The very name Edith Wharton suggests wealth, privilege, social exclusivity and snobbery. Hermione Lee unifies her sprawling and masterful 2007 biography of Wharton by emphasizing the writer’s alienation from her American upbringing and her simultaneous attachment to European culture and values. The biography depicts not only Wharton’s life and times but also delves into her psyche and illuminates the origins of her work. She published 48 books including novels, short stories, poems, travel essays, and articles on landscaping, gardening and home décor. Commendably, Lee’s purpose is not to vilify nor to sanctify her subject, but to present her as she was. But in the end Wharton comes off as an impressive person, a literary legend and an accomplished leader in other spheres. With determination she employed her natural intelligence and wit as well as her psychological insight to portray the East Coast’s privileged class. Wharton’s never-ending intellectual self-formation will impress Lee’s readers.
Edith Newbold Jones was born in New York in 1862, in the midst of the Civil War. Her parents and ancestors were distinguished for their money and their commitment to leisure and spending. Clearly, it was her father who was the favorite parent. Edith remembers that her father’s chief rule of conduct was to be kind and that her judgmental mother was perpetually alert for “ill-breeding.” In her fiction the theme of “a missed chance in life” appears frequently. Lee speculates that the seed for this idea was Edith’s father.
Red-haired, shy, awkward and eager to please, Edith was in love with the sound of words and passionate about dogs. Because her two brothers were much older she felt like an only child. She also felt an incompatibility between her parents. At a very young age she began reading the books in her father’s library and making up stories. She was a sensitive, talented child constrained by her mother’s “narrow standard of correctness,” another idea that would appear over and over again in her fiction.
Though she was precocious, Edith occasionally misinterpreted words. Comically, Lee writes that Edith thought the word “adultery” had to do with train fares. She had seen signs announcing that the adult fare was one dollar and children’s fare was fifty cents. She thought paying one dollar for a child’s train ride was committing adultery!
Still, Edith had a remarkable ear for language. Also, from an early age she possessed a powerful sense of drama. Despite the early manifestations of talent, her first major novel, the one that made her a household name, House of Mirth, was not published until 1905 when she was 38 years old. In it, as in The Age of Innocence (1920), Edith renders “a highly regulated society fighting a rearguard action against changes that it was, at the same time, assimilating.” In both novels resistance to social change is entrenched in the privileged class. With a nuance derived from personal experience she illuminates its snobbery, self-interest, conservatism, fear of the alien, complacency, and lack of imagination.
Edith goes beyond description to analyze her material:
How does a rich New Yorker behave on a weekend at a country house? Who gets invited, who sits next to whom, who goes to church, who plays bridge? How would a weekend on the Hudson differ from one in Newport or Long Island?
The plots of both House of Mirth and Age of Innocence are shaped by social ostracism and infiltrations by persons not quite “up to snuff.” Perhaps it was a deep-seated fear of social ostracism that pushed Edith, at the age of 23, into a dreadful marriage. Teddy Wharton, twelve years her senior, was lacking in many ways but at least he was socially acceptable. From a prominent Boston family, Teddy was a friend of Edith’s older brother, Harry. At the time of their courtship he was “blusteringly genial.” Lee describes him as “a jolly chap, a big, handsome, fit, mustachioed sportsman, full of fun.” Lee notes that Teddy “did not read much, he was not interested in ideas, and his conversational and writing skills were as primitive as those of many sports-loving, outdoor American gentlemen of leisure.”
The marriage was a sexual disaster from the first, and Edith’s misery and frustration expressed themselves as illness and depression. Edith “sidestepped the narrow confines of marriage through reading, friendships, and, above all, writing.” She left Teddy far behind intellectually and emotionally. Not surprisingly, Wharton’s fiction is filled with husbands who are not on their wives’ “plane of thought,” and claustrophobic and incarcerating marriages. The two were married for nearly a quarter century during which time Teddy’s emotional instability intensified into mental illness.
