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]

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Review of the Lee biography from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Lee, a Brit who previously wrote 900 pages about Virginia Woolf, is a traditional biographer who seldom rises above the mountain of minutiae culled from letters, diaries and library collections.

She leaves the psychoanalysis to others, preferring to investigate her subject's pets, furs, paintings, friendships and incessant trips to Italy.

There are serious attempts to interpret Wharton's writings, but in Lee's approach, the works come across as just another activity like designing a garden. I never got the sense of what Wharton's writing process was amid the clutter of her overstuffed rooms.

As for her subject's views on society, including Jews and blacks, Lee confines her comments to a few pages among the 762, preferring to prepare a kind of Sotheby's catalog instead of Wharton's possessions. She also assumes that her readers know French, an assumption that can further slow the nearly funereal pace.

Sadly, after reading Hermione Lee's treatment of Edith Wharton, I will need some time before the memory of her dullness passes and I can read the novelist with anticipation again.

Review of the Lee biography

From the Washington Times

The Real Edith Wharton

April 22, 2007

She is, according to many estimates, America's finest female writer. (Ardent admirers of Willa Cather may disagree.) In other estimates,she looms as a frosty grande dame whose elegant fictions feature socialites and social climbers engaged in well-mannered mortal combat.
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]

Thursday, April 12, 2007

John Updike reviews Hermione Lee's new Edith Wharton biography

The life of Edith Wharton is not an inspiriting rags-to-riches saga, nor is it a cautionary tale of riches to rags—riches to riches, rather. Born Edith Newbold Jones, in January of 1862, into one of the leading families of New York—the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” is said to have originated with reference to her great-aunts Mary and Rebecca Jones, who shocked the rest of their staid society by building a mansion north of Fifty-seventh Street, unthinkably uptown in the nineteenth century—the author maintained multiple establishments and travelled in the highest style, with a host of servants, augmenting her several inheritances by writing best-selling fiction. In the Depression year of 1936, when two thousand dollars was a good annual income, her writing earned her a hundred and thirty thousand, much of it from plays adapted from her works. Yet her well-padded, auspiciously sponsored life was not an easy one. The aristocratic social set into which she was born expected its women to be ornamental, well-sheltered, intellectually idle agents of their interwoven clans, whereas Edith was an awkward, red-haired bookworm and dreamer, teased by her two older brothers about her big hands and feet and out of sympathy with her intensely conventional mother, née Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander—a mother-daughter disharmony that rankled in Edith’s fiction to the end. She felt like a changeling, writing, in a last, unfinished effort of autobiography, “Life and I,” that her parents “were beginning to regard me with fear, like some pale predestined child who disappears at night to dance with ‘the little people.’ ”

In truth, some of her imaginative activity was alarming, as she describes it; from the age of four or five she would march up and down the house with a book in hand, pretending to read aloud words that she concocted in an “ ‘ecstasy’ of invention.” In “Life and I,” she writes of “the rapture of finding myself again in my own rich world of dreams” and of “the ecstasy which transported my little body.” Her mother disapproved and attempted to distract her with suitable playmates; her father’s library was the site of her reading pleasure, as she lay stretched out on the rug. George Frederic Jones had graduated from Columbia College, sat on charitable boards, and had inherited enough money to keep up (just barely) with his wife’s expenditures. Thrift and a dip in the family fortune prompted him to move the family to Italy and France, with their dollar-friendly economies, between 1866 and 1872; Edith returned, at the age of ten, knowing French, Italian, and German, and with a lifelong love of Europe.

