'The Innocents' author on the lasting influence of Edith Wharton

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You know who’s hot right now? Edith Wharton. Even though she died 75 years ago, and she mostly wrote about turn-of-the-century American society, she’s still one of the most influential writers today. Earlier this month, Vintage Books released fetching re-issues of her four most famous novels. At the same time, two separate debut novels — The Innocents by Francesca Segal and The Gilded Age by Claire McMillan, both re-imaginings of Wharton novels — hit shelves within a week of each other. Segal’s new novel sets The Age of Innocence in a Jewish community in present-day London. She spoke to EW about Wharton’s unflagging relevance.

What inspired you to set an Edith Wharton novel in contemporary times?
I went through a phase of reading a lot of [Henry] James and Wharton a few years ago, and when I reached The Age of Innocence — probably the fourth or fifth Wharton novel I read in very quick succession — it just spoke to me. I read the opening scene, in the Academy of Music, and I saw it instantly as a contemporary synagogue.

Did you find that in some ways, Wharton’s work is so modern that you didn’t really have to switch it up much to make it contemporary?
Yes. It’s extraordinary. The Age of Innocence even contained a financial subplot that could have been written in the 21st century. I was reading it almost immediately after the Madoff scandal had unfolded, and she was eerily prescient.

What salient themes from Wharton’s work are especially resonant today?
I think, sadly, that a lot of her examinations of the roles of women have resonance now, despite the huge shifts in the role of women since she was writing. The frustrations of the domestic sphere — even very comfortable domestic sphere — was something she wrote about a lot. And then there was The Bunner Sisters, which was an incredibly dark, angry little tale about women in dire domestic circumstances.

Why do you think Wharton’s fiction appeals so much to young people?
She was a fantastic satirist, and her work feels so fresh and so immediate. She was every inch the upper-class woman in her personal life, and yet she was unshockable on the page. I’m sure people who don’t know her imagine her writing to be prim, but it’s the absolute opposite. Feisty and vicious and with a crystal-clear vision.

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