By Francine Prose:
When Edith Wharton—then Edith Jones—was a little girl, her favorite game was called “making up.” “Making up” involved pacing around with an open book and (before she could read) inventing and then later half reading, half inventing stories about real people, narratives that she would chant very loud and very fast. The constant pacing and shouting were important parts of the game, which (according to Wharton’s memoir, A Backward Glance) had an enraptured, trance-like, slightly erotic aspect. Her parents spied on her, and it made them nervous. Edith’s Old New York, old-money-society mother tried to transcribe what Edith was saying, but she spoke too fast; Mrs. Jones’s anxiety increased when Edith asked her to entertain children who came to play because she was too busy making up.
At ten, Edith was composing sermons, poems, stories and dramas in blank verse. At eleven, she decided to write a novel. It began, “”Oh, how do you do, Mrs. Brown, said Mrs. Tompkins. “If only I had known you were going to call, I would have tidied up the drawing room.” In her memoir, Wharton described “timorously” showing her work to her mother. “Never,” wrote Wharton, “shall I forget the sudden drop of my creative frenzy when she returned it with the icy comment, ‘Drawing rooms are always tidy.’” By eighteen, she had begun to publish poems—mostly on the subject of failed love, renunciation and longing, themes that would continue to resonate in her work throughout the decades.
Her first published book, The Decoration of Houses, written in collaboration with the architect Ogden Codman, was a success. Like the rest of her work, it combined a keen intelligence, a lively sensibility, an eye for close detail, a witty and graceful prose style, strong opinions about society and about how to live, and a certain constriction traceable to the upbringing and class about which she wrote with alternating and sometimes simultaneous savagery and compassion.
For her first novel, The Valley of Decision, a historical romance set in Italy, Edith Wharton chose as her model Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma. She was determined that it be both highly literary and commercially viable. When it appeared in 1902, it sold 25,000 copies in six months and established her career as a writer of fiction. The novel begins,
“It was very still in the small neglected chapel. The voices of the farm came faintly through closed doors—voices shouting at the oxen in the lower fields, the querulous bark of the old house-dog, and Filomena’s angry calls to the little white-faced foundling in the kitchen.
“The February day was closing, and a ray of sunshine, slanting through a slit in the chapel wall, brought out a vision of a pale head floating against the dusky background of the chancel like a water lily on its leaf. The face was that of the saint of Assisi—a sunken ravaged countenance, lit with an ecstasy of suffering that seemed not so much to reflect the anguish of the Christ at whose feet the saint knelt as the mute pain of all poor downtrodden folk on earth.”
Edith Wharton’s passions were (in no particular order) literature, gardens, architecture, travel, Italy, France, friendship, and Morton Fullerton, a journalist with whom, in middle age, she had an intense and ultimately unhappy love affair. Notably absent from this list is her husband, Teddy, a proper Bostonian, suitably pedigreed and fashionably unemployed, whom she married when she was twenty-three (a late marriage for a girl of her time) and whom she divorced after his increasing mental instability turned out to involve a weakness for the ladies and a calamitous recklessness with Edith’s money. Everyone has a theory on why the marriage went so wrong and about what was troubling Teddy, exactly—was he a closeted homosexual or possibly bipolar?—and about whether the union was consummated at all. During the twelve years between her wedding and the publication of her first book, Edith was almost constantly ill, suffering from asthma, fatigue, flu, headaches, various nervous ailments, and long bouts of nausea. It is interesting, if not surprising, to track, in her novels, how often a character’s thoughts of marriage lead directly to associations of obligation, security, and boredom.
Her most famous friend was, of course, Henry James. Another was Teddy Roosevelt, with whom she discussed books, including her own. She had many friends, male and female, whom she wrote, hosted and traveled with, and who greatly affected her life and work. Many of her friends were gay men, though she mostly disapproved of the lesbians in Paris, among them Gertrude Stein. Her friends complained and mocked her domineering grand-dame manners, but one feels that these affections were mutual and intense. Given the number of her friends, it is striking how many of her protagonists are tormented by isolation, by the lack of a single soul they can tell what is going on in their hearts.
One hardly knows what to make of Edith Wharton’s love affair with Morton Fullerton. We can be glad, I suppose, that she discovered passion at all, but regretful that it should have taken her until the age of forty-six. That was when the emotionally vulnerable, sexually innocent, successful writer fell deeply in love with the American journalist, who was three years her junior and who had a tangled sexual and marital past and present. Was it good or bad that Fullerton was so much more experienced than Edith? Among his most striking qualities was the ability to make people fall in love with him and to conduct several love affairs at once. Previous lovers reputedly included his own adopted sister; the so-called Ranee of Sarawak, the wife of a British colonial governor; and the British lord on whom Oscar Wilde modeled one of his seedier fictional bon vivants. Among his many dubious distinctions, Fullerton has that of having turned down Oscar Wilde for a loan, upon the writer’s release from prison.