Gilded Age, Edith Wharton, New York

April 3, 2023

On a cold January evening in 1879 Edith Newbold Jones entered the ballroom of the Fifth Avenue home of Mrs Levi Morton for her debut, having already written blank verse dramas, lyric poems, short stories, a novel and a published translation of a German poem (for which she had received fifty dollars). She was expected to become a society matron but it was evident that seventeen-year-old Edith had another calling. Despite these achievements, and the experience of one third of her life spent in Europe, she found that standing as a debutante before the gathering of guests, even in a society that was hers by birth, was an ordeal. She was a bundle of nerves.

Edith’s parents had worried she was reading way too much and, distressed by her preference for solitude, had brought her out into society a year earlier than the accepted age of eighteen. Her mother Lucretia decided against the usual flamboyant debutante affair and opted for an informal launch at Mrs Morton’s ball. Edith was put into a pastel green brocaded bodice with a white muslim skirt. Her hair was caught on top of her head in a sweep of ringlets and she carried a large bouquet of lilies-of-the-valley.

To me the evening was a long cold agony of shyness. All my brother’s friends asked me to dance, but I was too much frightened to accept, and cowered beside my mother in speechless misery, unable even to exchange a word with the friendly young men whom I regarded as elder brothers when they lunched at our house.

Becoming the focus of attention was excruciating for a young woman who had always been teased by her family for her large hands and feet and her reddish hair.

Later she wrote:

I was much the least good-looking of the family and the consciousness of my physical shortcomings was heightened by the beauty of the persons around me.

After her debut there was a round of grand balls and smaller Thursday evening dances, the latter supervised by stout women in velvet and ostrich feathers. Edith wrote that a cruel custom at these dances heaped ‘untold misery’ on some of the girls who attended. Young men were obliged to keep dancing with girls until they were replaced by other candidates. This put pressure on the young men to choose their dance partners carefully and resulted in only the most beautiful girls being asked to dance. The remainder lingered on the sidelines, humiliated. Edith refrained from saying whether she was among the outcasts, but her repeated emphasis on the beauty of so many of the young women in attendance suggests that she had been.

In that simple society there was an almost pagan worship of physical beauty, and the first question asked about any youthful newcomer on the social scene was invariably: “Is she pretty?” 

Her debut sums up her life at this point: her sense that she was largely misunderstood by her family and that her passions were at odds with her upbringing. She was continually monitored and scrutinised and felt that she never quite measured up.


Edith Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones in 1892 into an old established family who were wealthy enough to enjoy lives of leisure and ‘amiable hospitality’. The Jones family were part of a small snobbish set of elite New Yorkers with connections to the Anglo Dutch families who had arrived in America in the 1600s. Edith was awkward, eager to please, in love with the books in her father’s library, fascinated by words, and happy to run around her family’s holiday house in Newport, joining in on all the summery events.

Making Up

As long as she could remember, Edith had invented stories. ‘Making up’ as she called it was one of the most vital experiences of her childhood. Just after her family moved to Europe, she ‘found the necessary formula’. It involved having a book with closely printed, heavy black type. Once the book was opened (upside down or not), stories would burst forth, which she would speak aloud. As she describes in her memoir A Backward Glance (1933):

I had only to walk the floor, turning the pages as I walked, to be swept off full sail on the sea of dreams. The fact that I could not read added to the completeness of the illusion, for from those mysterious blank pages I could evoke whatever my fancy chose…

It was a solitary activity, with the feel of a ritual, for when the urge called she felt compelled to obey ‘the furious Muse’. Her parents would sometimes spy on Edith through half open doors, distressed by the sight of her in an ‘ecstasy’ of invention. They tried to distract her with playmates but Edith said she would sometimes abandon a new friend and rush to her mother with a plea to look after the little girl, for ‘I’ve got to make up.’

Learning to read only fed this passion, and the rush of spoken words became a great stream of high spirited juvenilia.

I still feel the rapture (greater than any I have ever known in writing) of pouring forth undisturbed the tireless torrent of my stories.

A Foundling Child

In her unfinished autobiography Life and I Edith wrote that she had turned out so differently to her parents’ expectations that they ‘were beginning to regard me with fear, like some pale predestined child who disappears at night to dance with ‘the little people’’. For the rest of her life she was to explore this theme in her work, many of her stories featuring a foundling or a changeling: a child born into the wrong family. The child might turn out to be a supernatural being, a royal person, or simply one who is alienated from his or her kin.

