2 minute read

Wharton, Edith

(US, 1862–1937)

Wharton is one of America's greatest novelists. She got off to a late start (like many women writers), for personal reasons; she was 38 when she published her first short novel. But by her death she'd published over forty books, novels, collections of stories (including some terrific ghost stories), poems, and books on travel, fiction, gardens, and architecture.

Edith Newbold Jones grew up in genteel ‘old’ New York society, with a society wedding in 1885 to a ‘suitable’ man, the wealthy Bostonian Teddy Wharton. But the young Mrs Wharton had also been writing and reading compulsively since childhood. During her marriage she began to publish, moved into literary circles, and travelled a great deal, especially in Italy and France. The Whartons had a grand house, The Mount, designed and built for them in Lenox, Massachusetts. As her marriage began to fall apart, she had a passionate affair, in her mid-forties, with Henry James's attractive, unreliable friend, Morton Fullerton. Teddy Wharton became depressive, unfaithful, and reckless with money, and the marriage finally ended in divorce in 1913. By this time Edith had left America for a life in France, and only returned once, in 1923, though she went on writing about America all her life. In the war, in Paris, she worked with formidable energy setting up hostels, refuges, and rest homes, and writing books explaining France to Americans. After the war, she bought two houses in France, one near Paris and one in the Mediterranean.

Wharton's fictions reflect her enormous reading and wide cultural range, the painful marital and emotional conflicts of her early years, her mixed feelings about America (part nostalgia, part horror at post-war brashness, and part admiration of its energies), and her fascination (not uncritical) with European traditions and ways of life. But they are never confessional. Wharton writes with a wonderful controlled mixture of sharp humour, disenchanted observation, and dark passion, and she can do a great range of characters, from the New York society types of her childhood, to French aristocratic families, to the bleak, narrow lives of New England farmers (in Ethan Frome, 1911) or the American urban poor (in Bunner Sisters, 1916).

Her ironical love-stories are always painful and frustrated. And it's usually the woman who pays. Though far from being a feminist, she wrote with deep feeling and intelligence about the limitations and problems of women's lives in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (especially for poor Lily Bart, the doomed heroine of The House of Mirth, 1905), about emotional treachery and inadequacy, especially in men, and about the constrictions of married life. Witty, stylish, and unflinchingly realistic, she is also a writer of profound and complicated emotions. Start with The House of Mirth and Ethan Frome; go on to The Custom of the Country (1913) and The Age of Innocence (1920); by then you'll be hooked.

Henry James, Jane Austen, George Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Alison Lurie.


Additional topics

Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionBooks & Authors: Award-Winning Fiction (Tr-Z)