The Lesbian and the Novelist Who Escaped the Gilded Age

In an age when wealthy Americans visited Europe either to sell off their daughters in marriage to titled men or to buy up European culture and historical heritage, Edith Wharton and Natalie Clifford Barney went there in search of gender and intellectual equality. They found it in France.

By Victoria Martínez

Wealthy women of America’s Gilded Age[1] may have looked splendid, but their appearance was just one element of a system designed to limit their mobility, both literally and figuratively. Thorstein Veblen[2] compared such women in their restrictive finery to liveried servants, with the distinction that, in fact, “the lady of the house is the chief menial of the household.”[3] Although free from the laborious domestic responsibilities of lower-class women, wealthy women were no less men’s chattel because “they are servants to whom, in the differentiation of economic functions, has been delegated the office of putting in evidence their master’s ability to pay.”[4]

Many wealthy women of the Gilded Age were perfectly happy — or completely resigned — to this life, while others were unwilling or unable to break free from their gilded cages. Some, like Jane Addams[5], did break free from the restrictions of their sex and class to dedicate their lives and fortunes to helping those less fortunate. Others, like Alva Belmont, managed to maintain their lofty position and effectively use their social class privilege to vigorously fight for social causes like women’s suffrage.[6]

A few found that the most effective way to break free from gender inequality in the United States was to break free from the country itself. Edith Wharton[7] and Natalie Clifford Barney[8] were two very different women from the Gilded Age elite who chose to make their home in the more enlightened and liberated environs of France — a place where they could not only spread their wings and express themselves both creatively and personally, but also where they were valued and appreciated on a more equal footing with men.

Though most readers of Wharton’s fiction (or viewers of the film adaptations of her novels) are dazzled by the sumptuousness of the period, it would take nothing less than a figurative blindness to fail to see that Wharton did not glamorize women’s lot in the Gilded Age. On the contrary, the women portrayed in novels like “The Age of Innocence,” “The House of Mirth,” and “The Custom of the Country,” are generally either vapid perpetrators of their own inequality, or victims of it. As one of Wharton’s biographers wrote:

“From Lily Bart to Halo Vance (with one outrageous exception), it is the women in Wharton who have to conceal their feelings, suffer betrayal and social punishment, compromise their lives and lose what they love. The politics of sexual injustice and inequality are very strongly felt…”[9]

It is clear from Wharton’s non-fiction writing and her personal letters that her feelings on gender injustice and inequality, particularly in the United States, ran deep. She rather famously wrote in her memoirs:

“I was a failure in Boston because they thought I was too fashionable to be intelligent, and a failure in New York because they thought I was too intelligent to be fashionable.”[10]

This statement only scratched the surface of her disaffection with American society and her reasons for settling permanently in France in 1911.

“The long hypocrisy which Puritan England handed on to America concerning the danger of frank and free social relations between men and women has done more than anything else to retard real civilisation in America,” Wharton wrote in 1919.[11]
“How much longer are we going to think it necessary to be ‘American’ before (or in contradistinction to) being cultivated, being enlightened, being humane, & having the same intellectual discipline as other civilized countries? It is really too easy a disguise for our shortcomings to dress them up as a form of patriotism!”[12]

Wharton’s letters even before she made her home permanently in France are filled with such sentiments. In 1903, she wrote to a friend that she didn’t think or feel like an American. Although she had toyed with the idea of living in England, she ultimately found it almost as intellectually and socially limited as the United States. In her autobiography, she judged the “Anglo-Saxon countries” unfavorably in comparison with France, where she ultimately found “the kind of human communion I cared for.”[13] As her marriage crumbled and her writing flourished, she found in France “a liberation from the even narrower world of Old New York, where custom enforced a rigid morality and weakened intellectual vigor.”[14]

Wharton herself succinctly summed up the appeal of France over America:

“The Frenchwoman rules French life, and she rules it under a triple crown, as a business woman, as a mother, and above all as an artist.”[15]

Though less inclined to vent her spleen about America in her writing, Natalie Clifford Barney was of a similar mind to her contemporary and fellow-writer.

“I was predestined for free choice, for, contrary to the warnings given back home in the United States of ‘what is and is not done,’ I have always done as I pleased,” Barney wrote from Paris in 1910.[16]

This was no overstatement. Barney did indeed do exactly as she pleased — starting with her early identification as a lesbian and lifelong fearlessness in expressing her sexuality, to her dedication to fostering and promoting the intellectual and literary talents of others, particularly women.

“At a young age, Barney realized the trap Western culture held for all women and refused to surrender her body, independence, or feminism to marriage.”[17]
“…she [Barney] noted that women were the mules of the world. She saw that even women in power who are ‘the mistresses of slaves… [are] the slaves of the masters.’ And she knew that the financial power of men made a woman’s relations with men an act of commerce, whether or not one was technically a prostitute.”[18]

Like Wharton, Barney had spent much of her childhood and young adulthood traveling and living for temporary periods in Europe, including France. Although many of their contemporaries had similar opportunities for travel, Wharton and Barney (and other women like them) discerned from these experiences that they had a choice: they could either flourish in France or wither in the United States. They chose the former, and made ample use of their wealth, social class privilege, and self-assurance to extricate themselves from the latter.

