Wharton, Edith (1862–1937)
Wharton, Edith (1862–1937)
Acclaimed American writer whose novels, novellas and short stories meticulously document both high-society New York and Europe during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the way in which lives are shaped and dominated by social strictures and community pressure . Name variations: Pussy; Lily. Born Edith Newbold Jones on January 24, 1862, baptized in Grace Church, Manhattan; died on August 11, 1937, at Pavillon Colombe, her house in Saint-Brice-sous-Foret, and buried at the Cimetiere des Gonards at Versailles, France; daughter of George Frederic Jones (a real-estate investor) and Lucretia (Rhinelander) Jones; had two older brothers, Frederic (b. 1848, the father of Beatrix Jones Farrand ) and Henry Edward (b. 1850); privately tutored in German; married Edward Robbins Wharton (divorced 1913), in 1885; no children.
Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence and Legion of Honor for her war relief work during World War I in France.
Novels and novellas:
The Touchstone (1900); The Valley of Decision (2 vols., 1902); Sanctuary (1903); The House of Mirth (1905); Madame de Treymes (1907); The Fruit of the Tree (1907); Ethan Frome (1911); The Reef (1912); The Custom of the Country (1913); Summer (1917) The Marne (1918); The Age of Innocence (1920); The Glimpses of the Moon (1922); A Son at the Front (1923); Old New York: False Dawn (The 'Forties); The Old Maid (The 'Fifties); The Spark (The 'Sixties); New Year's Day (The 'Seventies, 4 vols., 1924); The Mother's Recompense (1925); Twilight Sleep (1927); The Children (1928); Hudson River Bracketed (1929); The Gods Arrive (1932); The Buccaneers (1938).
The Collected Short Stories of Edith Wharton (2 vols., ed. by R.W.B. Lewis, NY: Scribner, 1968).
Abraham Lincoln was president in 1862, the year Edith Newbold Jones was born into an old upper-class New York family. Her great-grandfather Ebenezer Stevens, an artillery officer at the Boston Tea Party, was immortalized in John Trumbull's canvases displayed in the Rotunda of the capitol in Washington, D.C. In 1900, the estate of Edith's grandfather, William Rhinelander, was estimated to be worth more than $50 million. Edith Wharton had an insider's view of la belle époque, a time of majestic splendor between the turn of the century and the outbreak of war in 1914; she would live to see the Victorian age give way to the Modern, and Germany fall under the sway of Adolf Hitler. Wharton would see the motor-car replace the horse-drawn carriage, try out the new typewriting machines, become dependent upon the telephone, and witness air flight. The force of such dramatic historical change would become one of the major themes of her fiction.
In Wharton's world a lady's name could be mentioned in public only three times: at her birth, her marriage, and her death. Under no circumstances did a wellbred woman publish fiction. The struggle to overcome this stricture and see herself as an artist was a part of Edith's young adulthood.
Storytelling and the "making up" of stories was an activity she engaged in from a very early age, during a childhood spent in Paris and Rome. After the Civil War, realestate values declined and, since her father's income derived from property, George Frederic Jones decided to leave Newport and Manhattan and take his family to Europe where they could live on the same scale for less money; the Whartons did not return to America until Edith was ten. In Paris, a six-year-old Edith would walk up and down the living room suite making up stories about "real people" while pretending to read The Alhambra, written by her father's friend Washington Irving. Wharton's passion for pretending to read books prompted her father to teach her how to read. When a visitor from Newport dramatized tales of Olympian gods and goddesses so that they resembled the ladies and gentlemen Edith saw riding in carriages in the Bois de Boulogne, she became engaged by the notion of Greek myths redone in a contemporary setting. Later, she would play with this theme in her short stories "The Lamp of Psyche" (1894) and "Pomegranate Seed" (1929).
When Wharton returned to America, she could speak French, German, and Italian. The variety of European styles and manners she had observed would heighten her sense of contrast and comparison with those she encountered in her native New York. In Europe, she was tutored in German, and looked after by her Irish nurse, Hannah Doyle . In New York, her education was mainly gleaned from the books in her father's library. There she read Plutarch and the great poets from Homer to Dante, Milton, Pope, and the Romantics, Keats and Shelley. Edith's mother Lucretia Rhinelander Jones forbade her to read any new fiction. Girls of her class did not attend schools, though their brothers went on to Harvard, Columbia, or English universities.
Time spent reading in her father's library was "a secret ecstasy of communion." Most adults around Edith had "an awe-struck dread of … intellectual effort," though her father enjoyed poetry. George Jones had intense blue eyes and a romantic side Edith would write about in the novella False Dawn, describing his secret courtship of her mother, and the way he stole out at sunrise to sail down Long Island Sound by rigging up a sail on a rowboat.
The mother Edith knew, however, bore no resemblance to a romantic heroine, and was most passionate about acquiring a new wardrobe from Paris. Wharton thought that her mother's "matter-of-factness must have shrivelled up" something in her father's spirit that never bore fruit. According to biographer R.W.B. Lewis, Lucretia Jones was the model for Mrs. Welland in The Age of Innocence, with her "firm placid features, to which a lifelong mastery over trifles had given an air of factitious authority." Wharton felt that her mother's pettiness overruled her father's larger spirit, and relationships like these, in which the smaller-minded individual gets the better of the largerspirited one, would become a central theme in Wharton's fiction, as in Ethan Frome.
