It is revealing that major American writers often go through a period of exile in some readerless wilderness before emerging to achieve their final and lasting status. In 1946, when Malcolm Cowley edited The Portable Faulkner, all of that novelist’s workswith the exception of his sensational 1931 Sanctuarywere out of print, but William Faulkner has since become the preeminent novelist of twentieth century American modernism. Likewise, in the 1940’s and 1950’s, Edith Wharton was viewed as a minor imitator of her friend and “master” Henry James (1843-1916), but in the past forty years or so her reputation has been steadily climbing, and the author of The House of Mirth (1905), Ethan Frome (1911), and The Age of Innocence (1920), among many other works, is now seen as the equal to James and, in some cases, the more popular (and readable) of the two literary giants, as well as one of the most important novelists of the first decades of the twentieth century. Hermione Lee’s massive biography762 pages, plus an additional 100 pages of family tree, notes, bibliography, and indexmatches the status Edith Wharton has achieved by the twenty-first century and proves why it is so well deserved.
Edith Newbold Jones was born on January 24, 1862, and grew up in one of the most prominent families in New York City. (The expression “keeping up with the Joneses” was first coined about her great-aunts.) She was largely self-educated and read widely in science, philosophy, and anthropology throughout her life, but, like most women of her social class and background at the end of the nineteenth century, she was trained for little besides marriage, which she entered in 1885 at the age of twenty-three. Her husband, Edward “Teddy” Robbins Wharton, was a fitting match in terms of social position but had a family history of mental illness. He proved to be a deeply unstable person, and the marriage was not happy. Wharton suffered from a series of (probably psychosomatic) illnesses in her twenties; her marriage was childless (and probably sexless), but these “subjects of sexual privation and wretched marriages” would become some of the most important material for her fiction. She had made up stories beginning when she was a little girl, but it took her decades to become, in her late thirties, a professional writer, for she had to break free of society’s expectations for women of her rank. She achieved her independence, in part, by becoming European.
Her first collection of short stories, The Greater Inclination, appeared in 1899, and her first long novel, The Valley of Decision, in 1902, but she became famous for her nonfiction travel books, like Italian Villas and Their Gardens (1904) and Italian Backgrounds (1905). Wharton had grown up in a New York City “defined by its architecture, interior design, clothes, fixtures and fittings,” and she maintained a lifelong interest in those subjects. Her first bookwritten with the designer Ogden Codman in 1897was The Decoration of Houses, which “sold well, was reprinted, and had a marked influence on house design in America.” Wharton built or remodeled half a dozen houses during her lifetime, in both the United States and France, including The Mount, wonderfully preserved and now open to the public in Lenox, Massachusetts. Even when Wharton was writing about houses and design, however, she was dealing at the same time with social behavior and beliefs, and this ability to translate social history into literature would carry over into her fiction. In 1905, The House of Mirththe story of the descent of Lily Bart from the New York upper classes with whom she cannot keep up and her inevitable deathmade Wharton a household name and a best-selling author at the age of forty-three, and for the next three decades she would be one of the most prolific American writers. In 1911, she published Ethan Frome, the novella about a poor farmer trapped in his nineteenth century New England life, and in 1913 The Custom of the Country (her greatest novel, Lee believes), the story of the greedy and ambitious Undine Spragg. The Age of...
(The entire section is 1716 words.)