In 1881, the family went again to Europe, this time for the father’s health; he and Edith saw sights in Italy with Ruskin’s writing as their guide. But George Frederic Jones died the following year, in Cannes, at the age of sixty-one, when Edith was twenty. She gave him credit for her bookish, culturally voracious side, though in her memoir “A Backward Glance” she credits her mother with arranging the private printing of her first book, “Verses,” when Edith was sixteen. Others remembered it as her father’s idea, and on her deathbed she assigned her father credit. In 1905, when “The House of Mirth” was published, to great success and acclaim, she wrote to a friend, “I often think of Papa, and wish he could have been here to encourage me with my work.” Yet had he lived, her unhappy married life, and her eventual blooming into one of the twentieth century’s finest American writers, might well have taken other turns, to posterity’s loss. The upper crust builds thick inhibitions around its would-be writers; a live father and a more compatible husband might have kept Wharton’s rather dour, frequently satiric genius sealed in a carapace of good manners and amateurish diffidence.

As Wharton’s reputation gradually emerged, after her death, in 1937, from under the cloud of her late, commercially successful but critically denigrated novels and the impression they reinforced of a facile, popular “lady novelist,” she has not lacked for biographical and critical attention. Her literary executor, Gaillard Lapsley, a conservative Cambridge historian, sold her manuscripts and letters to Yale, embargoing “anything of a biographical sort” for thirty years. However, in the mid-nineteen-forties he invited Percy Lubbock, another Cambridge scholar whom Wharton had met through Henry James, to compose a memoir of her, which to some other of her acquaintances seemed a poor caricature. The embargo was lifted in 1968, and Louis Auchincloss’s friendly, elegantly illustrated brief biography, “Edith Wharton: A Woman in Her Time,” followed, in 1971. As early as 1966, a number of eminent American writers, including Edmund Wilson, Leon Edel, and Alfred Kazin, had been considered by the custodians of the Wharton lode for the authorized biography; the Yale professor R. W. B. Lewis was chosen. His “Edith Wharton: A Biography” came out in 1975, winning the Pulitzer Prize, and it remains, more than thirty years later, the gold standard—the Wharton biography that most people have read. Now an equally long and territorially similar biography, simply titled “Edith Wharton” (Knopf; $35), has been produced by Hermione Lee, the first female Goldsmiths’ Professor of English Literature at Oxford and the author of book-length studies of Elizabeth Bowen, Willa Cather, and Philip Roth, and of a greatly admired, nearly nine-hundred-page biography of Virginia Woolf. The reader peruses her biography of Wharton, watchful for the ways in which it differs from, and improves on, Lewis’s.

Lee tells us that her Wharton “makes use of the recent publication of her letters to Léon Bélugou and Louis Bromfield, draws on a large scatter of unpublished letters . . . and follows her trail more closely in France, Italy, and England.” These are real additions to the record, but nothing on the sensational order of the revelations that Lewis’s biography contained: an account of Wharton’s passionate affair, from 1908 to 1910, with the hitherto obscure journalist Morton Fullerton; the publication, in an appendix, of an enthusiastically pornographic fragment of an unfinished story titled “Beatrice Palmato”; and the inclusion, complete, in Lewis’s text of a long, long-lined poem, “Terminus,” addressed to Fullerton in the hot wake of his embraces in the Charing Cross Hotel.

[Continued at the link above]

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Edith Wharton on Entourage

About the HBO series Entourage (from Newsday)

Amanda envisions a whole new career track for Vince, away from the action-adventure genre ("Aquaman") toward soft-edged chick flicks and period pieces. Where Ari saw a budding Schwarzenegger or (at the very least) a Tobey Maguire in Vince, Amanda sees a Hugh Grant or (at the very least) a Colin Firth. She even actually reads scripts and offers her new client a Sam Mendez-directed treatment of "Glimpses of the Moon." For a show hardly ever given to them, that's a cute little literary inside joke referring to Edith Wharton's novel about a pair of penniless flappers from the 1920s who learn to live off of well-heeled friends - just like Vince's posse.

Ari, naturally, seethes from afar. He explodes when he sees Vince and Amanda court-side at a Lakers' game - "that's the house that I built!" - and is contemptuous of the Wharton idea. "You know Edith Wharton," he tells Lloyd (Rex Lee). "The guy can't [have sex with] the woman for five years because thoooooose were the times...."

