by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
We face a pandemic, the dawn of the new ’20s, and — we hope — the giddy rush of prosperity as reward and consolation for the world’s recent troubles. It won’t be as good as that. The first Jazz Age, wasn’t, either. I was reminded of this when returning to Edith Wharton’s overlooked satire of the modern society of the 1920s, Twilight Sleep.
The novel revolves around the ceaseless activity and enthusiasms of Pauline Manford, a remarried woman determined to be modern. The novel is observed through the eyes of Pauline’s daughter, Nona. While not a celebrity, Pauline Manford is a prototype of Gwyneth Paltrow — the figure at the center of a group of other society women who are obsessed with doing good for others, by way of a spiritual renewal, spirituality being the province of gurus and Eastern mystics, naturally.
Nona observes that “whatever the question dealt with, these ladies always seemed to be the same, and always advocated with equal zeal Birth Control and unlimited maternity, free love or the return to the traditions of the American home; and neither they nor Mrs. Manford seemed aware that there was anything contradictory in these doctrines. All they knew was that they were determined to force certain persons to do things that those persons preferred not to do.”
Pauline, busybody that she is, focuses her energy on faraway tragedies and moral enormities. She hopes to save the poor Bolivians from their earthquakes, maybe by teaching the Bolivians “not to believe in earthquakes, for instance.”
Nona has less use for this updated, deranged, and decadent take on Victorian moral striving. She belongs “to another generation: to the bewildered disenchanted young people who had grown up since the Great War.”