It’s no secret that Edith Wharton is one of my favorite authors. Like many, I first fell in love with her work after reading The House of Mirth, Ethan Frome and The Age of Innocence, but once I plunged into her other works, like The Custom of the Country, my love for her work only grew deeper and truer.
I’ve set myself the task of reading all of her books, which is no small feat considering how prolific she was during her life. Most recently, I read Old New York, a collection of four novellas set in/about different decades in the late 1800s. Each stands alone, but also is contained within the greater “Old New York” universe readers will recognize from her greatest works. Indeed, several characters and family names–Sillerton Jackson, Mrs. Manson Mingott, the van der Luydens–are straight from the pages of The Age of Innocence, and the last novella in the collection, “New Year’s Day,” almost seems like a sketch towards the story of Ellen Olenska.
The other three novellas included are “False Dawn,” “The Old Maid,” “The Spark,” of which I think “The Old Maid” is probably the best. It concerns two friends who work in concert over a period of years to hide the true origins of a “foundling” girl they adopt, and is classic Wharton, with finely drawn characters and a clear but nuanced portrayal of the Old New York society and the rules and boundaries that governed it. “False Dawn” is the story of a young man who dares to celebrate the new age, represented by the vanguard of Italian art, and pays a heavy price, and is also notable for a sly set of references to Edgar Allen Poe, shown here mainly through his absence from his family. Walt Whitman, another giant of American literature, pops up in “The Spark,” which portrays a young man who idolizes an older gentleman with a shallow and feckless wife. The older gentleman is also a Civil War veteran, who remembers seeing Whitman on the field of battle in his nursing days, but is less impressed with Whitman’s legacy than his younger counterpart seems to be.
Does this collection stand up to the best of Wharton’s work? No, but then, in my opinion, not much does. Is it worth reading? For me, absolutely, as it puts me one step closer to having read Wharton’s entire catalog. If you just want to see what Wharton’s short fiction is like, then first try Roman Fever, one of my favorites. If you’re a Wharton fan like me, then Old New York should be on your bookshelf too.
- The New Yorkiest Book Of All Time (andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com)
- The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton – review (guardian.co.uk)