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.

from the London Review of Books

Short Cuts

Deborah Friedell

Edith Wharton’s characters are always getting into trouble at the theatre. In The Age of Innocence, it’s the place where Newland Archer first meets the disgraced Countess Olenska (and is mortified, because everyone sees her in his fiancée’s box), and where, during a production of Boucicault’s The Shaughraun, he’s drawn to her. There are rules, of course, unwritten ones, acknowledged only when broken, about how to arrive (‘in a Brown coupé was almost as honourable a way of arriving as in one’s own carriage’) and when (‘it was “not the thing” to arrive early’). A woman, married or unmarried, must go with a suitable companion or not go at all: ‘One knew what to make of a woman who was “alone at the opera”.’ In The Custom of the Country, the parvenue Undine Spragg, who loves the theatre, persuades her father to rent her a night’s use of a box, but society makes her nervous, and she becomes ‘no longer capable of following the action on the stage’.

So it was with me. Hermione Lee’s biography of Edith Wharton was published on 1 February. On 2 February, I sat behind Professor Lee to watch Happy Days at the National. In Wharton’s story ‘His Father’s Son’, a man stealthily purchases, ‘under the shadow of the balcony, a stall whence he could observe the Bankshire box without fear of detection’; my proximity had happened by chance. My seat was P19 to Professor Lee’s N20 or N21, not sufficiently close to whisper a greeting, but close enough to offer one if I raised my voice. Only I couldn’t raise my voice. It would sound strident, be gauche and conspicuous: ‘Yoo-hoo, Hermione!’ I tried to catch her eye so as to bestow a little smile. A wave, a small one, wouldn’t be inappropriate, I decided – she had supervised my graduate thesis – and I permitted myself a coughing fit. But she still hadn’t seen me before, tout bonnement, up went the curtain.

I worried: what if she had seen me, and thought my failure to acknowledge her rude? I certainly didn’t want to bother her, but perhaps I should make an approach at the intermission? Talking during performances is perfectly comme il faut in Wharton – why else go to a show if not to talk to one’s friends? – so while Miss Shaw, up to her bosom in dirt, went on about existence, I asked my female companion for advice. My female companion said: ‘Shut up.’

These are not the easiest of times to be an American abroad, and for one brought up on 19th and early 20th-century Anglo-American novels, and little else, how could a move to England not induce all manner of anxieties? One lives in fear of appearing stupid and vulgar, pushy and ungrateful, of being grouped with those whom the ever correct Mrs Costello, in ‘Daisy Miller’, calls the ‘sort of Americans that one does one’s duty by not – not accepting’. And then there’s the edifying fate of Daisy Miller herself. When the American girl, in her ‘indestructible innocence, her invulnerable new-worldliness’, encounters the Old World, she is most probably doomed. Before I left America for graduate school, the professor who taught me James, noticing that my scholarship would pay for the support of a dependent spouse, told me to beware of fortune-hunters. I think she was kidding, but a Jamesian truth was perhaps not so far to seek: it was widely rumoured at Oxford that admissions standards for foreign students, who pay tuition up to five times the rate of home students, were increasingly lax. According to a recent Guardian report, to prevent a revenue shortfall British universities have budgeted for the number of foreign students to increase by 20 per cent within the next three years. They wanted us for our money.

. . .

Ruth Bernard Yeazell on Hermione Lee's bio of Wharton

Self-Made Man

Ruth Bernard Yeazell

Edith Wharton by Hermione Lee · Chatto, 853 pp, £25.00

Edith Wharton’s ‘background’ – the word is her own – has always seemed improbable for a future novelist. Persistent rumours that she was not the daughter of George Frederic Jones but the illegitimate offspring of a Scottish peer or an English tutor clearly attest to a sense that there was something otherwise inexplicable about this ambitious daughter of Old New York. Her autobiography, A Backward Glance (1934), says nothing about these rumours, but it is easy to see how her own accounts of the past would have fuelled them. Despite the fact that she recalled ‘making up’ stories from her first conscious moment, both her memoirs and her fiction represent the world of her childhood as pretty much impervious to the imagination. ‘In the well-regulated well-fed Summers world,’ her heroine recalls in The Reef (1912), ‘the unusual was regarded as either immoral or ill-bred, and people with emotions were not visited.’ Anna Leath’s memory of Old New York is scarcely distinguishable from her creator’s. ‘In a community composed entirely of people like her parents and her parents’ friends she did not see how the magnificent things one read about could ever have happened.’