In these ‘wrong’ families, the mother is invariably neglectful and indifferent. From childhood Edith had been weighed down by a sense of shame and a dread of disapproval. ‘For years afterward I was never free from the oppressive sense that I had two absolutely inscrutable beings to please – God and my mother’. She struggled with these conflicting demands: truthfulness to God, and her mother’s ‘obligation to be polite’. Her mother was baffling; ‘a mysterious impenetrability, a locked room full of bats and darkness’. Lucretia would provide Edith with writing fodder for her long literary career. As Hermione Lee writes:

Wharton’s version of Lucretia Jones is one of the most lethal acts of revenge ever taken by a writing daughter. The fictional materials were inexhaustible – Wharton was still “doing” her in her seventies – and Lucretia remained unforgiven.

Edith’s memoirs pin her mother down as ‘dry’, ‘ironic’, ‘exaggeratedly scrupulous’ and having ‘a look of icy disapproval which I most dreaded’. In her third novel The Fruit of the Tree (1907), the talents of a sensitive child are stunted by a mother’s narrow standards and an inadequate education:

Isn’t she one of the most harrowing victims of the plan of bringing up our girls in the double bondage of expediency and unreality, corrupting their bodies with luxury and their brains with sentiment, and leaving them to reconcile the two as best they can, or lose their souls in the attempt?

Going on Show

Lucretia was a stylish dresser and great lover of clothes. Every year Edith would share the excitement of opening her mother’s trunk, freshly arrived from Paris, and watching ‘one resplendent dress after another shaken out of its tissue paper.’ But she was out of her depth when, as she grew older, her mother would dress her up and take her into society. There are a number of photographs that show the young and dutiful Edith Jones, and in a talk to The New York Society Library her biographer, Hermione Lee, says she looked like a person, 

told to get dressed up for inspection and be on parade but who is uncomfortable in the public eye. She often seems to be hiding behind her pets. Or she’s looking anxiously askance at the camera, very much not wanting to be on show. 

Edith’s unfinished novel called Logic touches on the sensitive and personal topic of physical appearance. Mrs Lake, unhappy with her daughter Candida’s intellectual leanings and her lack of femininity,  insists on her attending a party wearing a pink dress. Candida protests, feeling the dress is ‘peculiarly calculated to emphasise her lean height, the abruptness of her movements and the sallow tints of her long Italian looking face’.

Her mother looked at her despairingly. The girl’s moods were as incomprehensible to her as the movements of some strange animal. Mrs. Lake had always enjoyed what she was expected to enjoy; especially occasions demanding a pink frock.

In the end Candida wears the dress like ‘a sacrificial garment’, at the cost of being misunderstood.


When Edith was ten her family returned to New York from Europe. She writes in A Backward Glance: ‘I did not know how deeply I had felt the nobility and harmony of the great European cities till our steamer was docked at New York.’ The ‘shameless squalor’ of the city of her birth was an ‘unsavoury experience’. The old established families like Edith’s lived in houses along Washington Square and along Fifth Avenue towards Central Park. She described the ‘little’ brownstone houses that formed the boundaries of her world, and lined the route in an orderly procession, ‘like a young ladies’ boarding school taking its daily exercise’. 

Edith’s life was ‘safe, guarded, monotonous’ behind one of these uniform, brownstone facades. Its interior, cluttered and plush, was ‘a full blown specimen of Second Empire decoration’ replete with ‘monumental pieces of Dutch marquetry’ and an oak mantelpiece ‘sustained by visored knights’. There was a monumental writing table, at which little writing was done, and the meagre remnants of a once comprehensive library was shuttered away behind glass doors. Guests would gather at her parents’ table for mild, leisurely dinners where they discussed food, wine, horses and plans for travel. ‘Art and music and literature were rather timorously avoided’. Apart from the books in her father’s library, there was little to nurture a life of the imagination. ‘Beauty, passion, and danger were automatically excluded’. She was not alone in this deprivation. The same applied to others: young men and women growing up in this old New York world whose hearts and minds were similarly starved, and ‘the tepid sadness of the moral atmosphere resulted in a prolonged immaturity of mind.’

