Edith Wharton by Hermione Lee

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Edith Wharton by Hermione Lee

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A very full biography of the life and times of American novelist Edith Wharton
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 853 Date: June 2013
Publisher: Pimlico
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781845952013

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A prolific author, Edith Wharton's published output included over twenty novels, one a Pulitzer Prize winner, and 85 short stories, as well as poetry and books on interior design and travel. Born in the United States in 1862, she travelled extensively throughout Europe, and settled permanently in France where she died in 1937.

This is a very full biography which leaves no stone unturned. Lee examines in detail her life from her early days as Edith Jones and privileged upbringing in New York. Her family are in a sense well remembered by posterity, as it is said that the phrase 'keeping up with the Joneses' originated with her father's wealthy family. At the age of 23 she married Edward Wharton, who was twelve years older than her, but it ended in divorce after he was diagnosed with severe and incurable clinical depression. While still married she had a brief affair with journalist Morton Fullerton, whom she considered the true love of her life and her ideal intellectual partner, and with whom she remained friends for life.

Just as fully explored is the true Europeanisation of a woman who gradually came to reject the values of her own country. After returning from a visit to France to America, some years before she made her permanent home in the former, she wrote to a friend that she was always miserable when she came back, due to 'my first sight of American streets, my first hearing of American voices, & the wild, dishevelled, backwoods look of everything when one first comes home!' Also studied in depth is Wharton's unremitting hard work in France during the First World War, especially on behalf of Belgian refugees, as well as opening tuberculosis hospitals and setting up workrooms for unemployed Frenchwomen. In the process she appears to have become ashamed of her own country, outraged at the direction of American foreign policy before it entered the conflict.

Ironically, for such a prolific wordsmith, although she issued a book of poetry when she was fifteen, she only published her next title, 'The Decoration of Houses', nineteen years later, and her first work of fiction another two years after that. She had received no encouragement from her family, and her mother forbade her to read novels as they were 'disreputable and irredeemably vulgar'. As an industrious purveyor of what was deemed an apparently disreputable trade, much of the focus of this book is naturally on Wharton's life and career as a writer. In describing her most famous novel, 'The Age of Innocence', which won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for literature and made her the first woman to achieve this feat, Lee examines its setting in the New York of her upbringing, and its theme of alienation from her American past, its sense of regret at the passing of a gentler world long since vanished, and implicit attack on 'the hypocrisy, philistinism and resentful narrow-mindedness of her parents' generation'. We learn about her reading as a young woman from the works of Charles Darwin, Friedrich Nietzsche and others who would exert such influence over her writing, her friendships with Henry James, Aldous Huxley, Bernard Berenson, and Kenneth Clark, and her working methods and the way in which she extensively revised her manuscripts. Elements of her personal life, her struggle to be accepted as a successful woman, and the anguish and loneliness of an unhappy marriage and clandestine love affair, are noted as having surfaced in several of her titles, particularly in the novel 'Summer'.

I was also interested to read Lee's observations about changes in the book trade during Wharton's career. Even in the early 1900s, the 'commercialisation of literature' in America was shaping up as part of the business which we know today, with increasing emphasis on the author and book as product, making demands on the writer to be accessible and provide entertainment for the masses. Within twenty years billboards, advertising campaigns on radio and book sections in department stores were being used to sell new publications, and by the 1930s the world of literary agents and bidding wars had arrived. With her belief that her books had 'a certain staying power', and her insistence during the 1920s that she did not write 'jazz-books', she probably had as little time for the cut-throat business world of writing as she did for the community of American expatriate authors in the Paris cafes after the First World War, with her rejection of 'the unpleasantness of modernity' and its desire for instant gratification, pseudo-culture, noise and fast living. The concept of 'grumpy old men and women' is nothing new.

With a text stretching to over 750 pages, this is a very full, extremely demanding read. Nevertheless this must say more or less everything there is to be said about Wharton and her world. The general reader may find it a little too much of a good thing, but the student of modern literature and culture will find it invaluable.

One disappointment that must be mentioned is that, despite receiving what appears to be a copy of the standard for sale edition (i.e. not marked as an advance review copy), there is a list of 85 illustrations in the prelims, in three plate sections, but they are noticeable by their absence.

If this book appeals then you might also enjoy The Innocents by Francesca Segal – a modern adaptation of Wharton's 'The Age of Innocence' and Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler.

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Buy Edith Wharton by Hermione Lee at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Edith Wharton by Hermione Lee at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Edith Wharton by Hermione Lee at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Edith Wharton by Hermione Lee at Amazon.com.


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