Asked what she wished to be when she grew up, Lucretia Jones’s small daughter dutifully replied (as she later recorded it): ‘The best-dressed woman in New York.’ This is not the sort of ambition James Wood had in mind when he recently suggested in the LRB (4 January) that we owe half of English literature to the aspirant mother. Of course, those sensitive and ambitious women are usually the mothers of lower-class males; and in Wharton’s case, as in that of other 19th-century women writers, identifying with a father might have been more to the point. But while she speaks more fondly of her father than of her ‘beautifully dressed mother’, the most she can manage for his literary influence is a wistful fantasy of a ‘rather rudimentary love of verse’ – predictably stifled, as she imagines it, by his wife’s ‘matter-of-factness’ – and an immense debt of gratitude for his ‘gentleman’s library’.

That library is the scene of the child’s most formative experiences and the occasion for her warmest recollections of the past. Even her mother’s prohibition of novel-reading proves ironically fruitful, as it prevents her ‘wasting . . . time over ephemeral rubbish’ and throws her back instead to ‘the great classics’. Both the impressive range of Wharton’s later reading and her lifelong habits of self-education evidently had their origins here. Characteristically, the arrangement of domestic architecture doubles in her telling as an architecture of the self: ‘there was in me a secret retreat where I wished no one to intrude.’

Books offered a way out of Old New York; and by the time she published her autobiography, Wharton’s own library contained some four thousand of them, divided between her two houses in France. Yet in Wharton’s retrospective account of herself, the small child’s imaginative resistance to her environment precedes even the ability to decipher print. Edith had not yet learned to read when she first engaged in that ecstatic and solitary ritual she called ‘making up’: though she always required a book as a prop, the very unintelligibility of the pages with which she gestured permitted her to evoke whatever her fancy chose. Even before she was a reader, in other words, she was a storyteller; and the stories she was busy telling were of alternative worlds and alternative selves.

If there is some myth-making in this portrait of the artist, that myth is itself one of her many creations. Though the mature novelist would express great scorn for the American belief in perpetual self-improvement, the construction of Edith Wharton, as Hermione Lee’s biography demonstrates, was a lifelong activity. The absence of Wharton’s important women friends from A Backward Glance, Lee suggests, intensifies the impression that the achievement was the author’s alone. With formidable energy, she turned herself into an interior decorator, a writer, a charitable organiser, a war correspondent, an honorary Frenchwoman, a gardener; and at the height of her earning power, the proceeds from her books far exceeded the income she had inherited. Despite the substantial comfort into which she was born – or because of it – there is considerable truth in a friend’s joke that both Teddy Roosevelt and Edith Wharton were ‘self-made men’.

‘Atrophy,’ Lee notes, was one of Wharton’s key words; and ‘paralysis in America . . . what she most feared’. Though the spare New England setting of Ethan Frome (1911) is far removed from the well-stuffed interiors of Wharton’s childhood, the relentless plot of that novel, in which dreams of suicidal escape end in literal paralysis and the protagonist’s hated wife is nightmarishly doubled by his immobilised lover, grimly dramatises its author’s terror. Closer to home, and to the immobility against which the young Edith chafed, is the ‘static force’ of Lily Bart’s aunt in The House of Mirth (1905): ‘To attempt to bring her into active relation with life was like tugging at a piece of furniture which has been screwed to the floor.’ Long after Wharton herself had escaped first into writing and then to Europe, her narratives enter the cul-de-sac in which Lily passively colludes in her own destruction. But tugging at that furniture also gave her energy – so much so that she gleefully screwed it to the floor again and again. The satirical vehemence with which Wharton represents her parents’ world can make it easy to forget that the obdurate environment of Old New York is at least partly her creation too.

