The Wharton School

The Wharton School

A new biography describes how Edith Wharton transformed her obsessions into stories of loss, regret and entrapment.


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.

Edith Wharton had “constructed a life,” as Lee reminds us, during her difficult and neurasthenic early married life. Her first book, The Decoration of Houses (1897), written with architect Ogden Codman, was, as Lee puts it, part of a “complex cultural argument about America at the turn of the century” that took her parents’ generation to task for its smugness, parochialism and genteel bric-a-brac. Based on Wharton’s extensive research in America and Europe, the argument revealed an “ethics of style” (the term is Lee’s) that extended to her gardens, her books and her comportment: uncluttered, well balanced, not a Victorian frippery in sight. As a consequence Lee describes all Wharton’s various homes–even the English estate Coopersale, which she did not buy–and her breathtaking gardens, chiefly at the Pavillon Colombe in Saint-Brice-Sous-Forêt and the Château Sainte-Claire in Hyères on the French Riviera, in painstaking and loving detail.

Wharton wrote travel articles, later collected, and stories for Scribner’s and The Century magazines, and as early as 1899 her first volume of stories was selling well, tamping down bouts of insecurity and illness. In the next five years she steamed ahead, publishing two novellas, two more story collections, a two-volume novel, a translation and two books on Italy: There’s no Melvillean trajectory of failure here. She handled editors, advertising, contracts and illustrations with professional and high-hatted aplomb. The House of Mirth (1905) earned $20,000 off the bat and was a succès d’estime. Ethan Frome (1911), The Reef (1912) and The Custom of the Country (1913)–arguably her best book–all tumbled out, one after the other, followed by the tragic Summer (1917). As a famous author and wealthy woman with an ample inheritance who earned $50,000 within two years of the publication of The Age of Innocence (1920) and netted about $6,000 per story in the early 1920s, Wharton would fret over the relation between art and commerce–“could you be very good, and very popular,” Lee rhetorically asks. It was a concern in much of Wharton’s work, in early stories like “The Descent of Man” (1904) and late novels such as Hudson River Bracketed (1929) and The Gods Arrive (1932).

This is also a theme in much of the praise she consistently and at times condescendingly received during her lifetime. By the later ’20s (vide Flanner) Wharton’s reputation was tarnished by writers who considered her as passé as a tufted sofa parked under a gas chandelier. Edmund Wilson rushed to her posthumous rescue, republishing his 1938 essay “Justice to Edith Wharton,” written the year of her death, in The Wound and the Bow (1941). Wharton was a social prophet as pessimistic as Hardy or Maupassant, he said, a pioneer as well as a poet of interior decoration–but, of course, inevitably a has-been: In women “something like genius may be stimulated by some exceptional emotional strain, but will disappear when the stimulus has passed.”

Wharton’s reputation suffered another critical blow in 1947, when her former friend Percy Lubbock published his Portrait of Edith Wharton, making, as Lee mischievously remarks, the aloof and aristocratic writer “sound like the character played by Margaret Dumont in the Marx Brothers films.” Yet for all these slings and arrows, Wharton’s reputation does not need rehabilitation today. After the 1968 lifting of the embargo on voluminous papers left to Yale University’s Beinecke Library, Yale professor R.W.B. Lewis was selected to write Wharton’s biography, and his graceful Pulitzer Prize-winning book, published in 1975, revealed that, among other things, Margaret Dumont was really Bette Davis: For almost two years, circa 1908-10, the 46-year-old Wharton had a passionate affair with the charming bisexual roué Morton Fullerton, a handsome Harvard-trained journalist raised in Waltham, Massachusetts, and the model for Henry James’s Merton Densher in The Wings of the Dove. In addition, in the appendix to his book Lewis published Wharton’s erotic love poem “Terminus,” as well as a prose fragment, “Beatrice Palmato,” about an incestuous relationship between a father and daughter. Mrs. Wharton was not the cold fish she’d been taken for.

Nor was she a lesser Henry James. As Lee makes amply clear, from the time she began publishing in the 1890s, Wharton was compared to James (he was not compared to her) and resented being considered his disciple, especially since she could not bear to read his late work. As Lee points out, Wharton was more likely to write “against him than to write under him,” parodying his titles, rewriting his Aspern Papers as the story “The Touchstone” or Portrait of a Lady as The House of Mirth. Yet their friendship was lasting and deep, if sometimes fraught with asperity. James called The Mount, the mansion she built in Lenox in 1902, a “delicate French château mirrored in a Massachusetts pond” and described the cavalcade of travel arrangements–car, chauffeur, hats, veils, cushions, robes and servants dispatched ahead to ready the hotel rooms–as the “incoherent restlessness of wealth” and “a luxury of bloated alternatives.” But it was James who urged Wharton, after the publication of her first novel, an Italian costume drama called The Valley of Decision (1902), to “Do New York” and become the American Balzac. “It was as if, from the first,” Lee wryly notes, “he was encouraging her to do what he could not.”

