Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Review of Hermione Lee's biography of Wharton

Edith Wharton

* Patricia Anderson
* February 24, 2007

Edith Wharton
By Hermione Lee
Chatto & Windus, 845pp, $79.95

IN the market-driven world of publishing, breathless comments on a book's back cover are increasingly unhelpful: "A rich new life of a great novelist", "first biography of Edith Wharton by a British woman writer", "challenges the accepted view", and so on. All very irritating. The first suggests that former biographers of Wharton had scant insight into her intricately layered life, the second that the respected biographer, Hermione Lee, needs to be identified as a woman rather than simply a British writer, the third that there is some accepted view of the remarkable Wharton, a kind of cuckoo in a brownstone nest, that needs to be challenged. Not so. The phenomenon of Edith Wharton, a writer more celebrated in her day than her friend Henry James (a fact he chafed at), and whose book The Mother's Recompense outsold Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, was dissected by R.W.B. Lewis in his Pulitzer prize-winning 1975 biography. It was a miracle of compression, insight and graceful writing, and would always be a difficult act to follow, as this new biography demonstrates.

That said, Lee's magisterial work will delight the forensically-minded Wharton fan, not so much for new insights (this reviewer found few) but for "new archive material", and the sheer scale of the digressions and meanderings throughout its 845 pages. Indeed, she has succumbed to the biographer's greatest weakness: not knowing what to dispense with.