Furniture was more than a metaphor for Wharton. ‘You don’t know her till you have seen her as builder and restorer, designer, decorator, gardener,’ Henry James wrote to another impassioned interior decorator, their mutual friend Mary Hunter, in 1913. At the time, Wharton was contemplating the purchase of a substantial estate near where Hunter lived in Essex; but while this came to nothing, the novelist’s relations with domestic property loom almost as large in her history as her relations with books. An often repeated anecdote in A Backward Glance tells of her first attempt at novel-writing being summarily quashed by her literal-minded mother, who responded to the 11-year-old’s opening lines – ‘“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”’ – by icily observing: ‘Drawing-rooms are always tidy.’ That put a stop to fiction for a time. But Lucretia Jones’s capacity to freeze up her daughter’s energies should not obscure the premonitory significance of the exchange. From Wharton’s first published book, The Decoration of Houses, written with Ogden Codman in 1897, to the extravagant gardens at her French property in Hyères whose design she oversaw in her sixties, her imagination was deeply invested in the arrangement of domestic space. Though Mrs Edward (Teddy) Wharton began her married life in a ‘cottage’ on her mother’s Newport estate, a substantial legacy from a millionaire cousin in the late 1880s assured that none of her future drawing-rooms would belong to her mother. Codman worked with Wharton on houses for the couple in Newport and New York: Land’s End, an $80,000 mansion overlooking the Atlantic that she later described as ‘incurably’ ugly, and ‘a little shanty in Park Avenue’ that she and Teddy called the smallest house in New York. These were followed by her most famous residence in the US – the 35-room mansion known as The Mount in Lenox, Massachusetts – and eventually by apartments in Paris, an 18th-century villa near Fontainebleau, and the Provençal house that she named Ste-Claire-le-Château, built on the site of a 17th-century convent in the old part of Hyères. Only The Mount was constructed from scratch, but all bore the unmistakeable imprint of Wharton’s design.

A sophisticated gardener as well as interior decorator, whose Italian Villas and Their Gardens (1904) is still cited by writers on garden history, Wharton threw herself into the arrangement of plants and flowers with the same passion and eye for detail that she devoted to her books. Reconstructing gardens in print is not easy, but Lee makes a convincing case for the theatrical flair and colour of Wharton’s. Towards the end of her life, Wharton herself told a friend that she thought her gardens were ‘better than her books’. However that may be, they were clearly more ephemeral: one of the most poignant episodes in Lee’s biography concerns Wharton’s devastation when a catastrophic frost in the winter of 1928-29 wiped out virtually everything she had planted at Hyères. ‘How dangerous to care too much,’ she noted in her diary, ‘even for a garden!’

Wharton’s zeal for home-making had little to do with her feelings for her husband. Long before she divorced him in 1913, her publicly acknowledged affections attached themselves more to place than to family. ‘I feel as if I were going to get married – to the right man at last,’ she joked to a friend in anticipation of the move to Hyères in 1922. Though her marriage endured for 28 years, she and Teddy seem to have had scarcely anything in common apart from a zest for travel, a love of motor cars and a fondness for little dogs; and the increasing evidence of his mental illness – what we would now call bipolar disorder or manic depression – meant that most observers seem to have sympathised with the wife. ‘A divorce is always a good thing to have: you never can tell when you may want it,’ a friend advises the superbly vulgar heroine of The Custom of the Country (1913), the fierce satire of contemporary American mores that was appearing in serial form even as Wharton filed for divorce in a Paris court. Lee contends that previous biographers have unduly emphasised the ladylike reluctance with which Wharton took that step: once it had become clear that Teddy was impossible to live with, she argues, Wharton proceeded to free herself with grim determination. The heroine of The Custom of the Country is emphatically not her author; but neither the appetite nor the ambition of Undine Spragg (‘US’, in short) was altogether alien to her. Attacking the very ease with which the thrice-divorced Undine sheds inconvenient partners would have helped to drive home the difference.

