The Children by Edith Wharton

First published in 1928, The Children is one of Edith Wharton’s later novels, published when the author was in her mid-sixties. Like much of Wharton’s fiction, it explores the moral complexities of socially unacceptable relationship – in this instance, one between a middle-aged man and a teenage girl. Wharton herself cited the novel as one of her favourites, as Marilyn French notes in her introduction to the Virago edition – my copy is a beautiful ‘green spine’ from the mid-1980s.

As the novel opens, Martin Boyne, an unmarried consultant engineer in his mid-forties, is travelling by ship from Algiers to Venice. From there, Martin will journey to Cortina in the Dolomites to join Rose Sellars, the recently widowed woman whom he hopes to marry, even though they haven’t seen one another for five years. The best-laid plans, however, rarely come to pass…

During the passage, Martin encounters fifteen-year-old Judith Wheater, the surrogate mother to her six siblings, three of whom are ‘steps’ or half-siblings. The children – who range in age from two or three to fifteen – are a lively, outspoken bunch, largely kept in line by the delightful Judith and her former governess, Miss Scope. Judith’s parents, Cliffe and Joyce Wheater, are living it up in Venice, caring little for the welfare of their children and assorted ‘steps’, preferring instead to give themselves over to the demands of the ongoing social whirl. Over the past two or three years, Judith has successfully protected the children from the fallout of various Wheater marriages, divorces, liaisons and remarriages, fighting hard to keep the brood together despite her parents’ whims and desires.

Martin is captivated by the children’s happiness and spontaneity, so much so that he agrees to remain in Venice for a few days to assist Judith in discussions with the Wheaters, whose latest attempt at remarriage is in danger of floundering. Judith is fearful that another rift between Cliffe and Joyce will result in children being split up – with the steps going back to their own equally self-absorbed parents, and the toddler, Chip, being separated from Judith and the twins, Terry and Blanca.

In particular, Martin is drawn to Judith with her blend of childlike innocence and impressive maturity. At fifteen, she is on the cusp of adulthood and everything that represents. All too soon, Martin’s feelings for Judith begin to tip over into a kind of infatuation – a fascination he finds hard to fully admit, even to himself.

“Woman—but she’s not a woman! She’s a child.” His thinking of her as anything else was the crowning absurdity of the whole business. Obscurely irritated with himself and her, he stood up, turning his back impatiently on the golden abyss of the apse. “Come along; it’s chilly here after our sun-bath. Gardens are best, after all.”

[…]

But outside in the sunlight, with the children leaping about her, and guiding her with joyful cries toward the outspread tea-things, she was instantly woman again—gay, competent, composed, and wholly mistress of the situation… (pp. 35-36)

As Martin becomes further entangled with the Wheaters, his relationship with Rose Sellars begins to be impacted. With her quiet, orderly approach, Rose is a beacon of stability and respectability, very much in line with the Old New York society Wharton knew so well.  

Yes; if Mrs Sellars excelled in one special art it was undoubtedly that of preparation. She led up to things—the simplest things—with the skill of a clever rider putting a horse at a five-barred gate. All her life had been a series of adaptations, arrangements, shifting of lights, lowering of veils, pulling about of screens and curtains. No one could arrange a room half so well; and she had arranged herself and her life just as skilfully. (p. 38)

Martin becomes so wedded to Judith’s desire for the children to remain together that he agrees to act their trial guardian, at least for the duration of the summer. By now, the children have joined him in the Dolomites, installing themselves in a local guest house to be close at hand. However, it is this commitment to the children that proves to be the sticking point between Martin and Rose. While Rose likes the young Wheaters and can sympathise with their predicament, she is also keen to formalise her new life with Martin, potentially moving to Paris with the aim of settling there. In effect, Martin must choose between two conflicting desires: Rose, the woman he has loved from afar for many years, and Judith, whose spontaneity and freedom from conventional norms have opened his eyes to new possibilities.  

In a world grown clockless and conscienceless, Boyne was still punctual and conscientious; and in this case he had schooled himself to think that what he most wanted was to see Rose Sellars again. Deep within him he knew it was not so; at least, not certainly so. Life had since given him hints of other things he might want equally, want even more; his reluctance to leave Venice and his newly-acquired friends showed that his inclinations were divided. But he belonged to a generation which could not bear to admit that naught may abide but mutability. He wanted the moral support of believing that the woman who had once seemed to fill his needs could do so still. She belonged to a world so much nearer to his than the Wheaters and their flock that he could not imagine how he could waver between the two. (pp. 81–82)

What Wharton does so well here is to illustrate the position in which Martin finds himself, caught as he is between two worlds, neither of which feels entirely comfortable. As a consequence of his experiences with Judith, Martin is reluctant to return to the moral world into which he was born, that of Old New York with its conventional principles and codes. And yet he cannot fully enter the children’s world either, characterised as it is by a lack of such constraints.

