Friday, December 30, 2011

"New Year's Day" by Edith Wharton

There is something about Edith Wharton and a cup of tea that just go together.  I can imagine this tray being brought to her in bed, her favorite place to write.

Edith Wharton at The Mount in 1905

Edith Wharton is one of my favorite writers.  I have read most of her books and visited her home "The Mount" in Lenox, Massachusetts several times.  In 1902, she designed and supervised the building of it, and I have enjoyed walking through the rooms and imagining her life in this large elegant house with its beautiful gardens.  Edith Wharton was born in 1862 into the tightly controlled world of "Old New York," a place where women were seriously discouraged from accomplishing anything other than a "good marriage."  She broke through the strictures of her world to become one of the most important American writers.  She was self-educated and became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and to receive an honorary doctorate from Yale University.  She wrote "The House of Mirth" in this residence and I picture her sitting up in her bed -- her favorite place to write -- with her breakfast tray, dropping pages as they were finished on the floor which her secretary would pick up and type.  This was how she wrote her books.

The Mount in Lenox, Massachusetts

A friend of mine who shares my passion for Wharton's books recommended "Old New York," a collection of novellas by Wharton.  I started with the last novella because of its title -- "New Year's Day."  It is classic Wharton with a heroine of questionable background who has stumbled badly in the eyes of society and is dealing with the consequences that society could wreak on anyone who wandered outside its strict code of behavior.

The story is told by the narrator, a young man who remembers a New Year's Day gathering at his grandmother's mansion in New York in the 1870's.  At one point the entire party gathers at the window to look at the Fifth Avenue Hotel across the street which is on fire.  As they watch the elegantly dressed men and women running out of the hotel, they notice Lizzie Hazeldean, our heroine, and Robert Prest exiting together.  Lizzie is married to an invalid husband who is housebound.  The man she is with is obviously not her husband and the grand doyennes of society put two and two together and a scandal develops which will affect Lizzie's entire life.  The plot is filled with subtle surprises and I was moved by the story of this classic Edith Wharton heroine and the depths of her character that are revealed.

By the way, January 24, 2012 is the 150th anniversary of Edith Wharton's birth, and there will be many celebrations.  If you would like to see what is going on for this occasion, visit The Mount's website.  There is no one like Wharton for getting to the heart of the struggle in people between individual freedom and fitting in, and also depicting the world of "Old New York" as it existed during the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth-century.  Wharton's ability to convey the accumulated damage to the emotions and heart of her characters caused by the subtle behavior of society has no peer and her novels are a gift to readers.  It will be a cause for celebration when her 150th anniversary occurs!

Photos of Edith Wharton and The Mount via The Mount website


  1. A great post about one of my favorite authors. The Age of Innocence is one of my all time favorite books, and one I have read numerous times. I have read "New Year's Day", but not for years. Maybe a good plan for Sunday.
    Wishing you and your family and happy, healthy, and kind New Year. I've enjoyed your blog so much, and look forward to more in 2012.

  2. Enjoyed your post. I've not read any of the novellas but I adore The House of Mirth and Ehtan Frome sent shivers down my spine. Happy New Year to you!

  3. I've just added this to my reading list. Thank you for sharing! I've only read "The House of Mirth" and have wanted to read more of Wharton's work. The novellas sound great. And now I really want to travel to Lenox! Happy New Year!

  4. What a wonderful post as we quickly approach the new year, Sunday, as well as Edith Wharton's birthday. I've not read "New Year's Day" and will need to remedy that.

    On another note, is that your teapot? It, and your tea setting, are so beautiful. I love brown transferware and am lusting after the teapot. Sigh.

  5. Happy New Year Sunday! I have loved reading your blog in 2011 and am sure that 2012 will be a truly wonderful one for Ciao Domenica and also for you and your family. Wishing you lovely New Year celebrations and a peaceful and joyous start to 2012.
    Sarah xo

  6. You had me at the cup of tea! Lovely post.

  7. I lovely tribute! If I didn't have such an enormous pile of books next to my bed, I would consider rereading a Wharton classic, most of which, I am ashamed to admit, I don't remember well at all!! I love your beautiful brown transferware. I will be probably be having a cup while I answer questions my daughter has while finishing her college applications (including Bates!)! Wishing you all the best for a marvelous 2012 - it's been such a pleasure visiting you throughout the year!

  8. Happy New Year! This is a beautifully written post; I enjoyed every word.

    All the best to you in 2012,

  9. Can I live at "the Mount"...or is it taken? xo

  10. Happy New Year to all of you! I am so grateful for your support, comments, and friendship this past year.

    Penny and Stacey, I also love brown transferware. The teapot is by Wood & Sons and is made in England.

    Stacey, how exciting that your daughter applied to Bates College. As you know, my daughter went there and so did I. Good luck to your daughter with this whole process. I am sure the college that she chooses will be a good fit.

    Megan, no, I'm afraid "the Mount" is taken. Sigh...

  11. I haven't read Old New York--will have to read it sometime, as Edith W. is a favorite of mine, as well!

    Happy 2012!

  12. One of my heroes! (Heroines?)
    The Age of Innocence contains some of the best writing I've ever encountered. And no book casts a spell quite like Ethan Frome.