It was a way of life defined by clothes, architecture and furnishings; in her work Edith would characterise families by describing their decor. In ‘The Old Maid’ she has fun with the bric-à-brac of her mother’s generation:

The rosewood what-nots on each side of the folding doors… were adorned with tropical shells, feldspar vases, an alabaster model of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, a pair of obelisks made of scraps of porphyry and serpentine picked up by the young couple in the Roman Forum, a bust of Clyde in chalk-white biscuit de Sèvres, and four old-fashioned figures of the Seasons in Chelsea ware, that had to be left among the newer ornaments because they had belonged to great-grandmamma Ralston.

Being Watched

The New York society in which Edith grew up – the New York she left as an adult but never stopped writing about – features in her work as a place of peering eyes. From the sumptuous, stuffy rooms of the genteel families to the well trodden route on Fifth Avenue, where one paraded up and down to see and be seen, there was no place to hide. 

In one of Edith’s New York stories set in the 1870s, ‘New Year’s Day’, a family gather round a window with its view onto West 23rd Street (where Edith grew up). Their snooping eyes are rewarded by the sight of a woman they know, emerging from an illicit meeting in a hotel, desperately trying to conceal her face behind the veil of her hat.

On one occasion seventeen-year-old Edith encountered a sight that was strictly to be ignored. In her article ‘A Little Girl’s New York’ (published in 1938, a year after her death), Edith writes about a brougham that was travelling up and down Fifth Avenue, its splendid canary yellow standing out from all the other carriages. Inside it Edith spied a dark-haired woman who was ‘enchantingly pale’, soberly dressed, with a cherry coloured trim to her hat. When she asked her mother about the woman, she was instructed firmly to look the other way. It turned out that this was New York’s first ‘fashionable hetaera’, the mistress of notorious banker, August Belmont. Good girl as she was, Edith obeyed her mother, but that glimpse of the woman’s loveliness had fired her imagination with images of Shallott, for she was captivated by Tennyson’s ‘Idylls of the King’, and the Cornwall of Yseult. 

This incident hinted at an illicit, sexual world that existed beyond her reach in one sense but which she had experienced privately from a young age. Books sometimes gave Edith powerfully erotic feelings which she only came to understand much later were sexual. She recalled reading her favourite Tennyson’s ‘Idylls of the King’ aloud to her elderly, deaf grandmother, shouting the words into her ear trumpet, and as she did so, feeling her body tingle in ‘rhythmic raptures’ when she came to words she did not understand. Edith dimly understood there was something about the impassioned, ecstatic nature of her ‘making up’ that had caused it to be so frowned upon and discouraged, from her earliest years. Observing it with distaste, Lucretia had called it a ‘devastating passion’ and a ‘perilous obsession.’ When Edith finally mustered the courage to ask her mother about her own developing sexuality she was told it was not nice to talk about such things and she was left, as usual, baffled and anxious.

Every aspect of Edith’s life was constrained by Lucretia’s rules. When she was very young her parents were horrified to discover Edith reading, with rapt attention, Ludovic Halévy’s Fanny Lear, a play about a prostitute that was scandalising all of Paris at the time. From that stage Edith’s mother monitored her reading, weeding out any material she judged unsuitable (this from a woman whose reading was confined to horticultural magazines). Louisa May Alcott just scraped in but Whitman’s Leaves of Grass remained under lock and key. Edith later wrote that by monitoring her reading, which steered her towards the classics, Lucretia had actually done her a favour. It had prevented her from ‘wasting…time over ephemeral rubbish’. The classics gave her mind a ‘temper which my too-easy studies could not have produced.’

The Gilded Age

As she grew older, Edith’s world began to change before her eyes. After the Civil War in the early 1900s a boom in industry had begun to create millionaires from nobodies and a new class of super rich industrialists and financiers emerged. Swells like the Vanderbilts and Carnegies began building grand marble mansions on Fifth Avenue, next to the discreet brownstones of the old upper classes. ‘The Gilded Age’ was a term coined by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner to describe the disparity between a truly golden age, and the present one. They felt that only a thin coat of glittery paint disguised the conspicuous wealth and layers of corruption that were fast widening the gulf between the haves and have nots. This economic and industrial growth was powered by the millions of immigrants, newly arrived in New York, who benefitted very little from it. 

The mix of the established, understated old families with the brash Nouveau Riche created tensions which Edith brought to life in her work. She scrutinised minutely the New York customs and fashions of the Gilded Age. Although she deemed the old New York families such as her own to be parochial and self-serving, she was on their side when it came to the newcomers, whom she called the ‘Lords of Pittsburgh’. After they arrived, Edith complained that it became all about money rather than pedigree. 

