Book Review: Edith Wharton and Michelle Obama — Breaking New Ground for Women
By Roberta Silman
What impressed me most about these two different women is they were both products of an America which values determination and wit and intelligence, as well as opportunity.
Edith Wharton in France, Claudine Lesage, Prospecta Press /The Mount Press, 302 pages, $28 and Becoming, Michelle Obama, Crown, 426 pages, $32.50
These two books came into the house at the same time — the first from Susan Wissler, Director of The Mount in Lenox, and the second from my children as a Chanukah present. I had no intention of pairing them in a review but after I read the volumes I realized that, although they were born almost a hundred years apart (Edith in 1862 and Michelle in 1964) and could not be more different, they broke new ground for women in ways worth noting and comparing.
Although there are splendid biographies of Wharton by R.W.B. Lewis and Hermione Lee, Claudine Lesage realized that not much is known about Edith in France and sought to correct that. In this fascinating book we learn the details of Edith’s daily life in Paris, of her affair with the American journalist Morton Fullerton who was based in Paris, and of the anguish on all sides surrounding her divorce from Teddy Wharton in April 1913. Using the daybooks of Paul and Minnie Bourget (he was a French writer) and Wharton’s letters in French to Léon Bélugou (a philosopher, psychologist, critic who was also a friend of Fullerton’s), Lesage has brought Edith’s French connections to life in ways that only original material, much of it unexamined and untranslated until Lesage started delving, can bring. Thus, we have a more complete picture of who Edith was; indeed, we see a side of her that is more passionate and impulsive — in short, more human.
What struck me most profoundly was her courage. She was already famous, having published The Decoration of Houses and Italian Villas with Ogden Codman, and she had written her first bestseller, House of Mirth. But she was still a writer in the making and when she and Paul Bourget started to talk about writing, Edith was wise enough to accept his criticism and think more imaginatively about what she wanted to write after she read his advice:
—-You’ve got New York at your doorstep, for heaven’s sake, open your eyes and see it! The place is teeming with subjects, enough for ten sagas, and you know all of it inside and out! Watch people, [and] . . . just as Flaubert once said, “I am Madame Bovary,” now you must say, “I am this America.”
. . . Your country is an overgrown mushroom—a poisonous mushroom, with money as venom. So you must describe your nouveaux riches . . . Describe the cold cruelty of that onanistic naïveté, the self-worshiping cult to light eyes and white teeth—so white, indeed, that it baffles us Frenchmen—and a system in which good looks may be a perfectly valid substitute for one’s moral standing . . .
You must write about all of that and work—work like you’ve never worked before! Learn how to construct a story. But most of all, don’t ever forget what you see around you today; take a hard look at what is yours to explore.
It is not surprising that her very best work: Ethan Frome, published in 1911 and The Age of Innocence, which won her the Pulitzer Prize in 1921 (she was the first woman to win that honor) came after she had spread her wings and spent lots of time in France.
For it was in France that perhaps the real Edith could emerge: no longer was she “Pussy Jones” from an aristocratic and snobbish New York family. In Paris she was a successful writer whose talent was admired and taken seriously. Once that began to happen she gained the self-esteem and self-confidence to divorce her bipolar and very difficult husband Teddy, to allow her natural empathy to work so hard for the French during World War I, (for which she was honored by a Légion de Honneur), to discover the power of sex in her affair with the caddish Fullerton, and, perhaps most important, to overcome her deep-seated feelings of inferiority which came to her from her mother. Only then could she cement old friendships with Walter Berry and Henry James (whose death in 1916 was a terrible blow), and forge new ones with Bourget and Bélugou and Bernard Berenson.
In the second part of the book, called Countrifying (as opposed to the first part called Parisianizing), we see Edith growing older and more accepting, writing less and gardening more. I knew about her world-class garden, Pavillon Colombe, north of Paris, but had no idea about Saint-Claire du Château in Hyeres in the south of France where her gift for landscape architecture came to the fore. Yet it was not all about the garden; she was willing to take risks, getting in touch with Fullerton as late as 1931, even when she knew he was involved with another woman. And always entertaining, and reading aloud after she and her friends had finished dinner. Curious to the very end. As Lesage tells us:
Among the “moderns,” Virginia Woolf did not have Edith’s approval; she was too theoretical and demonstrative for her taste. . . But she viewed Aldous Huxley much more favorably. Not only did she find him “human, conversible, full of fun, and eminently social,” she considered Brave New World to be “a masterpiece worthy of Jonathan Swift.” Lytton Strachey, whom Wharton had met in 1923, also interested her—above all his Queen Victoria, which she recommended to all her friends. But, of all the emerging writers of the next generation, Anita Loos and her Gentlemen Prefer Blondes won Wharton’s highest accolades, pronouncing it “the greatest novel since Manon Lescaut.” In late 1936, during Wharton’s final Christmas gathering, [they] would read and praise John Steinbeck’s newly released novel Of Mice and Men.
How could you not love her? Especially after Anita Loos?
