If Edith Wharton were alive, she’d be 150 this year — but her incisive novels about 19th-century American society remain remarkably fresh. This summer, her legacy is inspiring not so much a literary trend as a publishing bottleneck: Two debut novels, Francesca Segal’s The Innocents and Claire McMillan’s The Gilded Age — contemporary reimaginings of The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth, respectively — are hitting bookstores just as Vintage Books issues fetching new editions of Wharton’s most famous titles.
Why the resurgence? ”It has something to do with this moment that we’re in now,” says LuAnn Walther, Vintage/Anchor editorial director. ”Everyone feels this transition to some kind of new social order. Her books were about that — a society in transition.”
Although there have been huge shifts in gender roles since Wharton’s time, her themes — women dealing with independence versus security, love versus money — are still at the forefront of the cultural conversation. Both Entourage and Gossip Girl have tipped their hats to Wharton. Then there’s Mad Men, where Joan, Peggy, and Megan all bring to mind Wharton’s characters, as does Hannah Horvath on HBO’s Girls, who flounders in New York City once her parents cut her off. And Mindy Kaling, who’s starring on her own show this fall, tells EW that The House of Mirth is a personal fave: ”That book completely changed my life. Ms. Fox had us read it in ninth grade. It so describes the feeling of being trapped in a time, of not wanting to get married but sort of having to. Isn’t that book freaking amazing?”