Balls like the ones Edith had attended as a debutante in 1879 became grander as the Nouveau Riche vied to outdo the old guard in putting on the grandest events. In her youth they had been lavish, but quietly so, with a few hundred guests, who might walk away from the evening with party favours such as nosegays for the women and boutonnieres for the men. Some twenty years later, towards the end of the Gilded Age, the famous Bradley-Martin ball was held for 1,500 guests at the Waldorf Hotel, which was turned into a replica of Versailles. Party favours included jewellery for the women, and cigars wrapped in hundred dollar bills for the men. This event cost around $10 million in today’s money, and at a time when many Americans were experiencing extreme poverty.

As the social customs of the old families came under threat they clung to ever stricter codes of behaviour and rigid assumptions about money: who should have it, and how it should be made and spent. But they did assimilate with the newcomers and Edith wrote about the resultant hypocrisy.

In The Age of Innocence (1920) there was much fretting amongst the old families about the newcomer Julius Beaufort. Who was he? He passed for an Englishman, had an important position and letters of recommendation from the right people, but his habits were ‘dissipated, his tongue was bitter, his antecedents were mysterious’. The old families distrusted him, yet they flocked to enjoy his generous hospitality.

The Role of Women

In Edith Wharton’s world women were raised to meet societal expectations, no matter the cost to themselves and their natural inclinations. They were often stuck (if they were pretty enough) with a choice between sentimental romance and material advantage. What is the place, Edith asks in her writing, of women who are passionate, intelligent, independent? Barely any place at all, if the fates of her female characters are anything to go by. As a rule, her heroines are either betrayed and suffer social punishment, or they are entrapped in marriages that become prisons.

Edith herself found a way to buck the system, largely because she was able to generate an income from her writing. There is a story here about the way in which she fashioned an idyllic, independent and productive old age. Another story is yet to come about about her war years as a newly single woman, living in Paris in her fifties. But what lay in store first of all for the young Edith was a disastrous marriage, with loss of confidence and illness. During these fallow, in-between years she was required to perform the roles of a socialite and wife. But they were not wasted years. As an insider, Edith had a bird’s eye view of a society in a state of flux and rapid change. She witnessed the old, established order, that had seemed rock solid when she was a girl, vanish completely. Motivated by a powerful need to understand what was happening to her own history, she emerged in her late thirties to become one of the greatest social chroniclers of her age.


Beaufort Ball Scene, The Age of Innocence (1993) 

In this early scene from Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of The Age of Innocence, man about town Newland Archer has decided to announce his engagement to May Welland at the Beaufort’s annual ball in order to divert gossip away from the scandal surrounding May’s cousin, the Countess Ellen Olensaka, who has just left her husband. He enters the ballroom belonging to the shady (new monied) businessman Julius Beaufort: 

Couples were already gliding over the floor beyond: the light of the wax candles fell on revolving tulle skirts, on girlish heads wreathed with modest blossoms, on the dashing aigrettes and ornaments of the young married women’s coiffures, and on the glitter of highly glazed shirt-fronts and fresh lace gloves.

The scene, as narrated by Joanne Woodward, is a fine example of the way Edith takes such care with the description of rooms, and contains all the smallness of this world, its customs, ostentation, gossip and hypocrisy.


I have yet to visit America but hope one day to make it to that vibrant city of New York, at the very least. The photographs of Edith Newbold Jones, then Mrs Edith Wharton are reproduced courtesy of Wiki Commons, as is the image of Fifth Avenue circa 1908. For extra atmosphere I have included pictures of the interiors of some grand old Cornish houses, mostly from the late Victorian manor Lanhydrock, and the image of the library was taken in the 18th Century house, Antony

The wealthy circles in which Edith’s family mixed in New York in the 1870s had the all the ‘littleness’ and pretension that Jane Austen loathed about early 1800s Bath, and the Stephen sisters detested about early 1900s Kensington, in London. 

If they had remained obedient, the lives of these brilliant women would have been subsumed by a society designed to diminish them, using what the writer Kristen Richardson in her book The Season, calls ‘the most elegant sort of control’ (there is a story about the debut of the the sisters Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf here).

