An innocent experiment
TO ACKNOWLEDGE that antisemitism was in keeping with Edith Wharton’s generation (this year sees the 150th anniversary of her birth) is not to dismiss or excuse it. There have always been others who have managed not to hold such views however prevalent among their peers. She was a writer whose brilliance lay in her forensic analysis and interpretation of her own, New York, haut society. Yet, on the subject of the Jews, she was remarkably united with those she satirised.
Simon Rosedale, the blond and oleaginous Jew in The House of Mirth, is frequently cited as an example of her views but his role is more complex than that of a mere villain; there are moments when it seems as if he might be Lily Bart’s saviour in her struggle. In any case, one need not magnify examples to make the point. Wharton’s letters and private writing do well enough. She wrote with loathing about “Yids”, among other colourful ethnic slurs.
At the end of her life, as Hermione Lee reports in her impressive biography, Wharton was still robustly declaring that she “hated the Jews”. Despite it all, I admire Edith Wharton as a writer — and because these expressions of distaste were pre-holocaust; because her satire is exquisite, and because she was long dead before I was born I want to forgive and understand, if not excuse her.
Not that such forgiveness or understanding would have been mutually extended. I have no doubt that she would have detested my forthcoming, first novel, The Innocents — a recasting of Wharton’s 1921 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Age of Innocence, set in contemporary Jewish north-west London.
I had never imagined I’d write a novel set quite so close to home, geographically or culturally, nor had I ever dreamed I might dare to appropriate a beloved American classic as the scaffolding beneath it. But after I read The Age of Innocence, several years ago, I could no longer imagine doing anything else. Newland Archer — pompous, conventional, and yet struggling against a society that offers great security and comfort even as it stifles him — could have been almost any nice Jewish boy I grew up with.
I recognised that world. The central dilemma is vivid, urgent and relevant, not only to my own, semi-secular community of Temple Fortune but to anyone who is part of any community — Muslim, Hindu, or simply living in a rural village anywhere, any time. But what I recognised was what I knew and the comedy of those worlds. I will just have to bear Edith’s disapproval. Francesca Segal’s novel ‘The Innocents’ (Chatto & Windus, £14.99) will be reviewed in next week’s JC