Saturday, April 28, 2007

Review of the Lee biography in the International Herald Tribune

Lighting up rooms in Edith Wharton's vast house

By Claire Messud Published: April 27, 2007

Edith Wharton By Hermione Lee 869 pages, Alfred A. Knopf; £25, Chatto and Windus.

In her short story "The Fullness of Life," Edith Wharton wrote that a woman's life is like "a great house full of rooms," most of which remain unseen: "and in the innermost room, the holy of holies, the soul sits alone and waits for a footstep that never comes." In spite of the many books written about Wharton and her work - including R. W. B. Lewis's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1975 biography - it is Hermione Lee's determination to provide an unprecedented tour of all the rooms in Edith Wharton's mansion. The text is unquestionably authoritative, impressively - indeed, almost alarmingly - exhaustive (it includes lists of Wharton's neighbors, of fellow hotel guests, of the ads surrounding her published stories, of the wines in her cellars); and it seeks, with meticulous care, to approach the soul in her innermost sanctum.

This is a daunting undertaking: Edith Wharton was formidable, multifaceted, guarded and phenomenally busy. Between 1897 and 1937, the year of her death, she published at least one book a year. Altogether she wrote 48. Her posthumous reputation has suffered somewhat in comparison with that of her friend Henry James (as Lee points out, "to this day it is still rare for a book or an essay or a talk on Wharton not to mention James," though "this has not worked the other way"), but Wharton is a literary master - or mistress - in her own right. While only a handful of her books are still widely read, her finest fictions - including "The House of Mirth," "The Custom of the Country," "Ethan Frome" and "The Age of Innocence" - remain as affecting and engrossing today as when they first appeared (when many of them were best sellers), unsentimental illuminations of America in a time of social transition and rich explorations of the unspoken human heart. Moreover, as Lee's biography makes clear, Wharton was also significant as a designer, decorator, gardener, traveler and philanthropist, making her prolific literary production but a part of her life's work.

Edith Newbold Jones was born in New York City on Jan. 24, 1862, into considerable prosperity: "If the Joneses were not Astors or Vanderbilts," writes Lee, "they gave off a pretty well-upholstered air." Raised partly in Europe, like Henry James, she had two older brothers and a difficult mother. Her father, of whom she was immensely fond, died when Wharton was only 20. In her late teens she wrote a novel and published poems (including in The Atlantic Monthly), but she would not fulfill her literary promise until her middle years. At the age of 23, she married Teddy Wharton, an apparently solid if conventional man 12 years her senior, and embarked upon the life expected of a young woman of her station, settling near her mother in fashionable Newport, Rhode Island. While superficially comfortable, it was a time of constraint and depression. A move to Lenox, Massachusetts, in the Berkshires, entailed the design and construction of Wharton's famous house there, the Mount, which is now open to visitors, and to which a substantial portion of her library has recently been returned.

Following on the heels of her influential first book, "The Decoration of Houses" (1897), which she wrote with a friend, the architect Ogden Codman, the move coincided more or less with the publication of her first novel, "The Valley of Decision" (1902), and with her nonfiction book "Italian Villas and Their Gardens" (1904).

At about the age of 40, Edith Wharton at last came to life - at least professionally. The novel that made her name, "The House of Mirth," published in 1905, is the searing account of the struggles and spiraling descent of Lily Bart, a young woman whose youth is slipping away, and with it her prospects. As Lee observes, "she is always losing her opportunities, because she cannot quite turn herself into a commodity." Lily's failures reflect the importance of money, and self-marketing, for women in late-19th-century American society, and Wharton's assessment is brutal. The book was scandalous, and popular: it sold 30,000 copies in the first three weeks after its publication, and 140,000 in its first year.

In the wake of this success, Wharton became, in every sense, a grande dame, who could no longer complain that she was a failure in Boston because she was "too fashionable to be intelligent" and in New York because she was "too intelligent to be fashionable." In spite of this literary blossoming, and although she was bolstered by close male friends like Henry James and the aristocratic international lawyer Walter Berry (to whom she was so close, for so many years, that many wrongly assumed they were lovers), Wharton struggled with the isolation of an unsatisfying marriage, and with Teddy's increasingly erratic behavior. In 1906, the Whartons settled in Paris; and soon thereafter, through Henry James, she met the louche American journalist Morton Fullerton, with whom she had her life's one truly passionate love affair. Dashing and attractive, he was not a reliable choice: "When Morton Fullerton met Edith Wharton in 1907, he had a potentially scandalous homosexual past, a French wife whom he had divorced with startling rapidity, a blackmailing mistress in whose house he was still living (for convenience, not as a lover), and a frustrated career" - and that was just for starters. R. W. B. Lewis first revealed the details of this affair, but Lee provides a fuller picture of their intimacy, and of Wharton's moving vulnerability in the relationship. [more at the link above]

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