No Gifts from Chance
Early in her text, Shari Benstock demonstrates how transgression and confession were, from early childhood, inextricably linked in Edith Wharton’s mind. In her early life, Wharton sometimes clearly overstepped defined boundaries in her solidly Victorian household, but she immediately confessed the transgression to someone regardless of consequences. This pattern, which Benstock shrewdly observes as she pieces together the details of Wharton’s formative years, actually persisted in subtle ways throughout the author’s lifetime. She transgressed and then confessed by writing about her transgressions. Her writing, although not directly autobiographical, was sufficiently linked to details in her own life that her books often became confessions, although never the vulgar, gut-spilling variety one finds among the salacious reading material at the checkout lines in supermarkets. To understand this pattern is to uncover a major clue to interpreting Wharton’s writing.
Another clue to understanding Wharton comes from examining her artistic tastes. In literature, she deplored the stream-of-consciousness technique and what she called “the cult of self” found in some of her contemporaries, notably D. H. Lawrence and James Joyce. For her personal reading, she favored the works of Homer, the metaphysical poets, Walt Whitman, Matthew Arnold, and Jean Cocteau. She also read the Old Norse Eddas with genuine appreciation.
Wharton eschewed much modern art and did not like ballet, although she attended one of the earliest performances of Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps (1913; The Rite of Spring), which she declared extraordinary and tasteful, quite contrary to the harsh judgments of many Parisians in the booing, hissing opening-night audience. On the other hand, when Bernard Berenson came to Paris in 1913, she bought him a ticket for Maurice Ravel’s new Daphnis et Chloé (1913) but chose not to go herself.
Wharton was not a theater enthusiast. When she attended performances, she preferred classical to modern theater. She saw Minnie Maddern Fiske as Nora in Henrik Ibsen’s En dukkehjem (1879; A Doll’s House, 1880), which might have been expected to arouse any lurking feminist feelings in her, but she appeared unmoved by the play.
Her aesthetic interests, according to Benstock, leaned more toward the visual than toward literary theory, which helps to explain the controlled and accurate handling of physical detail in much of her writing. Eleanor Dwight, in her well-illustrated Edith Wharton: An Extraordinary Life (1994), emphasizes the strong visual elements in Wharton’s writing.
Born into a well-to-do New York family in 1862, Edith was the third child and only daughter of Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander Jones and her husband, George Frederic. There was some question about her paternity. Gossips claimed that her brother’s tutor was actually her father; others contended that she was the daughter of a Scottish lord. When she was born, her brother Frederic was sixteen and about to enter Columbia College; her brother Henry was eleven. Her parents had been married for eighteen years.
In her childhood, Edith spent winters in New York and summers in Newport, where the Joneses kept a second, sumptuous home, Pencraig. Shortly after Edith married Edward Wharton in April, 1885, the newlyweds moved into Pencraig Cottage, opposite the parental estate.
It was in Pencraig Cottage that Wharton began to express herself artistically. She had definite ideas about decoration. Here she was able to translate these ideas into realities. She broke sharply from the dark, crowded, busy Victorian interiors then in vogue, preferring spare, light, simple decor. Her interest in decoration grew to the point that in 1897, collaborating with Ogden Codman, Jr., she published her first major book (a slim, privately printed volume, Verses, had appeared in 1878, when she was sixteen), titled The Decoration of Houses, which challenged many interior- decorating traditions.
In 1883, Wharton’s first meeting with the man she was to marry, Edward Wharton, nicknamed Teddy, had nearly coincided with her first meeting with Walter Van Rensselaer Berry, a peripatetic international lawyer and diplomat then based in Washington, D.C., who became her lifelong, although apparently platonic, friend. Teddy Wharton, twelve years Edith’s senior, came from a cultured Massachusetts family, comfortable but not wealthy. Teddy was a kindly, generous man of little depth or intellectuality. As the motor age burgeoned, he developed a passion, which Edith...
(The entire section is 1910 words.)