- Seeing Wharton Anew
Edith Wharton is a writer for the twenty-first century. The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country, and The Age of Innocence record excesses of consumerism and vagaries of money-making that look sharply familiar to us watching the recent Wall Street fiasco. It is a story that Wharton had told about the financial world of the Gilded Age that provoked Progressive reforms at the turn into the twentieth century; the truth is that not much has changed. Scholars over the late twentieth century scrutinized Wharton’s fiction in the context of social culture, and as a result of that work, readers know many of her novels well. Current scholars have begun to reconsider her fiction in the fresh context of material culture, a direction that began with a collection of essays, Memorial Boxes and Guarded Interiors: Edith Wharton and Material Culture, edited by Gary Totten in 2007. Two books that also appeared in 2007 look closely at art and film. Emily J. Orlando, who contributed an essay in Totten’s collection, has written Edith Wharton and the Visual Arts, placing Wharton’s fiction in the context of Pre-Raphaelite art, and Parley Ann Boswell has published Edith Wharton on Film, placing the writer in the context of film history. [End Page 401]
Boswell’s book is the more conventional of the two, giving the reader what she calls “a loosely chronological narrative” of Wharton’s interest in film, the influence of film on her fiction, and various versions of her novels depicted by Hollywood over the twentieth century (vii). Building on the fine scholarly work of Scott Marshall, Boswell provides a history of the films that are based on Wharton’s fiction. Early silent film versions of The House of Mirth (1918), Glimpses of the Moon (1923), and The Age of Innocence (1924) have apparently been lost to time. Seven films, however, are extant, including three from the 1920s and 1930s: The Marriage Playground, based on The Children (1928); The Age of Innocence, considered by the New York Times “a painstaking but emotionally flaccid photoplay” (1934) (qtd. in Boswell 94); and probably the most successful film version of Wharton’s fiction, The Old Maid, starring Bette Davis (1939). A clear sign of Wharton’s resonance with readers is the revived interest in her fiction by filmmakers who produced four film versions of her fiction during the 1990s: The Children (1990); Ethan Frome (1993); Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, (1993); and Terrence Davies’s The House of Mirth (2000). The book refers to film stars, especially Mary Pickford and Rudolph Valentino, and in less detail, Clara Bow, Theda Bara, Gloria Swanson, and Pola Negri, but often leaves the reader wanting more film history itself.
Boswell grapples with Wharton’s reactions to stage and screen adaptations of her work. We know from Edith Thornton’s recent essay, “Beyond the Page: Visual Literacy and the Interpretation of Lily Bart,” that Wharton lamented allowing the use of illustrations by A. B. Wenzell in The House of Mirth and demanded that a hundred copies be published without the offending images (85). Even as she groused about visual images in her books, Wharton saw her novels in vivid detail. In 1921, she wrote her sister-in-law Mary Cadwalader Jones that she was “very anxious” about what others would do with scenery and costumes in a stage version of The Age of Innocence: “I could do every stick of furniture & rag of clothing myself, for every detail of that far-off scene was indelibly stamped on my infant brain” (Letters 439). She feared others would not see the world as she had created it. In her essay “Tendencies in Modern Fiction” (1934), Wharton chastises the modern novelist who has “exchanged his creative faculty for a Kodak” (qtd. in Boswell 143). A novelist was no mere photographer for Wharton, who saw fiction in competition with technology. Wharton believed that a writer ought to...