The degree to which Wharton enables the reader to sympathise with Martin is also very impressive. He feels a genuine sense of concern for the children’s welfare and emotional well-being, much more than their biological parents ever seem to demonstrate. The scenes where Martin is trying to negotiate with the Cliffe and Joyce Wheater are brilliantly observed, the couple proving to be virtually impossible to pin down for any length of time before the next social engagement beckons. The children too are beautifully portrayed in a way that is both entertaining and touching – at times their directness can be very comical.

In summary, this is a fascinating novel. Not quite as morally complex or intricate as The Age of Innocence or The House of Mirth, but absolutely worth reading if you’re a fan of Wharton’s work – there are elements here that will resonate, for sure.

44 thoughts on “The Children by Edith Wharton

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s a beautiful edition. I do think Martin behaves every foolishly for a man of his age. And yet, wisdom and good judgement are often overruled in matters of the heart…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! Oh, you have so much to look forward to with Wharton. Her analyses of the machinations of New York society are brilliantly done. I think this would be a good one for you to read next as it taps into that world, albeit from a distance…

      Reply
  1. A Life in Books

    It’s so long since I’ve read Wharton but I have a strong impression of her social observation and clear, precise prose. I haven’t read this one so time to put aside all the shiny, new temptations and add it to my list, I think.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Cool. It certainly has those qualities, the social observation in particular. She’s very good at getting to the heart of these moral ambiguities and dilemmas, highlighting the sense of isolation for her central characters…

      Reply
  2. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    Ohhh what a treat! My very first read of the day is a great review of one of my very favorite authors! I adore Edith Wharton although, sad to say, there’s much of her work that I haven’t yet read, including this novel. I’ve actually tended to avoid her later novels, because of the perhaps mistaken idea that they reflect Wharton’s increasingly conservative social views and in quality aren’t quite up to the level of her earlier work. Your review is really making me reconsider my prejudices, as this novel sounds very, very interesting.
    Although the comparison is very superficial, your description of Martin as being caught between two worlds (Old New York and the children’s more bohemian world) made me think of Lambert Strether, the protagonist from James’ “The Ambassadors.” Like Martin, Strether is torn between the strict social code of his New England upbringing and the freedom and stimulation of the different society he encounters in Europe. Since I haven’t read “The Children,” I doubt if the comparison goes very far, but Wharton and James were close friends and she greatly admired his work . . . . .
    Wonderful illustration BTW. I didn’t know that Virago had published any of Wharton’s novels.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Not at all! It sounds like a very relevant comparison. I’m woefully underread when it comes to James, but from what you say in your comment, that’s an interesting parallel between the two. The sense of feeling caught between two worlds is a common theme in Wharton’s work. There are elements of it in The Age of Innocence and some of the New York stories, for sure. I guess it’s also present in The House of Mirth when Lily Bart finds herself ‘annexed’ from conventional society. The Children isn’t quite in the same league as Wharton’s big hitters, but it’s still very much worth reading. An interesting novel for sure.

      (PS On the Virago front, I think they published a few of Wharton’s novels/story collections in the 1980s. I also have a lovely copy of The Reef — as yet unread — in a similar edition.)

      Reply
  3. literarygitane

    What a lovely review! Edith Wharton is my favorite writer and I have read almost everything written by her and re read many of her works too. But this is new to me and it’s going on my list. Thank you so much!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome! That’s for stopping by and commenting, that’s very kind of you – and I hope you enjoy The Children whenever you get a chance to read it.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, definitely. It’s a fascinating scenario, partly because Judith comes across as an innocent in all this. She’s just trying to do her best for the children in the hope of keeping them together.

      Reply
  4. Julé Cunningham

    Love, love her writing but this is a Wharton I haven’t read. It sounds like she conjured up another set of fascinating characters and putting a bit of Old New York society in a different place is an interesting element. You’ve added another one to my TBR list Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, absolutely! The fact that it’s set outside of the US is crucial, I think, effectively placing Martin (and Rose) at a distance from New York itself. And yet, the social mores and codes are still able to exert their influence, albeit in a relatively subtle way. I’ll be very interested to hear what you think if you do get a chance to read it.

      Reply
  5. heavenali

    Fabulous review, it’s a few years since I read this but I found it fascinating, the relationship between Boyd and the children is ambiguous but explored so well. She always recreates society people brilliantly too.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! Yes, terrific characterisation and portrayal of the social mores – that’s probably a given with any Wharton. But what’s also very impressive here is her depiction of the children. They seem so natural and unaffected, beautifully drawn on the page.

      Reply
  6. Susan Kavanagh

    What an excellent review! I read this a few years ago and liked it very much. I have found that even second tier novels by Warton are extremely good. I don’t think I have ever read a review of this one before so thank you.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, thank you – that’s very kind of you to say! You’re right to highlight the quality of Wharton’s second-tier novels, books like The Children and Summer, as they’re actually incredibly good. I sometimes wonder if they’ve just been completely overshadowed by Innocence, Mirth and Ethan Frome as these top-tier novels are virtually in a league if their own. I’ve also got a copy of The Reef to look forward to – another excellent ‘level 2’, I suspect!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Grant. That’s one of the things I’ve noticed about Wharton, her ability to elicit the reader’s sympathy for these flawed, morally ambiguous characters. She does it so well! For you, I would recommend either Ethan Frome or The House of Mirth. I think you’d find her an impressive writer.

