An upper-class member of New York high society, Edith Wharton did not need to write for a living because she was born among what would now be called the top tenth of the "one-percent": a set of fabulously wealthy families whose riches came from mining, stock investment, and property ownership in an era before income tax had been invented. Her maiden surname was Jones (as in, "keeping up with the Joneses").
Born in 1862 during the Civil War, Miss Jones received a liberal education that, while less than what she wanted, included a great deal of self-directed reading and writing along with extensive travel through Europe after the end of the war. This gave her an international perspective that led her to reject many of the fashions and standards imposed on young women of the day. She began writing herself in her teens, and her first work was published under a pseudonym. She also became a qualified architect and interior decorator, and wrote books about interior design.
Wharton's fiction attracted a great deal of attention because, unlike most authors, she could write about the habits and mannerisms of the upper class from direct experience. One of her best known novels, "The House of Mirth", was written in 1905. It, and many of her other works, are often regarded as "novels of manners" because a reader can deduce so much about social mores and behavioral customs particularly with what was (or was not) deemed acceptable behavior. In 1921, she became the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for literature for "The Age of Innocence". Compared to these two novels, "The Old Maid" (which could more correctly be regarded as a novella) is simplistic and short, with a linear plot and a much smaller cast of characters.
"The Old Maid" begins in the 1840s, with two fictional female characters preparing for Charlotte's marriage to the scion of a wealthy, conservative family. It brushes lightly over the intervening years in a plot-centric fashion, developing very little in terms of the characters but permitting the author a great deal of exposition. The concluding chapters are set in the 1860s, prior to the Civil War. Like many of Wharton's novels, "The Old Maid" is set in the city of New York and features members of the upper class. It reflects some of the racial and ethnic stereotypes common to wealthy New Yorkers of that era, because Edith Wharton, like many of her contemporaries, held racist opinions that would not become socially unacceptable until long after the Civil War. However some of the concepts introduced in the book have relevance to the modern world. Exactly what motherhood is (or should be), and the rights of a birth parent relative to those of an adoptive parent, are still important subjects to the modern reader.