EVEN 150 years after her birth it's hard to find a novelist who's as astute as Edith Wharton was. I love her and was confused by Jonathan Franzen's essay about her. His theme is that our appreciation of Wharton is complicated by the fact that no one likes her or her characters: "Without sympathy, whether for the writer or for the fictional characters, a work of fiction has a very hard time mattering." She was privileged and snobbish, he says, and her "one potentially redeeming disadvantage: she wasn't pretty" doesn't even count in her favour because no one feels sorry for an ugly woman.

On the general point, that it's hard to care about a book if we don't have some sympathy for its author or its characters, I think it must depend on the reader, and the books. Having read one interminable novel by V.S. Naipaul (A House for Mr Biswas) I can't imagine having a reason to read another, unless I suspected the author had something unusually insightful to say, which I don't; he's a small-minded man. That would be in contrast to, say, J.M. Coetzee: I've never disliked a book more than Disgrace, and freely imputed some unsavory traits to its author, but he's such a good writer.

But either way, I don't see how this critique applies to Edith Wharton. She does come across as a little harsh but there's a point to that--she was more willing than most to be candid about the reasons why people come to hate themselves--and if we're doing some kind of moral assessment we have to add to the accounts the fact that at the time she was writing, women were barely allowed to have opinions at all. (The United States didn't have full women's suffrage until 1920, the same year that The Age of Innocence was published.) She's more critical on the subject of beauty than the average male novelist, possibly because women can't go a day without being reminded of how good they do or don't look, and the assets or the limitations thereby conferred upon them. But reading her work, I've never had the sense that she resents women who are beautiful or that, as Franzen says, you can read The House of Mirth as "a sustained effort by Wharton to imagine beauty from the inside and achieve sympathy for it, or, conversely, as a sadistically slow and thorough punishment of the pretty girl she couldn't be." Her comment is on society. As she says in The Touchstone: "Genius is of small use to a woman who does not know how to do her hair."

But what I particularly wanted to respond to was Franzen's critique of Lily Bart, the heroine of The House of Mirth:

On the surface, there would seem to be no reason for a reader to sympathize with Lily. The social height that she's bent on securing is one that she herself acknowledges is dull and sterile, she's profoundly self-involved and incapable of true charity, she pridefully contrasts other women's looks with her own, she has no intellectual life to speak of, she's put off from pursuing her one kindred spirit (Selden) by the modesty of his income, and she's in no danger of ever starving. She is, basically, the worst sort of party girl, and Wharton, in much the same way that she didn't even try to be soft or charming in her personal life, eschews the standard novelistic tricks for warming or softening Lily's image--the book is devoid of pet-the-dog moments.

This is an aggressively uncharitable reading on Franzen's part. Lily is the only sympathetic character in the book, despite her limitations and partly because of them. The deformations of her character are those of her context--turn-of-the-century New York society, clinging to its pretensions about wealth and class. A woman's expected value was basically ornamental, and in that sense, Lily's beauty is a form of golden handcuffs. When she does try to do something different she's punished for it, usually by the people whose place in the system is more secure. A friend's husband offers to invest her money, only to expect repayment in another form. Selden, who she does love, is a coward; he feels like she doesn't treat him fairly, even though it should be perfectly obvious that she takes more risk over the relationship than he does. When she takes a job she fails because doesn't know how to work. And she has the startlingly self-destructive trait, apparently not shared by anyone around her, that she's not a good liar, which is to say that she's not ruthless. When she ruins her chance to marry Percy Gryce, for example, the reasoning might be shallow--she decides to go on a walk with Selden instead--but it would have been pretty shallow to marry Gryce, too.

Yes, it would be great if she had had the vision to bolt for California or become a scandal or whatever. But the point is that she has very little latitude to do something like that. That's why The House of Mirth is a tragedy. In tracing Lily's collapse, Wharton isn't cackling over a pretty girl's ruin; she's pointing out that the world puts women in an unfair position, a nearly untenable one, at least if they want to maintain any little bits of integrity. Plus ça change...

For more on Franzen's essay, see Marina Budhos at The Daily Beast, Emily Gould at The Awl, and Victoria Patterson in the LA Review of Books.

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