Well into the biography Lee paints a vivid verbal picture of her subject when she is 45 years old and settled in Paris:
Edith was looking handsome and fine, in her dark furs and silks, her laces and pearls and elegant hats, her long, serious face with its dark eyes and strongly arched eyebrows and ironical smile softened by a great sweep of dark-reddish hair pinned up in a loose bun. She was not beautiful – her nose was too long, her chin too heavy and square, her build too stocky and her smile too tight, and her expression still showed something of that nervous apprehensive reserve that made her looks, in her twenties, so painfully tense. But intelligence and alertness, quick feeling and humor gleamed out of her face. In her day clothes she looked rich, poised and impressive; and in décolleté evening dress, glinting with a choker of pearls, the long pendants, the bracelets and pearl-drop earrings she liked, you could see that her bare arms were rounded and shapely, her breasts were large, her neck long and graceful. She was not tall, but she carried herself well.
This rendering of Edith is indeed a tour de force. Also, it is not only Teddy Wharton whom Lee portrays so capably. The other men in Edith’s life – namely, Walter Berry, Henry James, Morton Fullerton and Bernard Berenson – also come to life. Though immensely rich, Walter Berry was a hard-working American lawyer and diplomat particularly talented at Franco/American relationships. For years he represented the U. S. in Cairo. Late in Edith’s life, at the time of Berry’s death, she proclaimed that he was the only man she had ever loved. Lee concludes that their relationship, though emotionally intimate, was never sexual. The two inspired each other to pursue intellectual growth. Henry James and Edith were both professional colleagues and close personal friends who often traveled together.
Lee’s account of Edith’s romantic and sexual affair with Morton Fullerton is one of the book’s primary achievements. Wharton was in her mid-forties and still married to Teddy when she embarked on her “see-saw” relationship with Fullerton. According to the facts presented Fullerton appears outrageous, and readers will wonder why Edith was so besotted with him. Stationed in Paris, Fullerton was a journalist who worked for the Times of London. Lee points out that he was an “unreliable lover” and a “con-man.” When Fullerton met Edith he carried a lot of baggage including a scandalous homosexual past, a French wife whom he had divorced with “startling rapidity,” a blackmailing mistress, and an incestuous involvement with his half sister.
Aware of his wife’s affair, the unstable Teddy reacted by speculating with her money and embarking on a sexual affair of his own. Inevitably Edith’s critics blamed her affair with Fullerton for exacerbating Teddy’s mental breakdown.
Bernard Berenson, the world’s most celebrated art historian – an expert on the provenance and quality of paintings – was drawn to Edith because of her social class, literary fame, intelligence, culture and endless energy. Edith concurred with Berenson’s contention that fine art offered intense pleasure and immeasurably increased human consciousness. Their platonic friendship was deep and life-long.
At last, when doctors diagnosed Teddy with irreversible mental illness, Edith divorced him. Though she understood that she had no alternative, she felt like she had failed. Ideas stemming from her social class and upbringing made the dissolution of a marriage seem like a violation of the very foundation of civil morality.
In the dark days of the divorce process Edith distracted herself by writing another major novel, a powerful work of fiction, Ethan Frome. It marked a departure from her other fiction because it is not set in the sophisticated drawing rooms of New York’s rich and pedigreed. It takes place in the midst of snow blizzards on a poor, rural New England farm. It is, according to Lee, Wharton’s elegy to love and a portrayal of hopeless incarceration in a stifling marriage. She wrote it over a period of only a few months, and it was published in 1911.
Edith’s efforts during the Great War proved that her intelligence was not limited to the creation of abstract literature. Her War work reveals a versatile and practical mind and first-class leadership skills. She ran a network of refugee hostels throughout France, an invaluable contribution. Lee notes that the combination of Edith’s tireless work (She slept only five hours at night), her connections in high places, and servants doing “the heavy lifting” made the hostel project successful beyond measure.
Just after the war, between September of 1919 and March of 1920, she wrote another major novel, The Age of Innocence. Many ideas weave through the tapestry of this book, which is about an interloper threatening a tightly-knit collection of New York’s rich during the late 1800s. One idea she highlights is that the intensity of old-fashioned, thwarted love may be as passionate as the freedom of modern sexuality. The fact that the Age of Innocence won the Pulitzer Prize attests to its excellence. Age 58, Wharton had not lost her touch.
Lee does not skimp in covering her subject’s final years. Edith acquired two magnificent homes – one in a rural village one half hour out of Paris, and the other in the South of France. Both manifested tradition, beauty, taste and exclusiveness. As Edith’s health failed, gardening and art history became her anchors. She died in 1937 at age 75.
Lee’s biography is not without flaws – for example, it includes too much detail – but its strong points far outweigh them. Lee portrays Edith Wharton without judgment, wisely leaving that to her readers.