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The Beauty and Violence at the Heart of Edith Wharton’s Works

Fiction

If only Edith Wharton could have lived long enough to embrace the wonders of scratch-and-sniff.

Gardeners up and down the East Coast — from Wharton’s former home in Lenox, Mass., to the Vanderbilts’ Newport, R.I. —  might consider winter a time of pruned canes and seed packets tucked away until the earth has thawed; but the January of Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence” is heavily perfumed with florals.

Verdant freshness emanates from the gardenia fastened in the buttonhole of Newland Archer’s jacket. A powdery scent rises from the lilies of the valley resting on the lap of his fiancée as she watches the opera from her balcony seat. The rich notes of the sun-gold roses enchant Archer enough that he clandestinely sends to them another woman — the decidedly off-limits Countess Olenska.

A deep Wharton dive

Leading into the months of spring, author/teacher Mark Scarbrough, who seasonally holds literary seminars on daunting classics, will guide Wharton readers — both old and “nouveau” — on a journey to realize just how dangerously meaningful a bouquet in The Gilded Age could be.

Flowers of all kinds are zipped back and forth across the pages of Wharton’s 1921 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, just one of the many books she wrote chronicling the morals and manners of New York City’s Knickerbocker set. There are secret yellow roses, salacious orchids and the Countess even receives what’s described as “hampers of carnations.” Peonies line the stage of the opera house’s production of “Faust,” a performance where the audience is as much the spectacle as any soprano. The customs of civility are to be publicly and blindly followed, to be seen and acknowledged.

Lethal beauty

If it all sounds familiar, that may be in large part to Julian Fellowes. The television writer and Wharton enthusiast will unabashedly proclaim her as inspiration for his British costume drama hit, “Downton Abbey.” His new HBO series, “The Gilded Age,” is an even more direct imitation, jumping across the pond to dramatize Manhattan’s milieu back when the Sheep Meadow in Central Park was exactly that.

But “Downton Abbey,” despite the decoration of its high-born historical setting, was a soothing soap opera. It’s stiff-lipped characters landing in frothy, implausible little messes was at the heart of its good-natured appeal. In comparison, decades earlier when adapting Edith Wharton’s most famous novel for the big screen, Martin Scorsese called “The Age of Innocence” his most violent film.

As relevant today as when they were written, Wharton’s largely tragic works are about the destructive consequences born from the need for acceptance. The instinctual pull toward social inclusion, she suggests, to be seen as belonging, as upstanding and well-liked, with a polished, even enviable reputation, could be exactly the thing that tears us away from our own potential happiness.

Could Edith Wharton have ever imagined a New York City that wakes up every day to the comparison and discontent of scrolling through images of their friends’ vacations and home renovations and purchases and pets?

Or that we would so freely and permanently chronicle our political beliefs, our intimate thoughts, even financial details, all willingly signed to our full name online for anyone to read? Could she have imagined us gawking in disbelief as Kim Kardashian received not a bouquet but a full wall of roses for Valentine’s Day? (Yes, probably that part.)

Voyeurism, public posturing, social cache and the expulsion of those who break from an agreed-upon morality are as contemporary discussion topics as one can find. We may have learned technology far surpassing the scratch-and-sniff, but we’ve hardly learned our lesson.

Mark Scarbrough’s seminar on Edith Wharton’s New York is presented by the Scoville Memorial Library in Salisbury, Conn., and will meet over Zoom on Tuesdays at 10:30 a.m., starting on March 8.

To register or for more information go to www.scovillelibrary.org.

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