Remember when Constance Billard puts on The Age of Innocence for its senior play? Is it mere coincidence that Edith Wharton's teenage correspondence should just have come to light after decades of secrecy? Okay, probably.
Although Wharton is known to have been a prolific correspondent, most of what biographers know of her early years has come from her own, sometimes revisionist, accounts. And she wanted control of her history: she directed that the correspondence she maintained throughout her teenage years with her former governess be burned. They weren't, instead sitting in an attic for fifty years, them locked up in a safety-deposit box, and now, finally, going to auction and made available to scholars. According to Rebecca Mead's profile, they show her to have been a pretty remarkable teen.
No one should be surprised that young Edith Newbold Jones had a way with words, an eye for observation and a keen wit, but the sheer maturity of her writing is impressive. Not only had she turned out a (pretty good) comedy of manners and a wide body of poetry by 14 ("I don't know whether they are very bad or quite good...I think they will admit of both constructions, so you may choose"), but she had strong opinions about any number of literary sacred cows. Of Longfellow she wrote, "His characters want vigour. They are passionless and collected as if they were walking in a trance." Of Middlemarch, "Will Ladislaw is charming, but somehow although a great deal is said of the passion between him & Dorothea one fails all through to feel its power. When it was so dangerous to love at all, they might have loved a little more!"
A lowbrow - okay, resolutely post-modern - reader like me might wonder what the teen Edith would have thought of Gossip Girl, which author Cecily Von Ziegesar has cited as an inspiration, especially now that the TV show has made the parallel so cheekily plain in that play episode. Maybe she wouldn't have minded: Despite her incisive tastes, Mead mentions that she was a fan of popular fiction of the time, describing it in terms that cry "guilty pleasure." Certainly both deal with the manners of rarified New York society. And the relationship Wharton maintained throughout her life to the apparently devoted governess is reminiscent of Blair and her long-suffering servant Daroda. But what's so striking, reading about young Edith Wharton, is how incredibly impressive she was: while she may have played up the anti-intellectualism of her childhood home for dramatic effect, it's still true that she was undoubtedly self-motivated, ambitious, self-confident. In an era where conformity was encouraged, she flouted it, seeking her own success and later a divorce in a time when both were unusual and neither was regarded as necessary to a wealthy woman's happiness. Wharton's novels dealt with a world trapped by convention, something she recognized even as a young girl. What would she have made of young women limiting themselves to the same conventions in a time when they have more options? It's funny: Edith Wharton found the drama by exposing the passions below the surface. Gossip Girl imposes artificially archaic structures on its characters because we take the freedom of emotional drama for granted. Gossip Girl's a fun show, but teen Wharton shows the futility of comparison, methinks. Or to quote The House of Mirth, which Von Ziegesar calls the show's basis: "No insect hangs its nest on threads as frail as those which will sustain the weight of human vanity."
The Age of Innocence [New Yorker]