Edith Wharton is an author who has long, and unfairly, stood in the shade of Henry James. Their topics are sometimes similar, their style, too, but of course they are different authors. But literary reputations live and die for reasons that aren't always clear and aren't always just, and it seems that Wharton is, for now, considered a 'lesser' James. Hermione Lee's immense biography, Edith Wharton, attempts to redress this problem while also probing into every area of this prolific author's life. Lee has written a biography that should stand tall as the most thorough and sympathetic of books written about Wharton, but also as one of its best. From now on, scholarship on Wharton should begin with this text – it truly is a marvel.
Wharton, then Edith Jones and referred to by her nickname, “Pussy”, was born to a wealthy New York family, and she married money, too. Lee spends a great deal of time describing the social environment of late nineteenth-century America, when rich families began to settle down and achieve a sense of respectability. It was this time that the cultural and economic shift from Europe to America really began, though it would not properly take off until the end of the Second World War. Lee portrays this time as stifling and dreary, particularly for an imaginative, literary, and somewhat introverted young woman such as Edith.
She was a writer from the start, but publication took some time to occur. For reasons that more than likely involve the patriarchal society she grew up in and her disastrous early marriage, Wharton wrote and wrote and wrote but published little. Lee writes that, after an early success,
“The huge creativity of this exceptional young girl was somehow halted; it took ‘Pussy’ Jones a painfully long time to turn into the writer Edith Wharton.” She goes on to write that women were often confronted with obstacles during this time in American history but also believes that these years of stifled creativity helped to invigorate her later outpouring of novel after novel and provided much by way of content and material.
In her late thirties, Wharton became something of a success. Her novels began to sell in the hundreds of thousands, and her fame grew. She was, for the time, considered controversial in her treatment of women and the failure of the American dream, although nowadays she comes across as rather old-fashioned. But controversy, then as now, tends to spur sales. Wharton went from success to success even as she left America, mostly permanently, to live in France, where she felt more culturally comfortable.
Lee sees Wharton's primary subjects as
“lifelong hidden love, maternal rivalry and deception, the constrictions of women's lives, the imprisonment of secrecy, social conventions which continue to bind individuals even as they pass away, the persistence of primitive passions.” Her detailed explanations and sympathetic criticism toward The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth and Ethan Frome are immensely valuable and help to provide the reader with reasons as to why Wharton should be considered more than simply a female Henry James. Lee draws on letters, memoirs of Wharton's friends and diary entries to crystallize these works of fiction within the bosom of Wharton's troubled life, showing the echoed mirrors of her characters as aspects of her hidden self. Wharton, it seemed, could live properly only in fiction – she was aloof, somewhat cold, incredibly introverted and sensitive to insult. Her erotic explorations were largely literary, and her constant use of strong female characters as tools for examining lives that she herself was unable to lead is a sad thread throughout the work.
A great many pages are used to properly locate Wharton and her contemporaries within the history of literature, as well as history itself. The New York and France of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century are long gone to us now, and even more than that are the stuffy upper-class houses with heavy purple drapes and sitting rooms and overly formal, emotionless conversation. Lee's description of the social mores surrounding Wharton are expertly told but sometimes work against her aim to rehabilitate Wharton's image. We are told that Wharton is a writer who remains capable of speaking to modern men and women, but hundreds of pages worth of butlers and waiters and manners makes this hard to believe. It is difficult to make Wharton sympathetic based on her material life, but happily her literary and emotional sides are well portrayed.
Wharton was not a happy woman, perhaps because her life's energy was thrown into her work. But perhaps not – she was astonishingly unlucky in love, first through her horrible marriage, which ended in divorce (scandalous at the time), and eventually the insane asylum for her husband, Teddy. Her second, and third, and – it goes on – betrayals came at the hand of men she entrusted herself to, men who for some reason all found her, over time, to be too much of a bother. Was she too intelligent for them? Too aesthetic? Lee proposes this as a possible answer, though of course it is impossible to tell. Wharton concerned herself almost entirely to discussions on the highest plane, remaining unwilling to muddy herself with low-brow concerns right up to her death. Indeed, when she was older, a number of younger literary stars come to pay homage found her far too difficult to deal with due to her stately ways and impossibly archaic concepts of culture and intellect. Her strongest friendships came from men who were either openly gay or afraid to admit it – men who, tellingly, could hold no emotional sway over her. Henry James was probably her closest and dearest friend, and his death in 1916 left an ache in her heart that was only partially filled by the rest of her social circle. Wharton was happy to become something of a den mother to her group of young(er) writers, painters and critics, doling out money, praise and bedrooms as necessary.
In her sixties, when her literary reputation was at its strongest, Wharton was not tolerant of the upcoming young voices of modernism. In this she echoed the very same sixty-year-old critics and writers who were repelled by her own youthful works. She detested Woolf, Sinclair, and Faulkner. She was thoroughly anti-modernism. She was also – though this extends throughout her life, and not just when she had achieved matronly status –intensely anti-Semitic and racist. Lee writes,
“But comparisons, historical tolerance and recognition of the licence we all take in private correspondence do not make good excuses here; the casual remarks and jokes have survived on paper, they must form part of our sense of her.”
In this, and much else, Lee's biography is even-handed, doling out criticism and praise where it is appropriate. This large work will surely come as a delight to fans of Wharton, though it might be a bit too much for someone with only a passing interest in the author. There is so much here that the casual reader will find themselves overwhelmed rather quickly, but for those with a strong taste for late nineteenth-century history, or for Wharton and Henry James in particular, there are ample rewards to be found.
As sometimes happens, after Wharton's death she became defined by writing from friends with sometimes murky motivations. Percy Lubbock, once close but long removed from her life, wrote a memoir that showed her as a “grand, fussy, imperious Jamesian,” and it is this impression that has stayed. Lee closes her work by writing of her trip to visit Wharton's grave, which rests neglected and somewhat overgrown with grass and weeds:
“In the rain, I weeded Edith, and planted a single white silk azalea, bought from the flower-shop at the cemetary gate. She would probably have been scornful about the artificial flower, but would, I felt, have been glad to have her grave tidied up.”