Edith Wharton is best known for The Age of Innocence, which won her the 1920 Pulitzer Prize, but it is her 1928 novel The Children that she claimed as her favourite.
Forty-six-year old Martin Boyne, an engineer who appears to be more a man of leisure, is on a cruise ship between Algiers and Venice. Early on in his trip he finds himself rubbing up against an unruly yet endearing group of seven children. The head of this gang is fifteen-year-old Judith Wheater. She acts as adult to the group, fulfilling the role of parent. She has taken on this role as the children are under threat of being separated. Judith is determined to keep everyone together.
The main disruptive force to this little group is, ironically, the children’s parents, Cliffe and Joyce Wheater. Theirs is a tempestuous relationship. They have broken up, remarried, generated other children (three “steps”, from two separate relationships) and then re-married. Now the parents are having marital problems again. Ex-partners are trying to repossess the steps, who form part of the seven children. In short, the thoughtlessness of the parents, who are wealthy and self indulgent, looks set break the children up.
Martin Boyne finds himself irresistibly drawn into the dilemmas of this little group. He is especially attracted to Judith, a funny, feisty, unselfconscious child / woman. But Martin has problems of his own. A bachelor still in his mid forties, he is betrothed to recently widowed Rose Sellars. The two have a long history of mutual friendship. Rose is sensible, mature, astute and sympathetic. Martin, in many ways, is somewhat childish. When Rose wants to nail down their engagement, Martin vacillates and won’t commit. The problem: he’s become enchanted by the innocent and uninhibited world of the children. Especially Judith. While not really in love with Judith, he tells himself that he possibly could be. There’s a confusion over his feelings that he himself can’t resolve. But reality can’t be put off forever, even for Martin Boyne, and finally he must decide on a course of action, either choose Rose or the children.
The Children is as near perfect as fiction can get. Edith Wharton is a master at her craft, seamlessly joining together a complex plot into a smooth whole that is absorbing and satisfying to read. Her solid, no-nonsense prose is adept at describing the turbulent, confused inner lives of her characters and their interactions.
This is a story full of emotional complexity and subtlety, about a man’s wanting to hold onto a dream like innocent world embodied in a group of children, while wrestling more serious questions about his future. The path Rose Sellars offers - conservative, respectable, yet perhaps artificial and lacking in passion - seems almost like a dead end when compared to the spontaneous children. Yet one can’t live forever in a childlike fantasy and reality must be faced.
Edith Wharton’s favourite amongst her novels is a dolorous piece about our desires for a perfect world that seems within reach, but which in the end is elusive.
The Children, by Edith Wharton. Published by Virago Classics. ISBN: 9781844082926 RRP: $22.99
To sign up for our monthly newsletter, featuring new releases, book reviews and favourite articles from around the web, click here.