This week marks the birthdays of two of the greatest writers of the English language. Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf are both near to my heart. In fact, as an undergraduate I took seminars devoted to each of them. It’s fair to say that I have read almost everything they published. And if faced with a question that I find particularly annoying, “If you were stranded on an island and you only had one book…,” barring Wuthering Heights, it would come to these two: Wharton’s The Age of Innocence and Woolf’s Orlando. The two writers have more than a few things in common. Their birthdays are one day (and twenty years) apart; their last names begin with W; and both are associated with Modernism, a literary movement that experimented with conventional forms and reflected the horrors and doubts brought on by the First World War. Wharton, however, wrote mainly during the era of Realism but her later works were some of the first of American Modernism. The Age of Innocence was published in 1920, landing it in the middle of the Modernist Era. Still, its structure is conservative, following a linear narrative that rarely, if ever, breaks from traditional literary form. But that’s all the better – Wharton is a master of the narrative arch. Each chapter (of The Age of Innocence in particular) is flawlessly executed, taking its place in the novel’s overall perfection. Reading Wharton is like hearing a concerto having a logical beginning and middle and end that combine to create a layered, encompassing sound. And while the novel’s structure is meticulously woven, its content introduced American readers to truths they would rather have ignored. The inequality of the sexes, the possibility of love outside of marriage, the rapidly growing problem of consumerism, and the reality of America’s own caste system during a time when it prided itself for shedding the rigid class structures of Europe. Of course, I love Wharton’s novels for their unrequited love, doomed heroines, and flawed men. I got a kick from reading her early erotic novel, Fast and Loose, and her ghost stories are some of the most introspective of the genre.
One theme that Wharton and Woolf share is the changing lives of women in the home and in society. Often these heroines have been born a generation (or two) too soon, caught in a limbo of freedom and fierce restraint. Woolf’s heroines are wives, mothers, lovers and
wanderers whose passions are larger than the world they inhabit. Woolf herself was a member of the Bloomsbury group, a tight-knit circle of artists and thinkers who challenged British social norms. The “Bloomsberries” were known for their antics, sometimes cross-dressing and even making national headlines when they disguised themselves as Abyssinian ambassadors, securing an exclusive tour of the British Navy’s flagship, the Dreadnaught. While she had her share of good fun, Virginia was no stranger to heartbreak. She enjoyed a loving, lifelong marriage with Leonard Woolf, another Bloomsbury member, but he was not the only love of her life. Woolf’s relationship with another successful author, Vita Sackville-West, was a perpetually ill-timed affair (platonic or not) that would color the two women’s lives. Woolf wrote Orlando as a tribute to West, modeling the central character, for which the novel is named, after her. Orlando is a spell-binding protagonist, traversing both time and gender as if neither had bounds. The novel itself is Modern in the sense that it breaks all the rules, much like its author and her muse. It is both fiction and drama, nonlinear and astute, a sweeping love story critical of romantic notions. By far my favorite of her novels, this is a book that I will revisit again and again. If you have never read it, I assure you it is well worth your time. And with this, her 134th birthday, perhaps she would want to leave us with this thought on growing older: “I do not believe in aging. I believe in forever altering one’s aspect to the sun.”