I was struck by elements of Edith’s story that bear strong parallels with the Stephen sisters. All three loathed the oppressive fussiness of ‘Victoriana’, with its machine made furniture in the ‘French’ style, its lurid velvets and potted palms. The Stephens felt almost entombed by the plush and mahogany clutter of their dark and musty childhood home in Kensington. Edith poked fun at the taste of an elderly aunt which she called ‘Hudson River Gothic’ and in her novel The House of Mirth (1905) Ned Van Alstyne introduces us to the new mansions of Fifth Avenue, ‘that versatile thoroughfare’ with its mishmash of styles: 

That Greiner house, now – a typical rung in the social ladder! The man who built it came from a milieu where all the dishes are put on the table at once. His facade is a complete architectural meal;  if he had omitted a style his friends might have thought the money had given out.

Edith had a strong visual sense. Her aesthetic appreciation was developed during her six years spent in Europe from the age of four, a time which, she made clear, was life-changing. During these years she was immersed in a sense of beauty and culture which she had not experienced in New York.

In their rejection of the Victorian aesthetic, both Edith and Vanessa Bell devised fresh decorative approaches. Edith said she saw the world as a series of pictures and she wanted to try to make each picture a little more beautiful. Her appreciation of the harmoniousness of French and Italian culture informed her eye and led to her first book which she wrote in collaboration with Ogden Colman, The Decoration of Houses (1897). This classic has had a significant influence on house design in America. Edith argues for a clean, simplified look, clear of clutter:

We endow with refinement and charm the person who welcomes us in a delightful room, where the colours blend and the proportions are as perfect as in a picture…A woman’s environment will speak for her life, whether she likes it or not.

As part of their rejection of all things Victorian, Vanessa Bell and her artist friends in the Bloomsbury group, Duncan Grant and Roger Fry, emphasised the functionality of furniture, introducing colour and bold, modern design without fussiness. They too looked to Europe, particularly France, for fresh pictorial inspiration.

In her writing, Edith’s rooms are so powerfully conceived they are almost like extra characters. As with Virginia Woolf, her descriptions of interiors draw psychological parallels. They both write of rooms that are swamped by trinkets and furniture, with windows swathed in fabrics that cut out the light, fresh air and the outside world, mirroring the lives of inhabitants that are constrained and diminished. As Hermione Lee points out, this claustrophobia suggests a stifling of desire, an opting for respectability over feelings, surface over depth. 

Despite sharing such sympathies, the two great writers Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf never met. Edith loathed Virginia’s experimental approach, calling it ‘exhibitionism’, but she was aware that this modernism, written by an author twenty years younger than herself, threatended to make her own writing obsolete. In 1925 Virginia produced a dismissive essay called ‘American Fiction’ in which she wrote off Edith Wharton and Edith’s close friend and mentor Henry James, accusing them of living abroad so long that they had taken on their adopted cultures and sounded too British: ‘They do not give us anything we have not got already’, she wrote. Edith was not amused.


Hermione Lee’s wonderful talk on all things Edith Wharton at the New York Society Library. 

The trailer for The Age of Innocence (1993), Directed by Martin Scorsese, starring Daniel Day Lewis and Winona Ryder. 

An article about the wild ‘Gilded Age’ parties.

This article examines the dark aspects of the America’s ‘Guilded Age’, and its parallels with our own time. 

The trailer for the HBO series The Gilded Age, produced and written by Julian Fellowes. 

This Lit Hub article asks – Is the Debutante the most Misunderstood Character in Literature?


Anantharaman Maitreyi. ‘Is the Debutante One of the Most Misunderstood Characters in Literature?Lit Hub, November 21, 2019

Benstock, Shari. No Gifts from Chance: A Biography of Edith Wharton, Scribner’s Sons, 1994

Colapinto, John. ‘Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, and a Case of Anxiety Influence’, The New Yorker, September 19, 2014 

Lee, Hermione. Edith Wharton, Alfred A Knopf, 2007

Lee, Hermione, ‘Edith Wharton’, talk for The New York Society Library, 11 April, 2012 

Rosen, Reneé. ‘Gilded Age Parties Were Even Wilder Than You Can Imagine‘, Lit Hub, April 22, 2021

Wharton, Edith. A Backward Glance, Simon & Schuster, 1992

Wharton, Edith. ‘A Little Girl’s New York’, in The Uncollected Critical Writings, Princeton University Press, 1996

Wharton, Edith. The Letters of Edith Wharton, R.W.B Lewis and Nancy Lewis Eds, Simon & Schuster, 1988

Add a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *