Sunday, January 16, 2005

From The Scotsman:

The naked truth

FROM HER DESK IN AN OAK-PANELLED room in New York Public Library, Hermione Lee can see the tattered remains of the splendid building on the corner of Fifth Avenue and East 42nd Street where the aristocratic, 17-year-old Edith Wharton had her coming-out party.

This being New York, of course, a new building is currently going up on the site, but Lee, a distinguished critic and award-winning biographer, is relishing living in the middle of the childhood landscape of the American novelist, who is the subject of her next biography - previous subjects include Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen and Willa Cather - which she is writing in the city while on a year’s unpaid leave from Oxford University, where she is a Fellow of New College.

. . . . .
While in New York she has turned down countless requests to lecture at American universities, although she has lectured at Princeton and the university’s press will publish a selection of her Body Parts essays under the title Virginia Woolf’s Nose. Edith Wharton and her body of work are, however, all-consuming. "I’m drawn to women writers who don’t have children and are rather self-concealing. I can’t think why. Although I don’t have children I do have five step-grandchildren and I’m very open about my own life."

Interview over, we repair for drinks to the Century Club on West 43rd Street, one of those imposing New York literary institutions where the members look so venerable that they might have been guests at Wharton’s coming-out ball. Indeed, whispers Lee, her eyes bright with mischief behind her spectacles, you almost expect a rather grand Edith Wharton and Henry James to walk in and begin conversing by the blazing log fire.

We both giggle - ever so quietly - at the thought. "There are times when Edith makes me laugh, so I have to ironise her," Lee says, draining her whisky glass. "She was so bossy sometimes. Although I do admire her tremendously: she was awesome, as they say here. Nevertheless, thank goodness I only write about dead people."

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