Sunday, April 01, 2007

The Disillusionment Of Edith Wharton

March 28, 2007

The growing public acceptance of Edith Wharton as an American classic, accompanied as it has been in recent years with a spate of life studies and the restoration in Lenox, Mass., of her beautiful house and garden, together with the installation of her reassembled library, was bound to be followed in time by a definitive biography. Hermione Lee has now splendidly supplied this in "Edith Wharton" (Knopf, 762 pages, $35). She has given us what appears to be the totality of Wharton's life and accomplishments: not only the great novels, such as "The House of Mirth" and "The Custom of the Country," dramatizations of the cost in human lives of the American pursuit of wealth, but also, and in copious detail, the story of Wharton, the indefatigable gardener, the innovative decorator of houses, the tireless wartime worker in Paris for the refugees and the wounded, and the wide world traveler. Had Ms. Lee written a life of Jesus, there would have been a scholarly chapter on carpentry.

Wharton was born in 1862 to a highly respectable and conservative New York family who belonged to the small but tightly organized brownstone society that then dominated the city, but which was soon to find that it could only survive by accepting a merger with the robber barons whose huge fortunes had been made after the Civil War. Indeed, this very merger would be the subject of Wharton's finest books. But this fiction did not appear in her early years; she seemed more or less content to lead the life of a society matron, wed to a socially acceptable but uninteresting man, until she was nearing 40. Most of her biographers see the frustrations of an incompatible and perhaps even unconsummated marriage as forcing her into the refuge of creative writing, and Ms. Lee notes all the theories, but the evidence is scant, and much of the mystery of the development of art in a gifted human is left, inevitably, in the dark. We simply know that at forty-three she sprang up in her world as the famous author of the nationally renowned best seller "The House of Mirth" and thereafter produced an average of one book a year until her death at age 75. But there was never any idea of her being just an author. She wanted a full life, and her glory was that she had it. Her tragedy was that, deeply lonely and romantic heart, she also wanted a great love, and she never had it. Her husband was half insane, and her one lover a bounder.

Ms. Lee expounds the hopelessness of her marriage which lasted for 27 years and shouldn't have lasted for one. Teddy Wharton, aside from the golf course and hunting field, had nothing to do; he wouldn't learn French even when his wife moved him to Paris in search of a wider literary milieu than New York seemed to offer, and he was desperately bored by the intellectual chatter of her circle of rather epicene male friends. Edith did her best with him; she traveled with him; she paid for him (the money was hers); she didn't mind his girlfriends even when he supported them with money he embezzled from her trust. But when his mind unsettled, she had to divorce him. No modern woman would have waited so long.

He never had the humiliation, so far as we know, of learning of her affair with Moreton Fullerton when she was 46. Ms. Lee believes it was the sole affair of her lifetime, and she kept it very secret except for a few intimates, one of whom was Henry James. She adored Fullerton, but he was simply interested in adding her distinguished name to the long list of his conquests of both sexes. She could only grimly accept that the whole thing had been an error and return to her true vocation. The posthumous discovery of her project for a story about incest between a father and daughter, accompanied by pornographic details, has given rise to much lurid speculation among those who cannot conceive of a writer of fiction putting anything on paper that he hasn't done or wanted to do. Ms. Lee makes little of these, presumably being sensibly aware that most novelists have periods of experimental lasciviousness and often scribble them down. They're usually careful to destroy them — that's all.

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