Certain books change your life, and Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth changed mine. The novel's brilliance blew me away in college, deepening my desire to become an author. It also helped open me up emotionally, which meant my own fiction started going deeper.
It's the story of Lily Bart, a Gilded Age society woman living a life of bad options, bad choices, and very bad luck. Wharton offers stunning insights into the power of shame and humiliation, the ways in which even privileged women suffer in a patriarchy, and the high price of our American pursuit of happiness. Wharton became famous in 1905 with this devastating portrait of a corrupt, male-dominated, money-mad society.
But the book had a nasty sting for me: its shallow portrait of Simon Rosedale. A Jew on the make who's after Lily Bart, Rosedale is painted as crude, vulgar, and calculating. A complete stereotype. Over the years in subsequent readings, I wondered about him because Wharton only shows us his surface. We don't know anything about his family, his past, his secret network of wishes and fears.
Rereading the book not so long ago, I decided to fill that enormous void. The idea for Rosedale in Love possessed me, and writing my response to Wharton, I spent a few years immersed in The Gilded Age and New York history. To "discover" who Rosedale was and where he came from, I went beyond the secondary literature to explore authors from the period itself. I wanted to hear unmediated Gilded Age voices and see New York when it was a "lush and simmering paradise," in the words of Barbara Uruburu's stunning biography American Eve.
Rosedale in Love may be written in a period voice and set in 1905, but it's about American verities: the drive for success and the corrupting power of money.
Columnists keep invoking the age of the Robber Barons to describe our current economic situation, and we definitely share the opulence and conspicuous consumption of those feverish years. We also share the same overwhelming cultural fixation on what things look like and how we appear to others. That makes us every bit the "frivolous society" Wharton condemned over a hundred years ago.