Not Pretty: On Edith Wharton and Jonathan Franzen
By Victoria PattersonFebruary 25, 2012
Victoria Patterson’s work has often been compared, for good reason, to Edith Wharton’s. This Vacant Paradise, Patterson’s first novel, is a contemporary retelling, quite consciously and intelligently, of The House of Mirth, transferred 100-plus years and 3000 miles from Wharton’s Old New York to Patterson’s Newport Beach. For all the cultural and historical distance, the two write of emotionally identical, muscular family struggles involving inheritance and strategic marriage; they chart matching dramas of cash-nexus beauty, analyze the power of sex and their characters’ debilitating combination of over-consciousness and under-consciousness of that power; and they pay the same attention to the way people find themselves, no matter their intentions or ethics, divided almost randomly into the blithe, oblivious, cruel winners and the flotsam- and jetsam-like losers strewn about as wealth patrols its waters. When Jonathan Franzen wrote about Wharton’s 150th birthday in The New Yorker (“A Rooting Interest: Edith Wharton and the Problem of Sympathy,” February 13, 2012), he harped on her looks and read the biographical record in ways that prompted Patterson to respond.
— Tom Lutz
AFTER READING JONATHAN FRANZEN’S ESSAY in the New Yorker about Edith Wharton, I couldn’t sleep. I admire Franzen’s work and usually appreciate his commentary about social media, eBooks, etc., but his depiction of Edith Wharton was so mean-spirited and off-key that I tossed and turned. Why would he link her husband’s mental illness with her success? Why claim that she was only interested in male friendships? And worst of all: Why would he focus on her physical appearance, claiming that she was unattractive? He’d taken a literary hero and written about her as if ranking a Maxim photo spread.
I reread the piece the following morning. Franzen’s essay is a tribute to Wharton and her work. Yet there’s a strange negative slanting of Wharton’s biography and a peculiarly misplaced concentration on her physical appearance. There are other problems with his essay as well: It is either disingenuous, or uninformed, for instance, for Franzen to reflect on Wharton’s disagreeable politics without also noting that throughout the war, she worked tirelessly in charitable efforts for refugees (mainly women and children) and, in 1916, that she received the Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur in recognition of her commitment to the displaced. But it is her facial features that structure Franzen’s response, and it is his constant return to them that bothers me the most.
Of Wharton’s mentally ill husband Teddy Wharton, or “cerebrally compromised Teddy,” as Henry James famously called him in private, Franzen writes: “That their ensuing twenty-eight years of marriage were almost entirely sexless was perhaps less a function of her looks than of her sexual ignorance…” It’s good to know that she wasn’t too ugly for sex, but does Teddy have no responsibility in the sexual knowledge department? Later, he notes that Teddy responded to her literary success by “spiraling into mental illness.” Had Wharton not been successful, would she have saved him from being mentally ill?
At 46, Wharton had a sexual relationship with Morton Fuller, and while Franzen notes that she seems to have been embarrassed by her affair, this must be a matter of interpretation. From the biographies that both Franzen and I no doubt read, my takeaway was that while, yes, there were complex emotions, the greatest was a deep gratitude for the experience of a passionate sexual awakening. She might’ve missed out!
Franzen writes of the “half-affectionate, half-terrified” nicknames that Henry James and his circle gave Wharton because of her “masculine” pursuits. Wharton and James discussed fiction extensively, and had an intense and complicated artistic friendship that Franzen barely touches on; but in repeating the nicknames, he gives them legitimacy without addressing the reasons James and his circle would feel the need to use them — including, for instance, James’s well-known envy of Wharton’s popular success. Franzen writes that Wharton was alternately or even simultaneously indifferent to and jealous of the wives of her male friends. What about Mary Berenson, or Mary Hunter, or her former sister in law, Minnie Jones, whom she supported financially until Jones’s death? She forged “close and lasting friendships” with both men and women. Her literary circle did consist of men, and she wanted, as Franzen emphasizes, “to be with men and talk about the things men talked about.” Not because Wharton didn’t like women, but because, as she herself noted with no small amount of bitterness, women were “made for pleasure and procreation.”
Franzen, though, has another point to make. “Edith Newbold Jones did have one potentially redeeming disadvantage,” he writes. “She wasn’t pretty.” And later, “Edith Wharton might well be more congenial to us now, if alongside her other advantages, she’d looked like Grace Kelly or Jacqueline Kennedy.”
Do we even have to say that physical beauty is beside the point when discussing the work of a major author? Was Tolstoy pretty? Is Franzen? Wharton’s appearance has no relevance to her work. Franzen perpetuates the typically patriarchal standard of ranking a woman’s beauty before discussing her merits, whether she is an intellectual, artist, politician, activist, or musician.
Franzen writes of The House of Mirth, “The novel can be read … as a sadistically slow and thorough punishment of the pretty girl she couldn’t be.” Wharton wasn’t, in fact, preoccupied with her own looks. Her looks were not the driving force behind The House of Mirth. Her appearance wasn’t problematic, even in her New York society upbringing. The “problem” (that which made her less marriageable) was that she was “too shy and intellectual.” Wharton used Lily Bart’s beauty as a fictional tool to emphasize women’s ornamental role in American society. In the end, Lily refuses to barter her diminishing beauty for status or money, or even love, and her downfall forces readers to confront the fact that her story cannot have a happy ending because, in this society, she has no other power.
I agree with Lionel Shriver when she said in an interview, “For feminists, there is no better reading than Edith Wharton.” Shriver also wrote:
I was born after the heavy spade work of female emancipation was done. But 100 years ago, Edith Wharton’s drive, independence, willfulness, and autodidactic mastery of the English language were extraordinary, and I bashfully claim her as a kindred spirit.
And I’d like to add: I don’t give a shit what she looks like.
Victoria Patterson is the author of Drift, a book of stories, and three novels: This Vacant Paradise, The Peerless Four, and The Little Brother. Her second collection of stories, The Secret Habit of Sorrow, published July 2018.
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