In 1929 Janet Flanner (a k a Genêt), fledgling Paris correspondent for the fledgling New Yorker, wrote under her own byline for the first time. Her profile of Edith Wharton, she knew, had caught both Mrs. Wharton’s personality and the ambivalence it inspired in the brasher, far more experimental writers of the 1920s. A chilly bluestocking and a perpetual outsider, whether in the city of her birth, New York, or her adopted homeland, France, Wharton was the mother of them all, beloved and hated. Her long career included a Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence (1921), a gold medal from the National Institute of Arts and Letters (she was the first woman to receive it) and a string of bestsellers because, as Flanner tartly observed, in lambasting society’s sins, “Mrs. Wharton gave the great public what it wanted.” Wharton was, in other words, a middle-brow satirist who, wearing pearls and décolletage in her stock publicity photograph, “dressed for her public as for a ball.”
On the cover of Hermione Lee’s exhaustive new biography, the fortysomething Wharton, draped in furs, stands in front of a large shadowy picture and glances wistfully to her left, reddish hair decorously swept up into a large, fashionable hat. Decidedly affluent, Wharton also seems youthfully vulnerable and, in a sense, trapped by her flush costume. For Lee, the Goldsmiths’ Professor of English Literature at Oxford University and author of a superb biography of Virginia Woolf, intends to make the writer human, real and engaging.
Determined not to present Wharton as the pale, predestined or passionless victim of her well-heeled class and kind, Lee admiringly writes at the outset of her book that “with prolonged, hard-working, deliberate ambition, she pushed out and away from her family’s mental habits, social rules and ways of life…to construct her own personal and professional revolution.” That is, almost eighty years after Flanner’s profile appeared (which Lee in passing calls “malicious”), Mrs. Wharton comes before the public yet again, this time as a tough and first-rate writer of “compassionate realism” and as, once again, a perpetual expatriate, dignified, aloof in public and preternaturally energetic, a devoted friend and complicated, contradictory woman.
Born in 1862, the youngest child and only daughter of George Frederic and Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander Jones, Edith Jones was a solitary child whose mother disparaged her first attempt at fiction, as Wharton famously recounts in her 1934 memoir, A Backward Glance. She began her story with a character exclaiming, “If only I had known you were going to call I should have tidied up the drawing-room” and then nervously handed her work to her mother, who read it and dryly remarked, “Drawing-rooms are always tidy.” Yet it may have been her mother, whom she never forgave, who arranged to have a volume of her verses privately printed in 1878. (In later life, Wharton said her father, whom she liked better, had arranged the printing.) In any case, two years later, when Wharton was 18, one of her brothers helped get the poems to The Atlantic Monthly, which published several. Though suffocated by the ornamental life of the rich, Wharton was off to a well-connected literary start.
Twenty years old when her father died, she soon met erudite, aloof and aspiring young international lawyer Walter Van Rensselaer Berry, a lifelong friend, literary mentor and confirmed bachelor, with whom she may or may not have fallen in love and near whom she is buried in the Cimetière des Gonards at Versailles. In 1885, though, she married Edward (Teddy) Wharton, an amiable Harvard graduate twelve years older than she with no career and absolutely no interest in literature. The marriage was a disaster. Prone to mental illness, all the more so after his wife became a famous author and had an extramarital affair, Teddy fell apart, mismanaged funds and was hospitalized; in 1913, after twenty-eight unhappy years together, Wharton divorced him.