By Edith Wharton
The novellas are not directly interconnected, though certain fictional characters appear in more than one story. The New York of these stories is the same as the New York of The Age of Innocence (1920), from which several fictional characters have spilled over into these stories. The observation of the manners and morals of 19th century New York upper-class society is directly reminiscent of The Age of Innocence, but these novellas are shaped more as character studies than as a full-blown novel.
Some characters who overlap among these four stories and The Age of Innocence: Mrs. (Catherine) Manson Mingott, Sillerton Jackson, Mrs. Lemuel Struthers, Henry Van der Luyden. Other families and institutions also appear in more than one place among this extended set of New York stories.
Society thinks little of Mrs. Lizzie Hazeldean’s apparent affair with the unmarried Henry Prest. As it turns out, society’s understanding of the
affair is uninformed and insensitive.
All the stories are filled with dense and lively interplay of ideas. Religion, women’s rights, art criticism, the strictures and structures of society, the place of wealth among Manhattan’s élite class, familial loyalty, love and passion and honor, are all examined in the spotlight of Wharton’s scrutiny, interwoven with Wharton’s incisive, often aphoristic observations about a society she knew well from having been raised in it. An example, from “New Year’s Day”: “The self-sufficing little society of that vanished New York attached no great importance to wealth, but regarded poverty as so distasteful that it simply took no account of it.” Throughout, Wharton captures a keen sense of the arc of time; frequently remarking nostalgically on things that change or are lost with the passage of generations (objects, locations, families, institutions, mores). Innumerable illuminating subplots and details have been omitted in the synopses.