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Edith Wharton

Biography

I have wondered, with other admirers of Edith Wharton, whether her reputation might today stand even higher if she had been a man. These words were written by her biographer, R. W. B. Lewis, who also wrote a well received biography of the Jameses and therefore is very much in a position to know that Wharton is the better writer, even though Henry James has received more critical acclaim. Indeed, it is interesting to make the comparison with James. They were approximate contemporaries, New York Brahmins, good friends, snobbish, spent much of their lives in Europe, dabbled in a variety of literary forms, were both failed dramatists and even both wrote ghost stories. So why, apart from the fact that he is male, is James considered the better writer? James was certainly more prolific than Wharton but the main distinguishing feature is that he wrote “perfect” works. Not a comma was misplaced as he strove for literary perfection, something that appealed very much to the litcrit industry and the heavyweight academics like F R Leavis. Wharton’s writings are certainly not shoddy but she did not strive for formal perfection as much. However, this makes her the better writer because the very formal nature of James’ writing means that they lack the passion and feeling that all great writing has to have. Reading James is a bit like have sex with a supermodel or a superstud – something you feel you have to do if the opportunity presents itself and something to talk about afterwards but, let’s face it, it is going to leave you a bit dissatisfied later on and what the hell do you talk to them about afterwards?

Edith Newbold Jones was born in January 1862 in New York, in the middle of the Civil War. She came from a well-to-do New York family, which had connections – by marriage, relationship or commercial – with most of the famous New York families. She had two older brothers (the younger one was nearly twelve years older than Edith, so there was a big gap). As a child she travelled extensively in Europe, particularly in France, Germany and Italy and would, of course, do so as an adult. She started writing when she was young (she was one of the first writers to use a typewriter). When she was sixteen, her mother had some of her verses published privately. These were seen by Longfellow, who passed them on to William Dean Howells, then editor of the The Atlantic Monthly, who published one of them. It was not till more than ten years later that her first story was published in Scribner’s, at age twenty-nine (Mrs. Manstey’s View.) In the meantime she had been close to marrying two men but finally married Teddy Wharton, a man thirteen years her senior. Henry James was later to describe the marriage as an almost or rather an utterly inconceivable thing. Suffice to say that the couple was incompatible, both sexually and temperamentally. This is not to say Wharton was a bad man; in fact he seems to have been a decent man and good-looking as well. But they were clearly incompatible and her sharp temper and his subsequent nervous disorders only made matters worse.

While she published a variety of works in her thirties and early forties – fiction, poetry as well as The Decoration of Houses and Italian Villas and Their Gardens – it was not till the publication of The House of Mirth in 1905 that she really came into her own. From that time on, she had clearly become a professional woman of letters. She had a series of male friends, including the famous (such as Henry James, Henry Adams, Bernard Berenson, Teddy Roosevelt and André Gide) and the not quite famous (such as Walter Berry and Morton Fullerton, both of whom, particularly the latter, she was in love with). Her marriage turned sour, particularly after both parties were unfaithful, and Teddy had a series of nervous disorders. They separated and then divorced.

Wharton gradually drifted away from the United States and settled in Europe, particularly in France, where most of friends were (James, Berenson, Gide, etc.) and where she felt more spiritually at home. During the First World War, she was in Paris and organised a large-scale relief effort, particularly for the Belgian refugees (she was awarded decorations by both the French and Belgian governments). It was after the War that she had her greatest success, Age of Innocence. She died in 1937.

Books about Edith Wharton

Louis Auchincloss: Edith Wharton; A Woman in her Time
Millicent Bell: Edith Wharton and Henry James: A Story of their Friendship
Shari Benstock: No Gifts from Chance: A Biography of Edith Wharton
Sarah Bird Wright: Edith Wharton A to Z
Olivia Coolidge: Edith Wharton, 1862-1937
Eleanor Dwight: Edith Wharton: An Extraordinary Life, an Illustrated Biography
Eleanor Dwight: The Gilded Age – Edith Wharton and Her Contemporaries
Susan Goodman: Edith Wharton’s Inner Circle
Susan Goodman: Edith Wharton’s Women: Friends & Rivals
Irving Howe (ed): Edith Wharton
Grace Kellogg: The Two Lives Of Edith Wharton
Hermione Lee: Edith Wharton
R. W. B. Lewis: Edith Wharton: A Biography (the standard biography)
Percy Lubbock: Portrait of Edith Wharton
Margaret McDowell: Edith Wharton

Other links

Edith Wharton
Edith Wharton
Edith Wharton
Edith Wharton’s New York
Obituary
The Mount (about her old home, The Mount)

Bibliography

1897 The Decoration of Houses
1899 The Greater Inclination
1900 A Gift from the Grave
1900 The Touchstone
1901 Crucial Instances
1902 The Valley of Decision
1903 Sanctuary
1904 The Descent of Man and Other Stories
1904 Italian Villas and Their Gardens
1905 The House of Mirth
1905 Italian Backgrounds
1907 The Fruit of the Tree
1907 Madame de Treymes
1908 The Hermit and the Wild Woman and Other Stories
1908 A Motor-Flight Through France
1909 Artemis to Actæon, and Other Verse
1910 Tales of Men and Ghosts
1911 Ethan Frome
1912 The Reef
1913 The Custom of the Country
1914 The Greater Inclination. The Touchstone
1915 Fighting France, from Dunkerque to Belfort
1916 The Book of the Homeless (Le livre des sans-foyer)
1916 Xingu and Other Stories
1917 Summer
1918 The Marne
1919 French Ways and Their Meaning
1920 Age of Innocence
1920 In Morocco
1922 The Glimpses of the Moon
1923 A Son at the Front
1924 False Dawn (The ‘Forties)
1924 New Year’s Day (The ‘Seventies)
1924 The Old Maid (The Fifties)
1924 Old New York
1924 The Spark (The ‘Sixties)
1925 The Mother’s Recompense
1925 The Writing of Fiction
1926 Here and Beyond
1926 Twelve Poems
1927 Twilight sleep
1928 The Children
1929 Hudson River Bracketed
1930 Certain People
1932 The Gods Arrive
1933 Human Nature
1934 A Backward Glance (memoirs)
1936 The World Over
1937 Ghosts
1938 The Buccaneers (unfinished novel)
1950 An Edith Wharton Treasury
1958 Best Short Stories
1965 The Edith Wharton Reader
1968 The Collected Short Stories of Edith Wharton
1973 The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton
1975 Quartet : Four Stories
1977 Fast and Loose : a Novelette
1978 The Edith Wharton Omnibus
1983 Roman Fever and Other Stories
1985 Novels (Library of America)
1988 The Letters of Edith Wharton
1988 The Stories of Edith Wharton
1990 The Muse’s Tragedy and Other Stories
1990 Novellas and Other Writings (Library of America)
1991 The Selected Short Stories of Edith Wharton
1995 Edith Wharton Abroad : Selected Travel Writings, 1888-1920
1996 The Ghost-Feeler : Stories of Terror and the Supernatural
1996 The Uncollected Critical Writings
1998 The Collected Stories of Edith Wharton
2007 The Demanding Dead (stories)