will be his passport into New York Society that loathes Jews. But he’s a troll and she’s a princess, and when he finally proposes marriage, she flees without saying yes or no. Her fortunes sink and she ends up turning to him a year later when her social value has dropped. It’s profoundly humiliating. Rosedale agrees to take her, but on a condition she finds repugnant. He knows she has love letters written by the woman who has helped damage her reputation and he wants her to use them, sub rosa, to re-launch herself in High Society by blackmailing this social nemesis.
There’s another catch for Lily. The love letters were written to Lawrence Selden, the one man Lily truly loves, and using them would not only be immoral and unethical, she couldn’t bear to be part of anything that could harm him even privately. Lily sees marriage idealistically as a “Republic of the Spirit,” when in fact, in her world, it’s a series of arrangements, financial and otherwise. But even with those low standards, what Rosedale wants her to do seems despicable.
I’ve read The House of Mirth easily half a dozen times and even taught it, and each time through, I fell deeper in love, even while I regretted Wharton’s stereotyping of Rosedale. Her portrayal of his character not only seems shallow, but a real break in her artistry. In relying on received wisdom about Jews, she fell beneath her own high standards as an author by not giving us a sense of the man as anything more than a brutish, vulgar social climber.
And then a few years ago while talking to an author friend about books that reinvented classics, an idea came to me: why not write Rosedale’s book? It was instantly tempting to fill in the blanks Wharton had left, and it was also an exciting, challenging prospect because even though I’d published books in many genres before, I’d never written historical fiction. The idea hooked me, possessed me, even, not least because The Gilded Age had always been one of my favorite periods in American history, thanks to a college English professor who assigned plenty of James, Howells and Wharton.
I found myself exploring what kind of man Rosedale was, when he wasn’t pursuing Lily Bart. What was his family like? Where had he come from? What did he dream about besides wealth and success? Did anyone care about him or was he utterly alone? I wanted to know all that and more. I wanted to enter the world of The House of Mirth from the perspective of one of its least admired characters. What would turning Wharton’s world upside down and inside out reveal?
I read the book again and studied literary alternative universes like Wide Sargasso Sea and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Then I plunged into two years of reading about The Gilded Age, more and more convinced there was a rich novel here, a novel about a fascinating but flawed man and his world. Eventually I found my book’s period voice after moving from reading secondary literature to reading a range of books written at the same time as The House of Mirth, both fiction and non-fiction, including an eye-opening 1900 guide for woman seeking careers. Believe it or not, “personal shoppers” existed that far back.
Readers of Rosedale in Love will find Lily Bart’s world re-imagined with a wealth of detail Wharton left out; writing in 1905, she didn’t have to explain how that world operated or what its background was. But I also chose to ground the book in the physical, the tangible, because Rosedale is a man dedicated to reality, however unpleasant. He loves facts and figures, but he also loves Lily Bart who is more than just a possible conquest. There’s something ineffable about her grace and style that draws him despite his better judgment.
I haven’t remotely made Simon Rosedale a saint in Rosedale in Love. I’ve given him a life, a past, a family, dreams, fears, regrets. He isn’t perfect and he certainly isn’t Wharton's “perfect Jew.” But he’s real.
Books mentioned in this column:
The Edith Wharton Murders by Lev Raphael (e-book from Amazon Digital Services, 2011 or hardcover from St. Martin’s Press, 1997)
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (Oxford University Press, 2000)
Rosedale in Love by Lev Raphael (Amazon Digital Services, 2011)
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard (Grove, 1994)
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (Penguin, 1997)
Lev Raphael grew up in New York but got over it and has lived half his life in Michigan where he found his partner of twenty-six years along with a certain small fame. He escaped academia in 1988 to write full-time and has never looked back. The author of twenty books in many genres, and hundreds of reviews, stories and articles, he's seen his work discussed in journals, books, conference papers, and assigned in college and university classrooms. Which means he’s become homework. Who knew? Lev’s books have been translated into close to a dozen languages, some of which he can't identify, and he's done hundreds of readings and talks across the U.S. and Canada, and in France, England, Scotland, Austria, Germany and Israel. His latest book Rosedale in Love is his first e-book original. You can learn more about Lev and his work on his website. Lev has reviewed for the Washington Post, Boston Review, NPR, the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, Jerusalem Report and the Detroit Free Press where he had a mystery column for almost a decade. He also hosted his own public radio book show where he interviewed Salman Rushdie, Erica Jong, and Julian Barnes among many other authors. Whatever the genre, he's always looked for books with a memorable voice and a compelling story to tell. Contact Lev.