liz_marcs (liz_marcs) wrote,

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Lesson for Today: Austen is to Britain as Wharton is to America

Dear Everyone Who's Ever Read a Book and All My Literature Teachers:

You have failed me. You are all made of fail. Big fail.

Why did no one inform me that Edith Wharton is made of pure win?

I've been sitting here reading The Custom of the Country and I've yet to stop cackling for 31 straight pages. Holy cow, Undine Spragg is a piece of work. And you can't even begin to convince me that an author with such precise control over her writing named a character "Undine" by total accident.

*cackles some more*

My first ever Edith Wharton novel, picked up for $1 from indie bookstore Tatnuck Booksellers, and only now am I cracking the spine. I'm so totally sold.

Of course, the fact that pre-arthritic knees are bone-aching due to the remnants of Hurricane Noel bashing through New England coast is forcing me to sit down with feet up because damn it's uncomfortable to stand around (let alone walk), is probably a big help in forcing me to take the time and appreciate the beauty that is Wharton.

But here's what's puzzling to me: I think prior to The Custom of the Country I've only read one short story of Wharton's in high school. In college (university for non-Americans) it was all Jane Austen all the time.


No, seriously. Why?

Don't get me wrong. I like, nay, love Austen. Although, truth to tell, I found her irritating in college. It took age and experience for me to even begin to appreciate just how funny Austen is and just how solid she is as a storyteller. If Jane where alive today, she'd be a stand-up comedian or be writing smart, insightful comedies for television. Seriously.

But the thing about Austen is that you kind of have to know about British society to get the subtleties. Even then, if you're American, I suspect you're missing more than you think in the subtext.

Wharton is much in the same vein as Austen (at least so telling how true that is as I sail deeper into The Custom of the Country), except — wham — there it is. No need to semi-consciously recall why X is a pointed comment, Y is funny as all hell, and Z is straight-up pathetic. It's right there, buried in the cultural brain, and it's like getting hit in the stomach because you get it on a fundamental level.

American society hasn't changed a whole lot, has it? Oh, sure, the surface has changed. So have the names. But the skeleton is still in place and the observations Wharton had back then still hold true today.

Hence, the cackling.

Undine Spragg is every wanna-be socialite who wants to be famous for being famous with a dollop of "totally not getting it" floating right on top.

And the dinner scene with the Marvells at the beginning of the book? It's totally Revenge of the Nerds without the gross-out humor.


This is gonna be one of those books like Vanity Fair where I'm gonna hate the protagonist so much that I'm gonna love her to death, isn't it?

Which is...getting away from my point.

Why isn't Edith Wharton being put more front-and-center in American schools? If not above Austen, then at least side-by-side.

Or maybe she is now, and I don't know it.

In either case, I feel a bit cheated here. I don't know if I would've "got" Wharton in college, but I suspect that I would've gotten her a whole lot better than Austen because I wouldn't have to semi-consciously translate from one culture to another. Wharton (for good or ill) at least shares mine, complete with that National Enquirer sensibility. The issue is, I never had the opportunity to even find that out.


Well, at least I can make up for it now. I suspect I'll be hunting down more of Wharton's work as soon as I'm done.

*grumbles grumbles grumbles*

Y'know, people keep complaining about the American educational system. Wouldn't it be helpful if, oh, I dunno, more American authors got spotlight treatment in the schools? Just a thought.

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