Edith Wharton’s most notable writing belongs to a period of transition between two eras dominated by classicism, the Victorian period and Modernism. For nineteenth-century women with literary ambitions, authorship and classical education had been closely connected. Writers such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning and George Eliot reinforced the association between classicism and authority not only in their works but by becoming celebrated for their classical learning, and American women writers like Emily Dickinson, Willa Cather and Edith Wharton also produced literary responses to the classical tradition. In her autobiography, A Backward Glance, Wharton laments that as a girl she was ‘deprived of the irreplaceable grounding of Greek and Latin’, a lack only partially compensated by her awareness that some of her contemporaries finished their classical schooling with little ability to respond to the poetry they had learned by rote. Wharton did not study Latin or Greek at school like Dickinson or university like Cather, but her fiction engages with mythology, ancient history and classical literature. Her references to Demeter and Persephone have been much discussed by critics including Josephine Donovan and Candace Waid, who argues that Wharton identified Persephone as a figure for the woman writer.
Wharton’s fiction, although written in the early years of the twentieth century, emulates some aspects of Victorian Hellenism, in particular the use of the novel form for an exploration of the tragic in a contemporary setting. In The House of Mirth (1905) she engages with Greek tragedy, mediated by the contemporary theatre, naturalism and Social Darwinism. Edmund Wilson describes Wharton as being ‘much haunted by the myth of the Eumenides’, and the motif of pursuit by the Furies recurs throughout the text as the heroine is driven out of society. In this novel Wharton also uses myths that women readers who had not studied Latin or Greek would have encountered in texts like Thomas Bulfinch’s The Age of Fable (1855). She employs the myth of Perseus and Andromeda to explore the dangers of relying on outmoded gender roles and the vulnerability of young women faced with the ‘devouring monster Society’.
Wharton’s understanding of antiquity also drew on more recent approaches to the ancient world, the scholarship which influenced Modernists such as T. S. Eliot, including J. G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough. Like many women of her time who had not had the opportunity to study the classical languages, she was fascinated by archaeology and anthropology. In The Age of Innocence (1920), her characters view the ‘recovered fragments of Ilium’ at the Metropolitan Museum, and she associates her own attempt to recover ‘Old New York’ in her fiction with Schliemann’s excavation of Troy. She imagines the world of her childhood as a lost civilisation which is to be carefully reconstructed like the relics of antiquity: ‘its smallest fragments begin to be worth collecting and putting together before the last of those who knew the live structure are swept away with it’ (A Backward Glance). This paper will examine how Wharton combines her love of Greek myths and her fascination with the material remains of the past with her analysis of nineteenth-century New York society to challenge restrictive and damaging gender ideologies.