Ostensibly he’s talking about Wharton’s appearance because it’s her “one potentially redeeming disadvantage.” But he doesn’t sound sympathetic when he talks about her looks; he sounds like he’s just observing the patriarchal dictate that before we can talk about any woman artist or intellectual or politician or activist, we must first rank her on Hot or Not. He indicates that Wharton had a tough time finding a husband because of her looks, and tips his hat at the possibility that her marriage to Teddy Wharton was largely sexless because she wasn’t pretty enough (!) before concluding no, it was probably because of her sexual ignorance (I’m thinking Teddy probably had a hand in or out of their sex life too).
Franzen’s weird emphasis on Wharton’s appearance is particularly unwelcome in a month during which we are being treated to discussions of Dickens’s genius which have rarely considered his personal qualities, least of all his poor treatment of the women in his life. Franzen refers to Henry James without opining that he most regularly resembled a disgruntled amphibian; he mutters some modish but meaningless guff about a modern reader’s inability to get on with a wealthy author (because, of course, today’s novelists all come from the slums), but doesn’t get to grips with the thornier problems of historical distance; and in this partial, superficial context, his diverting thoughts on how the reader of a novel can “become helpless not to make [a character's desire] my own” are rather muddied – are we talking about Lily’s socialite desires in The House of Mirth or the desire that Franzen does or does not feel for Wharton? And why does one serve to introduce thoughts on the other? The essay feels insufficiently unfurled.
On the other hand, Franzen helps place Wharton into that context I was upset to be missing in all the Dickens hoop-la:
The Custom of the Country is the earliest novel to portray an America I recognise as fully modern, the first fictional rendering of a culture to which the Kardashians, Twitter, and Fox News would come as no surprise. [...] Ignorant though Undine [Spragg, the novel's protagonist] is, she’s smart enough to know that she has exactly what reporters need, and she proves remarkably adept at manipulating the press. Along the way, she anticipates two other hallmarks of modern American society, the obliteration of all social distinctions by money and the hedonic treadmill of materialism. [...]
The novel’s most strikingly modern element, however, is divorce. The Custom of the Country is by no means the earliest novel in which marriages are dissolved, but it’s the first novel to put serial divorce at its center, and in so doing it sounds the death knell of the ‘marriage plot’ that had invigorated countless narratives in centuries past.
Dickens, not much of a look either in case you were wondering, was not the only visionary. It’s a shame a writer as important as Wharton gets one as neurotic as Franzen to write her eulogy.