Age of Innocence
By KATIE ROIPHE
Published: August 13, 2010
Any dreamy or bookish girl who once loved “Harriet the Spy” should immediately take up this lively new biography of Edith Wharton by Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge. “The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton” tells the story of a strong-willed, unconventional and smart girl who escaped the stifling life of upper-crust New York around 1880. It includes lush photographs of that faraway time and a pencil drawing Wharton did of herself at 14 reading a book.
Edith Wharton, circa 1905.
THE BRAVE ESCAPE OF EDITH WHARTON
By Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge
Illustrated. 184 pp. Clarion Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $20. (Ages 12 and up)
Times Topics: Edith Wharton | Children's Books
When she was 6 her parents set up house in Paris, on the right bank of the Seine. One day they found her sitting under a table in the drawing room with a book. She said she was reading, and when, disbelieving (no one had taught her) they asked her to read aloud, they were shocked to see that she could do so perfectly. The book she had selected from the shelves of the drawing room was a play about a prostitute.
Wharton was given to making up stories from the beginning. She clearly wasn’t a normal girl, and her mother, Lucretia, was alarmed by her odd, unfeminine preoccupations. Lucretia didn’t want to encourage her precocious daughter by giving her paper to write on, so Wharton would take the plain brown paper off parcels that came to the house, spread the giant sheets out on the floor and write on them in long columns. She wrote her first novel this way, at 11. It 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.’ ”
Wharton embarked on her second novel at 14, in secret, and called it “Fast and Loose.” As soon as she completed it she fired off several reviews by fictional critics: “A twaddling romance”; “Every character is a failure, the plot a vacuum, the style spiritless, the dialogue vague, the sentiments weak and the whole thing a fiasco.” This fierce playfulness, the spirited taking on of the universe, infuses both Edith Wharton’s fiction and her life.