A third of the way through her absorbing new biography of Edith Wharton, Hermione Lee pauses to consider her subject's erotic appeal to Morton Fullerton, the notorious rogue she'd taken, in midlife, as her lover. "Exposing the concealed, thwarted, passionate self hidden under the gloves and furs could have been very intriguing to a certain kind of curious, adventurous sensualist," she writes. And, perhaps, to a certain kind of biographer?
. . .
IDEAS: Wharton's reputation has shifted drastically over the years.
LEE: Well, in her lifetime, starting with "The House of Mirth" in 1905, she became hugely popular and an enormous bestseller. Then, in the 1930s, with the Depression, and the radical change of style and much more openness coming in about sexuality, she began to be seen as frosty and old-fashioned and as kind of a minor feminine Henry James. So from her death in 1937 through the '60s she languished.And then interesting things happened: the big biography in 1975 by R.W.B. Lewis; the publication of quite a lot of posthumous papers, which changed our sense of her; the feminist movement of the late '60s and early '70s, when Wharton, like a lot of other women writers, was given a new standing. And, of course, the movies.
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IDEAS: Yet even now, she's still seen as a passionless woman.
LEE: Unfair to Edith! Morton Fullerton clearly found her rather erotic, and he was a specialist in those things. When he finally delivers his copy of "Terminus" -- the long, Whitmanesque poem that she wrote after their night of love in the Charing Cross Hotel (which, I must say, is the most unromantic building in all of London) -- to Elisina Tyler, Edith's closest woman friend, years after Edith's death, he says that her reputation for being cold and icy was unjustified.
Besides, you can see from the writing how much she knew about sex and sexuality. "The Reef" is the most amazing novel about someone who hasn't been very sexy suddenly having all these sexual emotions of jealousy and dependency and humiliation. It's very close to the bone.
IDEAS: The Fullerton years are pretty juicy. Why did this strong, independent woman fall for such a cad?
LEE: Well, women do, don't they? The really interesting thing is the way the affair -- which lasted two or three years maximum -- seemed to reenact and anticipate an Edith Wharton novel. Her letters to him, and the way he let her down, and the fact that she couldn't lean on him during her husband's mental illness and the breakdown of her marriage. . . .You can see Fullerton distancing himself, backing off, thinking, "Oh this is more than I bargained for." It's just like one of her stories, like "The Long Run," or Lawrence Selden in "The House of Mirth." It's almost as if she picked the sort of person she already knew about from her fiction. The magnificent letters she wrote to Fullerton could have come straight from the mouth of one of her heroines.
IDEAS: She was also deeply invested in style, as you point out, and caught up in the conversations at the turn of the century about the morality of taste.
LEE: One of the fascinating things about Edith's relationship to Europe is how much she was enthralled to Flaubert and Stendhal and Balzac. She wanted to write novels of society and novels of manners -- not about isolated individuals -- that's for sure. And she wanted to write with the utmost, Flaubertian objectivity. So she never says "I" in the fiction; she says "I" in the poetry (which I think is much less good than the fiction).
Yet her own life plays through in many complicated ways in all her writing. She was wedded to the idea of objectivity, control, shape, form -- she's a great shaper of sentences, sentence by sentence on the page; at her best she's a remarkable stylist. But at the same time she didn't want to be classified as a sentimental woman novelist, in the way that often happens in that period: she's harsh, strong, powerful, direct, often kind of barren and plain.