When Edith Wharton died in 1937 she was working on two books. One, The Buccaneers, a novel about vivacious young American heiresses marrying into Britain’s aristocracy, celebrates female vitality. The other was a collection of ghost stories. Together, they highlight qualities — dauntless energy, haunted responsiveness to the past — that, as Hermione Lee’s biography demonstrates, made her into America’s greatest woman novelist.
Wharton spent her early years in a world as strait-laced as a whalebone corset. The Old New York brownstone élite into which she was born in 1862 was a society stiff with plutocratic correctness, typified by her mother Lucretia, a glacial assemblage of expensive clothes and conventional attitudes. In this milieu, Edith’s bookishness marked her out as a misfit (rumours that she must be illegitimate persisted). Her first attempt, aged 11, at a novel, which began “ ‘Oh, how do you do, Mrs Brown?’ said Mrs Tompkins. ‘If only I had known you were going to call I should have tidied up the drawing-room’ ”, was returned by her mother with the icy comment, “Drawing-rooms are always tidy.” A photograph of her as a debutante, rigid in flounced finery, testifies to the strain she felt.
The “suitable” marriage she was steered into at 23 intensified this. An affable, sporty duffer unable to rise to what he called Edith’s “high plain of thought”, Teddy Wharton proved a disastrous husband. Marital misery (later a prominent theme in her fiction) soon took its toll. Nervous prostrations plagued them both. Sexually, the marriage seems to have been more or less a nonstarter. Emotionally and intellectually, there was an ever-widening gulf. After years of increasingly unstable behaviour, Teddy (like his father, who committed suicide in an asylum) sank into manic-depressive derangement.
Not surprisingly, thwarted lives and bids to escape them feature frequently in Wharton’s fiction. But it wasn’t, Lee reminds you, until the age of 43, with The House of Mirth, her bestselling novel about the elegant savageries of Gilded Age New York, that she made her literary breakthrough. Before that, her pent-up energies found vent in marathons of reading, the creation of an imposing country house and garden in New England, and increasingly adventurous travels. Motoring became a passion (exhilaratingly transmitted in travelogues about her “braveries of far excursionism”, as her friend and sometimes fellow-passenger, Henry James, put it). Europe bewitched and liberated her. The autobiography she wrote in her seventies glows with scenes recalled from visits there as a child: artists’ models lounging among daffodils and violets on Rome’s Spanish Steps, scarlet and gold cardinals rumbling though Trastevere in their coaches at twilight, Second Empire beauties swaying in open carriages under the chestnut trees of the Bois de Boulogne. As her career blossomed, she spent more and more time first in Italy, then France, where she lived for her last three decades.
Devoting two-thirds of its length to these French years, Lee’s biography differs from previous ones in emphasising Wharton’s European experiences such as her prodigies of relief work for her adopted country during the first world war (she ran an organisation that, she calculated, helped 9,229 refugees, served 235,000 meals and distributed 48,333 garments to the needy in its first year alone). There are also detailed accounts of the homes, the Pavillon Colombe north of Paris and Ste-Claire-le-Château overlooking Hyères on the Riviera, between which she divided her post-war summers and winters. True to the large-scale lifestyle to which inherited wealth and even greater literary earnings accustomed her, she considered the Pavillon, a three-storey, 18th-century gem, to be a “tiny bungalow”. Ste-Claire, which had seven bedrooms, six bathrooms, a dining room, drawing room, study, 2,000-volume library, morning room, kitchen, scullery, pantry, linen-room, sewing-room and butler’s “brushing room”, was “minuscule”.
Closer attention is given here than elsewhere to Wharton’s secret affair, not long before the terminal breakdown of her marriage, with Morton Fullerton, an American journalist in Paris with a gaudy history of bisexual liaisons and blackmail threats. Her emotional letters to him, a burningly candid private journal she kept during their two years as lovers and an achingly erotic poem about a parting night of passion in a railway hotel convey, as if in some unsparing, voluptuous novella by Colette, the grateful pleasure, confusion and humiliation of a physically inexperienced woman in her forties entangled with a silkily proficient philanderer.