For Edith Wharton’s Birthday, Hail Ultimate Social Climbers

Pat Ryan in The New York Times:

Wharton-edith-photoIn dramas about the British aristocracy we Americans await with tingly pleasure the inevitable moment when the family learns that there is no more money to run the estate, and everyone must retrench or — worse — the heir must get a job. Then, like the arrival of the cavalry in a western, all is saved — the footmen, the ancestral portraits, even the Georgian silver — by the imminent commingling of fortunes with an American kissing cousin who has daughters and dollars. The “Upstairs Downstairs” details long familiar from novels, movies and television shows, and now from the popular “Downton Abbey,” seem to render us spellbound. The English actor and writer Julian Fellowes, who created the PBS mini-series “Downton Abbey” and wrote the screenplay for “Gosford Park,” told The Telegraph that the idea for the series came from a book he was reading at the time, “To Marry an English Lord,” by Gail MacColl and Carol Wallace. It was about “American girls who had come over to England in the late 19th century and married into the English aristocracy.” Mr. Fellowes added, “It occurred to me that while it must have been wonderful for these girls to begin with, what happened 25 years later when they were freezing in a house in Cheshire aching for Long Island?” One answer comes from a native New Yorker who grew up among such heiresses: “These awful English marriages” tie you tight and “strangle you in a noose when you try to pull away from them,” Edith Wharton wrote in 1937 in her unfinished novel “The Buccaneers.” But she saw both sides of these Anglo-American unions. In an earlier novel, “The Custom of the Country,” she told the scathing tale of Undine Spragg, an American serial social usurper who blackmails her ex-husband to get enough money so her lover can bribe the pope to annul her previous marriage. Mr. Fellowes cited this Wharton book as another “Downton” influence (although Undine lands herself a French nobleman).

Edith Wharton, whose 150th birthday on Tuesday will be celebrated around New York — she was born on West 23rd Street — knew exactly what she was delineating. She was the ultimate insider, born into the New York upper crust, which she called “a group of bourgeois colonials” transformed into “a sort of social aristocracy.”

More here.