For Barney, France was a place where her sexuality — both as a woman and a lesbian — was more accepted and where her desire to interact with people of ideas and inspiration could be fully realized. Within her Paris literary salon — which spanned 50 years — she was her own woman in every way. Through her writing, she explored themes of women’s equality to men (although, for Barney, it was depicted more as an ascendancy), and argued that homosexuality was nothing if not natural. Never accepting of the status quo, she even set about improving the sexual inequalities she found in France, in particular by establishing L’Académie des Femmes in answer to the all-male Académie Française.[19]

However relatively silent she was on the subject of America, Barney made clear her views on Paris and why she chose it for her permanent home in 1902:

“Paris has always seemed to me the only city where you can live and express yourself as you please. Despite the baleful progress inflicted from the outside, she continues to respect, and even encourage, personality. In France, thought, food and love have remained a matter of individual choice where each person follows their own inclination, instead of that of their neighbors.”[20]

By far the more vocal of the two women, Wharton’s writing on the subject pulls no punches. For instance, she wrote that, unlike American women, “like the men of her race, the Frenchwoman is grown up [her emphasis]. Compared with the women of France the average American woman is still in the kindergarten.”[21] She explained:

“The reason… is that all their semblance of freedom, activity and authority bears not much more likeness to real living than the exercises of the Montessori infant.
“It is because American women are each other’s only audience, and to a great extent each other’s only companions, that they seem, compared to women who play an intellectual and social part in the lives of men, like children in a baby-school.”[22]

Wharton even took the time to qualify her position based on the legal position of women in both countries:

“The French wife has less legal independence than the American or English wife, and is subject to a good many legal disqualifications from which women have freed themselves in other countries. That is the technical situation; but what is the practical fact? That the Frenchwoman has gone straight through these rhetorical restrictions to the heart of reality, and become her husband’s associate…”[23]

Ultimately, both Edith Wharton and Natalie Barney found in France what they could not in Gilded Age America, even as women of wealth and relative privilege. As different as the two women were — so different, in fact, that they steered clear of each other’s society — it can’t be argued that they were of a “type” that was somehow anomalous among their sex or class. In other words, neither could be labeled either individually or together as any one of the usual labels typically applied to women who went outside the norm, such as communist/anarchist or even “New Woman.”

Certainly, they were not the only women of the Gilded Age to defect from the United States to live in the more liberal surroundings of France or elsewhere in Europe. Rather, Wharton and Barney were pioneers who used their wealth and social class privilege to secure their freedom from social and intellectual servitude. In doing so, they proved that not all women of the privileged class were resigned to be “Dollar Princesses” or to flit around Europe plundering its finery old and new. As the Gilded Age waned and the Progressive Era waxed, an increasing number of intrepid women from diverse backgrounds followed suit, finding in France the sexual, intellectual, and racial equality they were bereft of in the United States.

Today, a century after Edith Wharton and Natalie Barney made France their permanent home, the following statement by Wharton might make some wonder just how far America has “grown up.” While definitely out of kindergarten in terms of gender equality, current events may cast doubt on whether the country has yet entered high school.

“No nation can have grown-up ideas till it has a ruling cast of grown-up men and women; and it is possible to have a ruling caste of grown-up men and women only in a civilisation where the power of each sex is balanced by that of the other.”[24]

[1] The Gilded Age was a period that lasted from roughly the 1870s to the early 1900s, and was named after Mark Twain’s 1873 novel, “The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today.”

[2] Veblen (1857–1929) was an economist and sociologist of the period of political and social reform known as the Progressive Era, which was a reaction to the excesses of the Gilded Age.

[3] Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class. 1899. New York: Dover, 1994, 112.

[4] ibid 111

[5] Born into a prominent and wealthy family, Jane Addams (1860–1935) co-founded Hull House in Chicago in 1889 and the ACLU in 1920. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. She never married, instead dedicating her life to social work and political activism.

[6] Alva Belmont, née Alva Erskine Smith and previously Alva Vanderbilt as the wife of William Kissam Vanderbilt, (1853–1933) arrived somewhat late in life to the cause of women’s suffrage, but, when she did arrive, she dedicated herself tirelessly.

[7] Born Edith Newbold Jones in New York in 1862 to a family of old New York “aristocracy.” She died in France in 1937.

[8] Natalie Clifford Barney was born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1876, to very wealthy parents of a far more mixed background than Wharton. She died in Paris in 1972.

[9] Lee, Hermione. Edith Wharton. New York: Vintage Books, 2007, 187–8.

[10] Wharton, Edith. A Backward Glance. New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, 1934, 119.

[11] Wharton, Edith. French Ways and Their Meanings. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1919, 113.

[12] Wharton, Edith. “To Barrett Wendell.” 19 Jul. 1919. The Letters of Edith Wharton. Eds. R.W.B. Lewis and Nancy Lewis. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1988, 424.

[13] Wharton (A Backward Glance) 257

[14] Benstock, Shari. Women of the Left Bank: Paris, 1900–1940. Texas: University of Texas Press, 2010 ed., 40–41.

[15] Wharton (French Ways…) 111

[16] Barney, Natalie Clifford. “Predestined for Free Choice.” Eparpillements. Paris: Sansot, 1910. Trans./Rpt. in A Perilous Advantage: The Best of Natalie Clifford Barney. Ed./Trans. Anna Livia. Arizona: New Victoria Publishers, 2015 Epub ed.

[17] Benstock 268

[18] Jay, Karla. Introduction. A Perilous Advantage: The Best of Natalie Clifford Barney. Ed./Trans. Anna Livia. Arizona: New Victoria Publishers, 2015 Epub ed.

[19] L’Académie Française was created in 1635 as the official authority on the French language.

[20] Barney

[21] Wharton (French Ways…) 100–101

[22] ibid 101–102

[23] ibid 105–106

[24] ibid 113


Originally published at abitofhistoryblog.wordpress.com on August 30, 2017.