The novels of Edith Wharton vacillate between snide gossip and heart-wrenching insight, between the affirmation of a social hierarchy and a lament that this very hierarchy crushes the spirits of those that adhere to it. A natural consequence of this is the wide range in the contemporary heirs of her oeuvre. On one end, we have the beginning of Gossip Girl, based on Wharton’s Age of Innocence, portraying an insular and elitist world. On the other end, we have Francesca Segal’s (daughter of Erich Segal) critical success The Innocents, also based on the same book, draws attention to Wharton as a chronicler of individual yearning versus group convention. The book has already been optioned for a miniseries and is being called the “Jewish Downton Abbey“, emphasis on the Jewish. Segal has incredibly transposed Wharton’s, a notorious anti-Semite, tale of stiff WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) and their subjugated women to a world of cosmopolitan Jews who have premarital sex and go on teen coed tours to Israel. The Innocents succeeds to an extent that will make you proud–but in doing so, results in a very different end, one that provides a tender take on family, loss and growing into adulthood. What we get is surprisingly far removed from Wharton’s sweeping and unflinching dissection of an earlier era.
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The Innocents’ very first tableau exemplifies how effective her concept is. Wharton’s iconic opening scene has the protagonist Newland Archer training his opera glasses on Countess Olenska, the women who will upend his life–sitting in the family box beside his future wife, May Welland. Segal deftly shifts this moment from the concert hall to the synagogue gallery during Yom Kippur. Our innocent hero, Adam, looks up from his prayers to scan the women’s balcony and gaze with “certainty” upon his fiancée, Rachel; beyond Rachel, he sees Ellie, Rachel’s American cousin, the family disgrace, “exposing skin from clavicle to navel“. He is repelled yet intrigued; I was simply the latter. The certainty had ended for Adam; for the reader, the story has just begun.
More than setting up the novel’s central conflict, this opening scene acknowledged the synagogue as a social as well as spiritual place, affording the chance to show off one’s engagement ring, judge one’s neighbours even while atoning, and introduce one’s unsavoury relatives into polite company. We can see from the scrutiny given to Ellie, the notorious interloper with the rather pedestrian name, that this set of London Jews is cloistered in their own ways: doctrinaire on matters of propriety more than piety, well-off but not as fully worldly as they could be.
Segal sets her story’s confrontations and reconciliations at holidays, parties and other life events in the North London community she knows. She recasts the smug, sheltered May Welland and her prominent clan as Rachel Gilbert and her intrusive, loving, and ultimately steely family. That they, like many of the neighbours, are descendants of Holocaust survivors–Rachel’s grandmother Ziva lived through Bergen-Belsen–gives context to the entire community’s unyielding traditionalism. To Rachel’s father, Lawrence, who has taken the fatherless Adam in as his own son, “there was only ever one thing that was important, and that thing was family“.
The claustrophobia that tempers the younger generation’s freedom sets up Adam to be torn up between worship for his fiancée and infatuation with her cousin. Not unlike the men of Old New York, men of Adam’s ilk sow their wild oats in university but then come home to wed their high-school classmates, or, in his case, Israel summer sweethearts, and take their rightful place in the offices where their fathers worked, synagogue committees their uncles run, and neighbourhoods where they themselves grew up. Obviously, Adam is indeed tempted to reject such comforting but boxed-in parameters, and yes, he finds kinship with Ellie. They are both half-orphans and her history of dating dubious men and semi-pornographic modelling and acting, rendering her the opposite of a nice Jewish girl, certainly gives her the requisite transgressive attraction.
It’s hard not to find the success of Segal’s choice subversively delicious because, well, Wharton loathed Jews–she was an anti-Semite along with many of her literary peers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald. In this sense, Segal’s world is an inversion of her predecessor’s: while Wharton’s stodgy Americans looked down at Jews and European characters, the European Jewish characters of The Innocents look askance at the goyim (non-Jews or non-observant Jews), and even their Americanised cousins.
Wharton’s anti-Semitism is a facet of what’s both maddening and marvellous about her: just like her creation Newland Archer, she is through and through a product of the universe she critiques. But for a Wharton fan like myself, that complexity is an added fascination. Newland, in his weakness, implicates, but also humanizes his author and all of us when we remain bystanders, aware of the evils of our way of life but succumbing to its comforts.
Segal’s world is less evil than claustrophobic or occasionally petty. Thus, even as her social repositioning of her novel and her dialogue-rich and fluid prose lives up to her source material, important distinctions remain. Some relate to gender politics. Both of Wharton’s female characters remain incredibly strong in the face of limited roles: May as the icy torch bearer for the “way things are“; Countess Olenska as an exile who forged her own moral code after suffering hardship. Neither of Segal’s heroines quite lives up. Rachel’s naive, unquestioning attitude isn’t unrealistic–wilfully shallow people exist in droves–but it verges on too irritating to be redeemable. Her retrograde focus on domesticity, prioritizing cooking Adam dinner above all else, grates in particular. I mean, no matter how conservative her upbringing, she would have been exposed to some form of faux-feminism in this day and age. Meanwhile, her cousin and rival, Ellie, is a child of violence–her mother died in a bombing in Israel–and this is meant to account for her alienation, her obliviousness to mores. But unlike the Countess Olenska, whose primary social sin is divorcing a husband rumoured to have mistreated her, Ellie has taken no strong steps to ward off her own exploitation besides coming to London. Her impassivity is her grand statement about the world. She is at her most finely drawn when she finally lashes out in anger. Would that Ellie, in addition to being a wounded sexpot, had been a staunch atheist, a Palestinian solidarity activist, a deliberate eccentric–something. Both Segal and Adam’s compassion for her reads as genuine, but she never truly holds up as a convincing escape route for him. The maze of connections binding Adam to his world seems too thick for Ellie’s long legs to lead him out.
Yes, it can’t be helped: Segal’s ultimate affection for her characters’ milieu just doesn’t burn up the page the same way as Wharton’s tortured ambivalence–she was writing from France, decades later–does. That ambivalence is so memorably encapsulated by The Age of Innocence‘s final moments, as Newland Archer sits in the courtyard beneath the apartment of his former great love, decades after their romance, unwilling to go upstairs and face the life he has chosen to miss, to let go of his season of memories. Needless to say, there is no such haunting coda in The Innocents, and there doesn’t need to be.
Although much of its elements are the same as its predecessor, the novel at its heart tells the story of a community forged not by the exclusion of others but by having once been excluded. So who needs to be haunted by the road not taken, when the road one is on involves the whole clan, in all its close-knit complexity?