Thinking Like Edith Wharton
For the last few years, I’ve had Edith Wharton on the brain.
See, I’m writing a book about the life of Linda Lee Thomas Porter, best known as the wife of Cole Porter. But before she was his wife, she was married for eleven years to the son of a robber baron/industrialist named Ned Thomas.
So: what’s the connection between Linda and Edith Wharton?
Linda’s then sister-in-law was married to R. Livingston Beeckman, who would one day be the 52nd Governor of Rhode Island, and around the same time that Linda and Ned bought their Newport mansion, Stoneacre, the Beeckman’s bought theirs, a little place called Land’s End owned by Mr. and Mrs. Edward R. Wharton.
That’s Teddy and Edith Wharton to you and me.
By 1903, Wharton had decided to decamp to The Mount, the mansion she built in Lenox, MA in the Berkshires, a place she built from the ground up. And so she and Teddy sold Land’s End to the Beeckmans.
I have no idea, really, if Linda Thomas and Edith Wharton were friends, but I assume they were at least acquainted with each other. Their lives overlapped at certain points: Newport, RI, New York, NY, and later the two women would both move to Paris.
I’ve spoken to a few people who’ve done extensive research on Wharton, notably Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge, who wrote The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton and who lives nearby in Richmond, Indiana. She’s done extensive research at the Edith Wharton Collection at Yale’s Beinecke Library. I asked her if she ever came across anything on Linda Thomas, and she said no, although “in this crowd, everyone knew everyone,” she said.
And certainly, when I investigated Linda scrapbooks at Harvard, I found many clippings about Wharton. For many years, Linda “followed” Wharton, her career, and her media coverage. She seemed particularly taken with the photographic spreads of Wharton’s gardens that occasionally appeared in magazines.
This, perhaps, is why I write fiction rather than nonfiction. Because I can’t prove that Linda and Edith knew each other, but I want them to know each other. I can’t resist. And in fiction, I can make it happen.
Getting into (Real) Characters
But it’s scary to write a scene with Edith Wharton in it. Harder still to try to imagine what she might reasonably be thinking in a particular moment. I’ve prepared for this challenge by reading a few of her novels (The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country, and The Age of Innocence), her biography, and some of her short fiction.
I found this quotation in her story “The Fulness of Life,” published in Scribner’s Magazine, 1893. It’s about a woman who dies and meets the man who finally “gets” her in heaven.
“I have sometimes thought that a woman’s nature is like a great house full of rooms: there is the hall, through which everyone passes in going in and out; the drawing-room, where one receives formal visits, the sitting-room, where members of the family come and go as they list; but beyond that, far beyond, are other rooms, the handles of whose doors perhaps are never turned; no one knows the way to them, no one knows whither they lead; and in the innermost room, the holy of holies, the soul sits alone and waits for a footstep that never comes.”
To work up my courage to write in Wharton’s point of view, I’ve been re-reading E.L. Doctorow’s amazing novel, Ragtime, in which he enters the consciousness of a host of historical figures: Harry Houdini, J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Evelyn Nesbit, Emma Goldman, and even Sigmund Freud.
I’ve also been re-reading a wonderful and (I think) vastly under-appreciated book of “nonfictional fiction” I read many years ago and which has stayed with me for a long time: Vindication by Frances Sherwood, a novel of the trailblazing feminist Mary Wollstonecraft.
Edith Wharton in Popular Culture
I’ve also been keeping up with Edith Wharton News. There’s been a good bit lately. The year 2012 was the 150th anniversary of her birth. Or maybe we all have Downton Abbey on the brain? Or maybe it’s just because I’m writing the book I’m writing and so therefore am paying attention.
Anyway, first, there was this.
I’m referring to the Vogue spread in which contemporary male writers stood in for the men of Wharton’s circle (Jeffrey Eugenides as Henry James, Junot Diaz as Walter Berry, Jonathan Safran Foer as Ogden Codman, for example), but no contemporary women writers could match the beauty of the actresses and supermodels chosen to represent Wharton and the women of her circle.
Seriously: Jennifer Egan? Meg Wolitzer? Lorrie Moore? ALICE MUNRO?!
Then there was this: “A Rooting Interest: Edith Wharton and the Problem of Sympathy” by Jonathan Franzen in The New Yorker, in which he famously says:
“Wharton did have one potentially redeeming disadvantage: she wasn’t pretty. The fine quip of one of Wharton’s contemporary reviewers—that she wrote like a masculine Henry James—could also be applied to her social pursuits: she wanted to be with the men and to talk about the things men talked about. An odd thing about beauty, however, is that its absence tends not to arouse our sympathy as much as other forms of privation do. To the contrary, Edith Wharton might well be more congenial to us now if, alongside her other advantages, she’d looked like Grace Kelly or Jacqueline Kennedy.”
For good reason, there were many denunciations of Franzen’s piece published: in The Daily Beast, The Center for Fiction, and The LA Review of Books, to name a few.
And then there was this excellent article entitled “Edith Wharton Invented Kim Kardashian” in Salon. My God, I wish I’d written this essay. Her satirical novel The Custom of the Country deserves a 21st century audience.
Not Midnight in Paris
When I tell people I’m writing about Linda Porter, they automatically associate her with the 20’s and 30’s, with the Midnight in Paris-era. And that will be there, of course. But Linda was a full-grown woman by the time she met Cole, and it’s who she was before she ever met him that really interests me. And that places her not so much in the world of a Fitzgerald novel, but rather in one of an earlier time, by someone like Wharton.
Speaking of which…back to work I go.Mrs. Cole Porter Writing
Really good point about the lack of real life women writers in that staged photograph. You’d think that would have occurred to somebody.
I’m always amazed at the depths of research required, even in fiction. You could “make up” how Edith Wharton talks, but then again, no you can’t. You want to be true to these women even as you fictionalize them. That’s an interesting balance to keep–and you do it so well.
Thanks, Linda. Yeah, I mean you can drive yourself crazy trying to get every little thing just right.
Cathy, this is all so very interesting! The Land’s End connection is fascinating. I’ll be waiting with baited breath to see what Edith says and does…how she behaves. I’m such a staunch nonfiction writer that historical fiction sometimes seems like heresy to me! But I manage to get over it, read it, and, yes, even LIKE it!
Connie, thanks for reading my post and for your support. One of these days I hope you and I can get together and talk about Wharton and about fiction and nonfiction. 🙂