Anyone interested in Wharton should read this book, which did not have an easy birth. Claudine Lesage died in 2013, before her manuscript was completed, and her husband Jean-Claude Lesage and Susan Wissler did the final stretch of hard work to bring it into print. It is a valuable addition to the Wharton literature, exactly as Lesage knew it would be, and also a lovely book to hold in the hand.
But what in the world do these two women — one born into the American aristocracy in the middle of the Civil War and the other in her prime of life right now — have in common? It turns out, there is quite a lot.
Publishing a memoir at the tender age of 54 has to be an unfinished project, and Michelle Obama rightly realized that her journey to become First Lady was only the beginning; thus her very apt title, Becoming. She begins by telling us about her childhood, which she presents as an ordinary one on the South Side of Chicago, but which is far from ordinary. Michelle was very lucky (as Edith was not) in her parents, who made Craig (Michelle’s older brother) and Michelle the center of their lives. They were also remarkable people: Michelle’s father had MS but never missed a day of work nor ever complained and her mother carried on with never an outward wish that anything be different. But Marian Robinson was not afraid to assert herself; she stood up for her children and walked that fine line between loving them to pieces and not spoiling them. Such an upbringing affects everything that follows: one’s need to learn and grow, one’s capacity for empathy, even, in many cases, one’s choice of a mate.
In this very engaging memoir (which may prove to be the first of a few books that Michelle Obama will write) you get to know a woman who is, above all, honest with herself. I am sure this book will be quoted copiously in the many reviews it has already gotten and will surely get as time passes, but quoting Michelle Obama is like seeing only the glittering surface of a lake.
When you allow yourself enough time to read not only the words, but also between the lines of this courageous book, you find a woman of great depth, who understands her responsibilities to her husband, her children, and the world, but also to herself. A woman who had the guts to realize she didn’t like the world of corporate law, even though that’s how she met Barry, as he was then called. A woman for whom marriage would also mean children and reveals in one crucial sentence that she and Barack had those gorgeous girls with the help of IVF. A woman who is not afraid to tell us when she is nervous or afraid, or even confused after she is married and a mother of two growing girls. A woman who committed herself to the exacting responsibilities of motherhood and meaningful work without ever wringing her hands about whether she could do it all. A woman who knew she had to encourage her politically ambitious husband, but who was sometimes lonely when he was away making his political rounds. A woman who thought when it first came up that there was no chance they would ever get to the White House but knew she had to help him try, whatever it took. A woman who, once there, made the best of a situation which sometimes gave her great joy but which could also resemble a prison.
Think of it. They went to the White House in their 40s, the first African-American couple to occupy that daunting place. Bringing great pride to those of us who mistakenly thought we had, by electing Obama, made great strides against the racism that seems endemic in American society. But also bringing threats from bigoted people who could not abide the idea of black folk living there.
Yet there is no fear in this memoir, although there had to be fear. What these two people brought to the White House was their innate grace and dignity, their commitment to their almost impossible jobs, always knowing that, as Barack would say when they were in a tight spot, We will figure it out. As someone who was married for over sixty years to a husband whose mantra was that exact phrase, We will figure it out, I found myself increasingly connected to this remarkable pair as I read. And I could feel a sense of kinship at these words: “I sensed already that he was more at home with the unruliness of the world that I was, more willing to let it all in without distress.” Men who can retain their equanimity in the face of all the challenges that surround us also require their wives to take risks. That is simply the way it is. And she was up to it, and still is.
Becoming is fascinating in its details, not only about the family and how it maneuvers its way through the eight years, but also about the teamwork and friends Michelle cites with great generosity and gratitude. We learn about her strong ties with Valerie Jarrett and Meredith Koop and Jill Biden, among many others, as well her careful deliberation and execution of her fight against obesity with Sam Kass and the wonderful project of the White House Garden. That last was surely something of which Edith would have approved. We also see her sorrow when she visits the wounded and her moxie when she needs to protect her children.
But what impressed me most as the link between these two very different women — one who made her way alone and left us those wonderful books and one who had the benefit of deep connections from childhood on and already has left a legacy that will inspire young women all over the world — is that they are both products of an America which values determination and wit and intelligence, as well as opportunity. These are two women who were willing to take risks of a very different kind, who knew that they had to make a contribution to society whatever their background, and who trusted their instincts and rose to the task. Edith could be imperious, but she was also vulnerable and witty and capable of great emotion. Michelle is never imperious but also sometimes feels defenseless and has humor and empathy and love to spare. They and their work are part of the “indestructible wealth” (a phrase used by the 19th century Indian scholar Pandita Ramabai Saraswati to describe education) of our amazingly diverse country and in this time of turmoil and despair these two books are bright lights for the coming year.
Roberta Silman is the author of four novels, a short story collection and two children’s books. Her new novel, Secrets and Shadows (Arts Fuse review), is in its second printing and is available on Amazon. A recipient of Fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, she has reviewed for The New York Times and The Boston Globe, and writes regularly for The Arts Fuse. More about her can be found at robertasilman.com and she can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.