At the age of 20, Edith Jones had been briefly engaged to a wealthy young man called Harry Stevens; but according to Town Topics, the sort of gossip rag she would send up in The House of Mirth, ‘an alleged preponderance of intellectuality on the part of the intended bride’ caused the engagement to be broken off. She first became acquainted with the lawyer and future diplomat Walter Berry in the aftermath of that engagement; in later years, many who knew them assumed that she and Berry were lovers. But the truth about this long-lived intimacy, as about much of Wharton’s private life, is elusive. Though she could make high comedy out of her mother’s habits of censorship, her own powers of concealment rivaled Lucretia’s. Berry’s death in 1927 may have left Wharton ‘utterly rudderless’, as she wrote to Bernard Berenson; but she still managed to get into his Paris apartment and to burn almost all the letters she had ever written to him. ‘No words can say, because such things are unsayable, how the influence of his thought, his character, his deepest personality, were interwoven with mine,’ she declared in A Backward Glance; but this is far from the only aspect of her history, as Lee makes clear, that is treated as ‘unsayable’. In that book Teddy himself puts in only the most minimal appearance, while he disappears entirely from the published records of their travels in Italy and France. Wharton’s mother once instructed her to ‘look out of the other window’ when the notorious mistress of a New York banker was passing in her carriage; and A Backward Glance sedulously looks elsewhere when it comes to the passionate affair the still-married author herself conducted with the journalist Morton Fullerton in her forties.

She would have thought it a bitter irony that Fullerton’s own casualness with his papers has made this one of her most extensively documented relationships. Wharton’s complete letters have yet to be published, but only Berenson appears more frequently as a correspondent in the selection edited by R.W.B. and Nancy Lewis in 1988. ‘I beg instant cremation for this,’ she was writing to Fullerton almost from the start; but the fact that the erotically adventurous Fullerton had already been the victim of one blackmail attempt does not seem to have made him wary about the survival of evidence. Yet Wharton’s instinct for privacy contended against her needs as a writer; and even before some three hundred of her letters to Fullerton mysteriously surfaced in 1985, R.W.B. Lewis was able to reconstruct the story of their affair from a secret diary that she had preserved and named, after a poem by Pierre Ronsard, ‘The Life Apart: L’Ame Close’. When Lewis’s biography first appeared in 1975, his detailed account of the affair, together with the reprinting of ‘Beatrice Palmato’, a hitherto unknown fragment of soft porn about father-daughter incest, appeared to overturn the established image of Wharton as a strait-laced grande dame – ‘puritanically repressed within’, in Lewis’s phrase, as well as formidable without. The passage of time, however, as well as considerable scholarship on Victorian sexuality, has made the erotic intensity of all that strait-lacing seem less surprising than inevitable. Without minimising the reality of the affair, Lee also makes clear how much of Wharton’s creative powers were invested in the experience. Kept concurrently with her appointments diary, ‘The Life Apart’ both records and invents the author’s belated awakening to love.

[for more, click on the link]

Boston Globe interview with Hermione Lee

Q&A with Hermione Lee

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?

"Well, that's it!" Lee laughed when I asked her as much over the phone last week. "Edith does this extraordinary mixture of dazzling ironical objective analysis, yet at the same time, there's this very deep, painful emotional life that goes rushing through. I was drawn to this combination that I don't think I've found in any other writer," she explained. The first-name basis, the disarming present tense -- it was easy to envision the grande dame herself hovering just beyond our conversation, a cup of tea at her elbow (in, of course, the perfect hand-painted Limoges porcelain cup)

. . .

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.

. . .

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.