Over the course of Edith Wharton's long writing career, her women characters do grow up, in notable contrast to her male characters; and, insist Janet Beer and Avril Horner in their book Edith Wharton: Sex, Satire and the Older Woman, so does Wharton's art. On first sight this hardly seems a controversial claim, but in fact it still needs arguing, since it goes against the prevailing critical narrative that depicts Wharton's early triumph with The House of Mirth (1905) as one followed by a long and steady decline after the publication of The Age of Innocence in 1920.
Wharton herself never saw it that way; she ranked some of her late fictions - such as The Children (1928), Hudson River Bracketed (1929) and The Gods Arrive (1932) - among her favourites. But she increasingly despaired of her critics' "densities of incomprehension", as she confessed to Margaret Terry Chanler in a letter dated 9 June 1925. Here, Beer and Horner set out to comprehensively examine Wharton's later novels and to show that they are "hardly second-rate productions of a mind in decline". Experimental and hybrid in nature, satiric and intensely literary, these later fictions, the authors argue, compare to the late work of James Joyce and Shakespeare in their "deliberate attempt to break away from generic formulae and to present new challenges to the reader". While they are not experimental in the "high Modernist" sense associated with the works of Gertrude Stein or Virginia Woolf - Wharton herself famously rejected such writing - these works demand much of their readers by refusing "to give easy answers or to deliver conventional endings".
They are also daring in terms of their subject matter, not least for their focus on a very ordinary yet rarely represented or cherished figure: the older woman, who, against all societal and literary conventions, insists on her own sexuality. Our culture seemingly accepts that older men still are full of desire for younger women - even as the focus on that all-too-common predilection also frequently reveals a certain pathos - but older women, in fiction and life, are somehow meant to keep hidden from view whatever desire they might still harbour. In her later fiction, Wharton deliberately seeks to provoke, breaking the silences so often imposed on older women and revealing the cruelties inside and outside of marriage that accompany this enforced silence.
Challenging in both form and content, these late fictions (including The Mother's Recompense, Twilight Sleep, The Children, Hudson River Bracketed, The Gods Arrive, and her final never-completed novel The Buccaneers) are well worth reading for their formal experiments as well as for their modern subjects, and so too are Beer's and Horner's readings, which delight and surprise by revealing layers of sophistication in what they argue are "late Modernist" works. Chapter by chapter, they open up new ways for us to reread Wharton's late novels: their satire, their literary complexity and maturity, their fully developed and anguished older women heroines, and their scandalous subject matter including incest, adultery and the realities of unfulfilled marriages, as well as the drugged, breathless culture of the 1920s.
Beer and Horner write in measured academic prose, but their work is palpably fuelled by their appreciation of and sympathy for Wharton's late work. Theirs is passionate, critical work that persuasively shows that these late fictions are grown-up stories for grown-ups, part of a late Modernist tradition that demands much from the reader in depicting things that The House of Mirth's beautiful, masterful portrait of Lily Bart, a virgin suicide despite her moral weaknesses, did not yet touch.
Edith Wharton: Sex, Satire and the Older Woman
By Avril Horner and Janet Beer
Palgrave Macmillan, 216pp, £50.00
Published 16 August 2011