Edith Wharton, an Extraordinary Life by Eleanor Dwight

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Edith Wharton, an Extraordinary Life

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Edith Wharton’s life resembles THE AGE OF INNOCENCE, her novel about an artistic woman whose family disapprove of her nonconformity and who, after a disastrous marriage and an abortive love affair, finds a compatible refuge in France. Born in 1862 in New York, Edith Newbold Jones came from the wealthy and aristocratic Joneses that people were supposed to keep up with. She spent much of her childhood in Europe and saw the last days of the second French empire. After being jilted, she married on the rebound the handsome but empty-headed Edward Wharton. Whatever happened on their wedding night so traumatized her that there was no more sex in her marriage and none in her life until in her forties she had an intense but brief affair with the bisexual Morton Fullerton. During her twenties and thirties, her tentative attempts to establish herself as a writer met with such heavy-handed disapproval from her family and social set that, together with her frustrating marriage, she suffered frequent depression and nervous breakdowns, from which she broke free by becoming a major writer with the publication of THE HOUSE OF MIRTH in 1905. Thereafter, she enjoyed such vigorous health and energy that her friend Henry James called her “The Angel of Devastation.”

Wharton has had her critical stock soar in recent years and is acclaimed as a major artist. A formidable inheritance and impressive royalties made her one of the wealthiest authors of her day and let her live in grand style at Lennox, Massachusetts, and in Europe after 1907. Called by Theodore Roosevelt the wittiest woman and best conversationalist he knew, Wharton was the friend of many of the leading writers, artists, and philosophers of her era. During World War I, she was so vigorous in aiding the French that she was awarded the cross of the Legion of Honor. With THE AGE OF INNOCENCE, she was the first American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Dwight’s elegantly written coffee-table biography does not replace the definitive one by R. W. B. Lewis, but it supplements it handsomely, especially with the numerous black-and-white illustrations that conjure up the departed era of Wharton’s colorful and artistic life from 1862 to 1937.