These days, though, Wharton has largely been pried loose from James, her well-crafted novels and stories ranked independently and high, their narratives tight and fresh. They bear rereading: Her reach is farther, deeper, than one may have supposed, her dramatic sense tighter, her insight into the foibles and follies of character more unsparing and more merciful. And her books have not been forgotten: Lily Bart and Ethan Frome are American icons, and novels such as The House of Mirth, Summer and The Age of Innocence are continually dramatized, filmed and set to music. Nor is there any dearth of information being uncovered about Wharton’s life. In 1977 Cynthia Griffin Wolff published an adroit psychological study of Wharton (A Feast of Words: The Triumph of Edith Wharton) and Richard Howard’s brilliant poem “The Lesson of the Master” was read on National Public Radio with Nancy Marchand as Wharton. In 1994 Shari Benstock’s well-researched feminist biography as well as Eleanor Dwight’s illustrated one both appeared. Marion Mainwaring, formerly R.W.B. Lewis’s assistant, recently wrote a book about Morton Fullerton in which she itemizes Lewis’s mistakes and appropriations, and Lewis himself, along with his wife, edited a large selection of Wharton letters, which included many to Fullerton. Wharton was also the subject of a C-SPAN program on American writers, and the home she built in Lenox is being restored to its former splendor, complete with tours and celebratory programs.

What, then, can a new biographer hope to accomplish–in almost 900 pages–beyond compiling and elaborating on what has already been amassed? (Such a voluminous compilation, responsibly done, is no small task.) The signal strength of Lee’s book lies in its social history and literary criticism, its insights into Wharton’s reading of Proust (whose strength, observed Wharton, “is the strength of tradition”) and its fine discussions of The House of Mirth, Ethan Frome (“a story of silence and speechlessness”) and The Age of Innocence (“all about being watched”). She also brushes the dust of Wharton’s fine, grim story “Bunner Sisters” and draws attention to the late, elegiac novel The Children (1928). Delicately relating each of these to Wharton’s life–although underscoring that Wharton did not write directly about her own experiences–Lee astutely demonstrates how Wharton transformed her obsessions into stories of loss, regret, entrapment and the woman who pays and pays.

Above all, as Lee demonstrates, Wharton’s subject was social change: the parvenu of the Gilded Age upsetting the applecart of old money into which Wharton was born; the horrors of conspicuous consumption (Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class was a Wharton favorite) in a culture that stifles creativity; the unwritten codes of well-bred behavior and the feckless men who hew to them, usually at the expense of women; and the tension between brash American vulgarities (slang, skyscrapers, standardization) and the gratifying polyphony of a well-made sentence.

Not a storyteller in the manner of such countrywomen as Victoria Glendinning and Claire Tomalin, Lee builds Wharton’s portrait by means of a series of biographical essays, or chapters, each organized around related topics: childhood memories and Wharton’s retrospective elision of them; her travels in Italy; her English coterie of friends; the history of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, where Wharton lived from 1907 to 1920; her indefatigable war work setting up a network of schools, orphanages and hostels for Belgian refugees in France, for which she was named in France a chevalier of the Legion of Honor and sent to Morocco to report on the colonial Resident-General Louis-Hubert Lyautey, whom she knew and whose brand of paternalistic imperialism she admired. Wharton’s antimodernism is the subject of a chapter called “Jazz,” and a marvelous chapter, “A Private Library,” enumerates Wharton’s books and marginal annotations–an autobiography in themselves, as Lee nicely observes. This is academic criticism at its best, the sort painfully out of fashion in the academy. And Lee does not deal in labored prose. She calls Ogden Codman’s complaints “bitchy”; she dubs the translator Charles Du Bos a “fusspot” and she describes the mother of Wharton’s friend Philomène de Lévis-Mirepoix as “a hoot.” One can feel Mrs. Wharton shudder.

But the pitfall of Lee’s biographical method is a degree of extraneous, if often entertaining, detail (the family tree of Wharton’s friend Lady Wemyss, the people she did not meet at Paul Éluard’s home, which she did not visit, or the fact that one could not hang out one’s wash in the Faubourg in the 1950s). Still more problematic is her assumption that the reader is a Wharton aficionado already apprised of the importance of various characters (Morton Fullerton, say) before their relevance is fully established. And her method requires a certain repetition of characters, incidents, “impeccable pedigrees” and subject matter–a somewhat inevitable drawback when some of the same anecdotes kaleidoscopically reappear in various chapters, albeit from a slightly different point of view.

Ultimately, though, there is the matter of Wharton’s character, which Lee treats evenhandedly. Addressing, for instance, the matter of Wharton’s insufferable anti-Semitism in the last third of her book, Lee twice recounts Wharton’s deathbed pronouncement that she “hated the Jews” and comments unpersuasively that Wharton’s attitudes “were commonplace among upper-class Anglo-Americans, and the French, in pre-Holocaust times.” Respectful of Wharton’s prejudices but far more candid than her “gallantly protective male biographers,” Lee calls Lewis’s omission of rancid anti-Semitism from the selected Letters a “polite misrepresentation” and then adds, with far more principle than earlier, that one must take Wharton’s views seriously. As a result, Lee’s Wharton is fastidious, high-handed, imperious in her treatment of servants and, occasionally, her friends; she is snobbish, arrogant, lonely and driven, and her amazing work during the war had “a touch of Lady Bountiful” about it. Her politics leaned to the right; she disliked socialists and lesbians; she was something of a warmonger; and according to writer Sybille Bedford (whom Lee calls unfair), she did not like women, or at least young women, writers. Lee gives us all of it, as if pre-empting any criticism of Wharton by anticipating it.

Yet Wharton remains a supremely talented, serious and ethical writer who herself warned us that “the only way to judge an artist is by his works.” It’s an admonishment Lee admirably heeds.

In the conventional biographical trope that ends her book, Lee searches in the rain for Wharton’s grave, which she cleans up a bit, pulling weeds and planting on it a single artificial white flower. One assumes the artificial flower is not a metaphor for her biographical achievement; but even if it is, one finishes her book satisfied, knowing the grave is well tended.

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