The Real Edith Wharton
April 22, 2007
The real Edith Wharton (1862-1937) was, to be sure, born in New York City into a well-to-do family that knew its way around the haunts of the hoi polloi. (This despite its common, arguably ignoble surname: She began life as Edith Newbold Jones.)
In Hermione Lee's rich new biography, which makes exhaustive use of "hitherto untapped sources" (mainly, its subject's lesser known nonfiction writings), we are made constantly aware of the tensions between social convention and obligation, and of a penetrating intellect's compulsion to excavate the sources and consequences of social and (quite frequently) sexual irregularity and transgression.
As she did in her masterly analytical biography of Virginia Woolf, Ms. Lee "reads" her subject's oeuvre and life as products of a brilliant woman's disciplined determination to move beyond the limitations of her upbringing and class and excel in the man's world of literary achievement. The resulting portrait of an artist certainly complements, and probably surpasses, R.W.B. Lewis' much admired and honored Wharton biography of more than 30 years ago.
Ms. Lee begins her study on a note that would be struck again and again throughout Wharton's lifetime: A trip to Paris made by Wharton's parents in 1848 (when a later French revolution was underway) is juxtaposed with Wharton's own experience of France in 1914, when she would not be content to stand and watch a civilization she adored succumb under foreign attack.
It was the pattern of Edith's life: foreign travel, residence abroad and an eventual drawing away from what she would perceive as the commercialization and cultural devaluation of her native country.
Ms. Lee offers a plaintive picture of the young Edith, indulged and encouraged in her pursuit of learning and "childhood passion for the sound of words," even as she was being groomed for entry into a society for which her parents only barely qualified. Her well meaning father's suspect earning capacity was further compromised by her imperious and foolish mother's lavish spending sprees.
It was thus all but inevitable that Edith would be married off to the ostensibly proper Bostonian Edward "Teddy" Wharton, a wan underachiever and a probable homosexual who failed to satisfy any of his ardent young spouse's needs. (Long-available evidence strongly suggests that the marriage remained unconsummated for some time, and its inevitable end was divorce.)
She was fortunate enough to have several outlets for her energies. The Atlantic Monthly had published poems written when she was a teenager (poetry was not her forte, as she quickly realized). An early product of her lifelong interest in interior design and landscape architecture and gardening was her first book, "The Decoration of Houses," written in collaboration with her friend Ogden Codman. It was generously praised as an authoritative work on its subject.
And there was travel -- to her beloved France (whence her family repeatedly returned, and where Wharton would spend her later years alone) and to Italy (which comprised "a theatre for Wharton, in which she saw acted out the survival of the ancient and the classical").
The organization of Ms. Lee's book, as thematic as it is chronological, allows the biographer to treat major themes in depth, showing their relevance to the entire span of her life and work.
Her chapter on "Italian Backgrounds," perhaps Ms. Lee's finest, thus considers both the romance and the realism Wharton gleaned from her Italian experiences (e.g., in her perception of how "the sense of ordinary lives" permeates Italian fiction, drama and even grand opera) and its specific relevance to the development of her fiction -- in Wharton's arduously researched first novel, the historical romance "The Valley of Decision." [more at the link above]