I have never been a good sleeper, but over this past summer I developed a very regular sleeping pattern: I wake up exactly at 4:00 every morning. If only I was a farmer–or worked for the Today show! After a few weeks of tossing and turning, I now get up and do something–generally read or write–so not to wake my soundly-sleeping husband. I’ve been reading Edith Wharton all summer, so her characters are often the last thing I’m thinking about when I fall asleep. When I wake up at 4:00 (and believe me, it is always precisely at 4), I generally go upstairs to my study, which is lined with academic books that seem far too intimidating for that early in the morning–and Jane Austen. So I pick up Jane, and read for a couple of hours. And then I fall asleep for a half-hour or so, and wake up with “memories” of odd Wharton-Austen mash-ups: Lily Bart from The House of Mirth is navigating Regency society rather than that of New York; Anne Elliot from Persuasion is sitting quietly in a Gilded Era drawing room rather than back in Bath. I’m all confused when I wake up.
Jane Austen (1775-1817) and Edith Jones Wharton (1862-1937).
Now I’m sure that I’m not the first person to draw comparisons between these two iconic authors, who captured their relatively rarefied worlds a century apart. They both write about women, women who face social, economic, and cultural constraints. Jane’s women face different constraints than Edith’s, but the latter’s more modern characters seem to be living in a darker world, without much help, from either their creator or their fellow characters. I think that’s why I’m engaging in these subconscious mash-ups: I want to rescue Edith’s young women by transporting them back to Austenland, where Jane will take care of them. Lily Bart and Summer‘s Charity Royall are certainly not as nice, and consequently deserving, as Elizabeth Bennet and Elinor Dashwood, but they have no family, no hope, and no future in Wharton’s script. Jane would do better by them, I think. I have no idea why I would transpose Austen characters to turn-of-the-century New York: they would not do well there.
Apart from this brief foray into lit crit and armchair psychology, this post provides yet another opportunity to showcase my absolutely favorite books, as nearly all of my Austen volumes are Penguin Clothbound Classics with covers designed by Coralie Bickford–Smith. And now I find that there are companion Wharton volumes in Penguin’s relaunched English Library line of more affordable paperbacks, also with Bickford-Smith covers. I just love the whole idea of book design in this digital age.
Some Penguin Wharton Covers, and the Penguin 150th anniversary volume, Three Novels of New York, with cover design by Richard Gray.