Edith Wharton’s name has come up in previous blogs. She is one of my favorite writers, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Age of Innocence, and certainly one of the best writers this country has produced, male or female. She was born with the proverbial silver spoon in her mouth and spent most of her adult life telling folks how bad it tasted. In a word, many of her novels are satirical studies directed against the puffery of the very rich. As such, they have something important to tell us about those “successful” people who now run the country — you know, the infamous 1%. If Wharton is right, they took a wrong turn somewhere along the line and, despite what they may think, they live empty lives and are not really happy. I must say I tend to believe her: she does make a strong case.
In one of her lesser novels, Glimpses of the Moon, she tells about a young couple, Nick Lansing and Susy Branch, who decide to get married and then live off the wedding checks and invitations from their wealthy friends for as long as possible. They are attracted to one another by their shared honesty and the fact that they are both relatively poor and rely on wealthy friends to get by. The whole game starts out like a lark as the two think they are having a grand joke at their wealthy friends’ expense. The matter becomes complicated, however, when they find they really do love one another and during a prolonged separation following a major argument, they drift apart only to discover the falsehood of their own game, — and also the complete falsehood of the way of life they ridicule– to wit, lives immersed in great wealth.
Toward the end of the novel, as the scales are falling from Susy’s eyes, she agrees to sit for several months with the five children of one of her few remaining friends, a musician who is married to an artist and whose children turn out to be exceptional. As she gets to know the kids, she comes to know herself better. Like Wharton herself who organized relief for Belgian refugees during the First World War in France, her heroine finds herself by immersing herself in the lives of others. Susy comes to see more and more clearly how false is the make-believe world of the very rich. The kids are remarkable: they are bright and “their intelligence had been fed only on things worth caring for. . . good music, good books, and good talk had been their daily food, and if at times they stamped and roared and crashed about like children unblessed by such privileges, at others they shone with the light of poetry and spoke with the voice of wisdom.” As Susy comes to realize, the thing that makes these kids so unusual is the fact that all their lives they have been surrounded by beauty — and the honesty of their parents. As it happens, she finds herself not mothering the children but “being herself mothered, of taking her first steps in the life of immaterial values which had begun to seem so much more substantial than any she had known.”
As Wharton weaves the tale, it becomes clear that the heroine grows as Wharton herself did, from a spoiled child surrounded by the comfort and security of great wealth — with all its sham and pretense — to a life of clarity and truth where she comes to realize what really matters. She finds happiness not by looking for it, but by immersing herself in the lives of others, lives that demand that she come out of herself. Like Wharton, when she divorced her husband and turned her back on all the glitz, she was financially less well off. But in the only sense that matters she was truly richer.
When summarized, the tale sounds a bit corny, but when told by a writer of Wharton’s caliber who knows first-hand whereof she speaks, it has the ring of truth and conviction. It is a truth that must fall on deaf ears in this age of “me-first” where those among us crave material well-being and identify their happiness with the very things Wharton pilloried. But if we would only take the time to reflect we might discover a great truth in novels such as this. In addition to being a superb writer, Edith Wharton was an immensely wise woman.