MAY 29, 2013
EDITH WHARTON’S NOVELS VACILLATE between snide gossip and heart-wrenching insight, between the affirmation of a social hierarchy and a lament that said hierarchy crushes its adherents’ spirits. It naturally follows, then, that contemporary heirs to her oeuvre have a wide range. On one end, the first book of the Gossip Girl series, inspired by Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, recalls Wharton only as a snarky, insular elitist. On the other, British novelist Francesca Segal’s recent critical success, The Innocents, also inspired by The Age of Innocence, harkens to Wharton as heartbreaking chronicler of individual yearning versus group convention. Dissimilar though they may be, Wharton’s descendants command a wide audience: The Innocents has been optioned for a mini-series already anticipated as a “Jewish Downton Abbey.” Yes, Jewish. Segal has somewhat brilliantly reconceptualized The Age of Innocence among contemporary wealthy London Jews. In doing so she has become 2013’s big name in the Jewish literary scene, winning the National Jewish Book Award for fiction. Incredibly, an anti-Semite’s tale of stiff WASPs and their subjugated women transposes to a world of cosmopolitan Jews who have premarital sex and go on coed teen tours to Israel. The Innocents succeeds to an extent that will make you kvell — but in doing so, a very different end results, one that provides a tender take on family, loss, and growing into adulthood. In the end, Segal’s novel is surprisingly far removed from Wharton’s sweeping and unflinching dissection of an earlier era.
The Innocents’ very first tableau — the image that Segal says inspired the project — exemplifies how effective her concept is. Wharton’s iconic opening scene has the protagonist Newland Archer training his opera glasses on Countess Olenska, the woman who will upend his life — sitting in the family box besides his future bride, May Welland. Segal deftly shifts this moment from the concert hall to the synagogue gallery, during the holiest, most somber night of the year, Kol Nidre. Our innocent hero, Adam, looks up from his davening to scan the women’s balcony and gaze with “certainty” upon his fiancée Rachel; beyond Rachel, he sees Ellie, Rachel’s American cousin, the family shonde, “exposing skin from clavicle to navel.” He is repelled yet intrigued; we are simply the latter. The certainty has ended for Adam; for the reader, the pleasure of a good story is beginning.
More than setting up the novel’s central conflict, this opening scene acknowledges shul as a social as well as spiritual place, affording the chance to show off one’s engagement ring, judge one’s neighbors even while atoning, and introduce one’s unsavory relatives into polite company. We can see from the scrutiny given to Ellie, the notorious interloper with the rather pedestrian name, that this set of London Jews are cloistered in their own way: doctrinaire on matters of propriety more than piety, well-off but not as fully worldly as they could be.
Segal sets her story’s confrontations and reconciliations at holidays, parties, and life cycle events in the North London community she knows. (It will ring especially true for readers like myself, a lifelong Upper West Side Jew.) She recasts the smug, sheltered May Welland and her prominent clan as the smug, sheltered Rachel Gilbert and family: the intrusive, loving, and ultimately steely Gilberts. That they, like many of their neighbors, are descendants of Holocaust survivors — Rachel’s grandma Ziva lived through Bergen-Belsen — gives context to the entire community’s unyielding traditionalism. To Rachel’s father Lawrence, who has taken the fatherless Adam in as his own son, “There was only ever one thing that was important, and that thing was family.” The claustrophobia that tempers the younger generation’s freedom sets Adam up to be torn between worship for his wife-to-be and infatuation with her cousin. Not unlike the men of Old New York, men of Adam’s ilk sow their wild oats in university but then come home to wed their high school classmates, or in his case Israel summer sweethearts, and take their rightful place in the offices where their fathers worked, synagogue committees their uncles run, and neighborhoods where they themselves grew up. Logically Adam would indeed be tempted to reject such comforting but boxed-in parameters, and yes, he would find kinship with Ellie, who like him has lost a parent. They are both half-orphans, and her history of dating dubious men and semi-pornographic modeling and acting, rendering her the opposite of a nice Jewish girl, certainly gives her the requisite transgressive attraction.
It’s hard not to find the success of Segal’s choice subversively delicious because, well, Wharton loathed Jews — she was an anti-Semite along with many of her literary peers. Her views towards Jews were of a par with other WASPy geniuses of the time, like Hemingway and Fitzgerald (she notoriously described Fitzgerald’s stereotype of a gangster Meyer Wolfsheim as a “perfect Jew”). Her racial suspicion sometimes fueled her fiction: who can forget The House of Mirth‘s slimy Sim Rosedale, whose proposals to “rescue” Lily Bart are roundly rejected by both Lily, who recoils from his plump bejeweled fingers, and by her authoress? In this sense, Segal’s world is an inversion of its predecessor’s: while Wharton’s stodgy Americans looked down at Jews and Europeans, the European Jewish characters of The Innocents look askance at the goyim, and even their Americanized cousins.
Wharton’s anti-Semitism is a facet of what’s both maddening and marvelous about her: just like her creation Newland Archer, she is through and through a product of the universe she critiques. But to those of us who are Wharton admirers, that complexity is an added fascination. Newland in his weakness implicates, but also humanizes his author and all of us when we remain bystanders, aware of the evils of our way of life, but succumbing to its comforts.
Segal’s world is less evil than claustrophobic or occasionally petty. Thus even as her social repositioning of the novel and her dialogue-rich and fluid prose lives up to her source material, important distinctions remain. Some relate to gender politics. Both of Wharton’s female characters are incredibly strong in the face of limited roles: May as the icy torchbearer for the “way things are”; Countess Olenska as an exile who has forged her own moral code after suffering hardship. Neither of Segal’s heroines quite lives up. Rachel’s naïve, unquestioning attitude isn’t unrealistic — willfully shallow people exist in droves! — but it verges on too irritating to be redeemable. Her retrograde focus on domesticity, prioritizing cooking Adam dinner above all else, grates in particular; she would hopefully have been exposed to the Spice Girls’ faux feminism at the very least. Her cousin and rival Ellie, meanwhile, is a child of violence — her mother died in a bombing in Israel — and this is meant to account for her alienation, her obliviousness to mores. But unlike the Countess Olenska, whose primary social sin is divorcing a husband rumored to have mistreated her, Ellie has taken no strong steps to ward off her own exploitation besides coming to London. Her impassivity is her grand statement about the world. She is at her most finely drawn when she finally lashes out in anger. Would that Ellie, in addition to being a wounded sexpot, had been a staunch atheist, a Palestinian solidarity activist, a deliberate eccentric — something. Both Segal and Adam’s compassion for her reads as genuine, but she never truly holds up as a convincing escape route for him. The maze of connections binding Adam to his world seems too thick for Ellie’s long legs to lead him out.
Yes, it can’t be helped: Segal’s ultimate affection for her characters’ milieu just doesn’t burn up the page the same way Wharton’s tortured ambivalence — she was writing from France, decades later — does. That ambivalence is so memorably encapsulated by The Age of Innocence’s final moments, as Newland Archer sits in the courtyard beneath the apartment of his former great love, decades after their romance, unwilling to go upstairs and face the life he has chosen to miss, to let go of his season of memories. Needless to say, there is no such haunting coda in The Innocents, and there doesn’t need to be.
Although so much of its elements are the same as its predecessor, the novel at its warm heart tells the story of a community forged not by exclusion of others but by having once been excluded. So who needs to be haunted by the road not taken, when the road one is on involves the whole mishpacha, in all its close-knit complexity?
Sarah Marian Seltzer is a journalist, essayist, and fiction writer based in New York City. Her work has appeared in Ms. magazine, The Washington Post, The Hairpin, and the Forward, among other places.