      Reply
  7. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review Jacqui and you really capture what a wonderful writer Wharton was. I’ve only read a little of her work, but I get exactly what you mean about her characters who are stuck between two worlds, unable to really belong to either. The contrast between the two women in Martin’s life is striking, but I can’t help feeling he’s a little prey to that male tendency to not want to grow up…. ;D

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, absolutely! There are times when you want to give Martin a good shake, to jolt him into reality. He really shouldn’t be obsessing over Judith like a love-struck teenager… :)

      Reply
  8. Jane

    I’ve still got Wharton to discover and I feel quite lucky! This does sound very good, I always find it impressive when a writer can write sympathetically for the opposite sex as she does here with Martin – I’d have to get hold of a Virago edition though for the foreword by Marilyn French, what a bonus!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, good point an author’s ability to write convincing characters of the opposite sex! It’s definitely something that Wharton can do very effectively. Newland Archer, from The Age of Innocence, is a brilliant creation, a truly nuanced, conflicted character torn between marriage to his sweet, respectable wife, May, and desire for his alluring paramour, Countess Olenska. That’s still my favourite Wharton, I think. .

      Reply
  9. Philippa Swan

    A wonderful review, Jacqui. I particularly enjoyed your analysis of Martin Boyne – a character who is potentially very problematic. I also appreciate your review drawing attention to the entertaining and comical qualities of this novel. This is one of Wharton’s ‘Jazz Age’ novels where she delights in satirising modern life for the upper-classes. The adults are avaricious and self-obsessed, their lives a chaotic whirl of marriages and divorce, international travel, consumerism and instant gratification. Edith Wharton is really having fun with this novel, made all the funnier when you know some of the characters are based on her real-life acquaintances!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you, Philippa; that’s very kind of you to say. Yes, it’s clearly a world Wharton knew very well as the Wheaters and their socially-obsessed friends can only have been based on real-life experiences, albeit altered for the purposes of fiction. I couldn’t help but laugh at Martin’s efforts to tie them down to some kind of meeting about the children and their future before the next social engagement beckoned. A very comical scenario to observe!

      Reply
  10. Radz Pandit

    Lovely review Jacqui! I am really keen to read this even if it’s not up there with The Age of Innocence (probably none of her works can match that book’s brilliance). I’ve been quite drawn to Wharton’s work recently. The Custom of the Country, which I read earlier this year, is fabulous and I am currently dipping into her New York Stories. She is simply terrific.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Cool. I’d think you’d like this very much, Radhika. By any other writer’s standards, it’s a very good book, psychologically nuanced and astute. Definitely one to seek out once you’ve finished with the stories. :)

      Reply
  11. madamebibilophile

    This does sound very carefully done, normally an older man infatuated with a teenager would have me rolling my eyes! I have this edition in the TBR, I’ll have to dust it off – you’re a great advocate for Wharton and I keep meaning to go back to her due to your enthusiasm.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! Yes, I too was a little worried that this might be something of a ‘Lolita’ scenario, but Wharton handles it very skilfully (just as one might expect). What she does so well is to focus on Martin, particularly the moral conflicts and ambiguities that pull him in different directions. Even though The Children isn’t as well known as some of Wharton’s other society novels, it’s very much of a piece with that ‘genre’ so to speak.

      Reply
  12. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  13. everythingtips

    great review! i’ve never read this novel but it certainly does seem interesting! thanks for sharing💞

    Follow @everythingtips for tips and recommendations if interested! It would mean a lot to me!🥺🤍

    Reply
  14. moirar2

    Great review of a fascinating book. I read it years ago (I was having a Wharton phase…) and it has stuck in my mind, some of the characters and situations and scenes are unforgettable. Echoes of a number of other books and authors – Henry James, and the Constant Nymph, in particular. I love Wharton – a great author.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes! I’ve just been reading The Constant Nymph, and there are similarities between the two for sure. In fact, I think prefer the Wharton even though The Nymph is probably better known. Wharton is such a brilliant observer of social situations with all their subtleties and nuances, and the sheer quality of the writing makes her a joy to read.

      Reply
  15. buriedinprint

    After years of reading (and trying to read – early on, I often left her works unfinished and later returned to try again) Edith Wharton, I finally absorbed the fact that she does not write joyous stories. Once I understood that, I was able to appreciate her properly. :) (This phrase strikes me, in particular: “In a world grown clockless and conscienceless…”)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, her central protagonists are rarely happy or fulfilled in life. And yet, I think she captures their internal conflicts so insightfully. This probably wouldn’t be the best place to start (or restart) with Wharton; but even so, it’s still very well observed!

      Reply

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