Edith had abundant red hair and large anxious brown eyes. Her brothers teased her about having big hands and feet, and she became shy and self-conscious. Lucretia Jones disapproved of the "long words" Wharton used and thought her daughter had "less heart" than her brothers because her nature was not openly affectionate. Still, Edith was experiencing herself as vital and sensual, feeling "vague tremors when I rode my pony, or swam through the short bright ripples of the bay, or raced and danced and tumbled" with the boys. Hesitantly, she asked her mother to explain these feelings, and was told: "it's not nice to ask about such things." When an older cousin told Edith that babies came from people, not flowers, Wharton again went to her mother and received a scolding about subjects that were "not nice."
Wharton told no one about a nameless fear that began to haunt her at this time. The fear had first visited her five years earlier, in Germany when she was recovering from typhoid fever; she read a tale of mystery and violence that frightened her to the point of causing a relapse. Now, she was revisited by "some dark undefinable menace forever dogging my steps, lurking and threatening." At night, she slept with the light on and a nursemaid in the room.
Edith had one good friend, Emelyn Washburn , who was six years Wharton's senior, and it was to Emelyn and no one else whom Edith, at 15, showed her first novella Fast and Loose. Its heroine, Georgie Rivers, was a lively girl with a yearning for material comfort who rejected her penniless fiancé for marriage to an aging and wealthy lord and later regretted it. Georgie is a precursor of Lily Bart, the heroine of Wharton's bestselling novel The House of Mirth (1905). Wharton was also writing a great deal of poetry which was competent but not original, and reflected her reading of such poets as Browning, Swinburne, Tennyson, and Rossetti. At 16, she managed to publish one of her poems in the Atlantic Monthly, and then nothing more was published for ten years.
At 18, Wharton had her social debut in the private ballroom of Mrs. Levi Morton (Anna Morton ), a well-known millionaire living on Fifth Avenue near 42nd Street. Lucretia Jones chose a private ballroom because she abhorred the kind of public display she associated with the newly wealthy arrivistes who made a great show in Delmonico's. For Edith, the elegant event was "a long cold agony of shyness." Dressed in white muslin with a low-necked bodice of green brocade, she carried a bouquet of lilies of the valley. Most of the evening she kept close to her mother and felt frozen, unable to respond to invitations to dance or to enjoy being the center of attention. Later, she was to refer to this time as an "age of innocence." Her mother arranged for her to attend the social activities where she would meet a suitable husband, but she left her daughter in the dark about what married people did when the party was over.
One can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in … curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways.
The social season began in December with dancing—the waltz, quadrilles, and "germans"—at Delmonico's; in Central Park there was ice skating, sleigh riding and tobogganing. In summer, there were boating parties, lawn tennis, or picnics in Newport or Bar Harbor. Edith and her older brother Harry were permitted to go around unchaperoned. Shortly after her coming-out party, she met Henry Leyden Stevens, son of Mrs. Paran Stevens [Marietta Reed Stevens ] who belonged to the nouveau riche; Lucretia discouraged her children from mixing with this new element whose members she considered pushy and showy, without moral values, restraint, and integrity. Mrs. Stevens would engineer the marriage of her own daughter, Mary Fisk Stevens , to British royalty, a measure of social distinction Wharton would discuss in her last, unfinished novel, The Buccaneers. Despite her mother's reservations about socializing with arrivistes, in the summer of 1880 Edith spent a good deal of time with Henry Stevens and talk began to focus about the couple. That winter, Henry visited the Joneses in Venice where the family had gone for George's health. The following year Henry had become a devoted family friend, staying with the Joneses in Cannes throughout the last illness of Edith's father who was stricken by paralysis and then, shortly after, died. "I am still haunted by the look in his dear blue eyes," Wharton wrote about her father, remembering how his deathbed paralysis had left him unable to deliver any parting message to her. In the summer of 1882, Lucretia publicly announced Edith's engagement to Henry Stevens. Henry, then 23, would receive his sizable inheritance when he married or when he became 25. In the meantime, his widowed mother Marietta, while controlling a few of the purse strings and able to use some of the income from her son's sizable fortune for her own ends, intervened and refused to approve the marriage. It was rumored that she broke up the relationship because she had been snubbed by members of Lucretia's oldmonied set, but it is more likely that Marietta Stevens broke off her son's engagement out of greed. Edith provided no explanation in the note she wrote to her friend Emelyn, saying only that she had had to break the engagement.
In the summer of 1883, in Bar Harbor, Edith met Walter Van Rensselaer Berry, a cultivated young man with whom she could discuss art and literature and feel intensely involved. They went for long walks and canoed on the lake, and when Berry departed without a serious word about sharing a future together, Wharton was deeply disappointed. When, on the heels of the triple loss of her father, Harry Stevens, and Walter Berry, the 33-year-old Edward Wharton came into Edith's circle, she was ready to have a reliable suitor. Teddy Wharton, a friend of Edith's older brother Harry, was well born and lived in Brookline with his mother and sister. Though he had no money of his own, he was provided with an allowance of $2,000 a year. Teddy was handsome, extremely affable, and interested in the outdoors. At Harvard, he cut more classes than he attended, and he was without worldly ambition. Teddy was completely available to be of service to Edith and when, after a very brief engagement, they married, Wharton believed herself to be in love for the first time. The wedding at Trinity Chapel "was a quiet one," The New York Times reported. In 1885, the year of the wedding, Edith was close to 24, an age considered to be verging upon "spinsterhood."
According to R.W.B. Lewis, it was three weeks before the marriage was consummated, and the newlyweds' sexual life was nearly nonexistent, thereafter. Wharton blamed her mother for failing to provide a basic sexual education; to Edith's questions about marriage, Lucretia responded, "You've seen enough pictures and statues in your life. Haven't you noticed that men are … made differently than women? … You can't be as stupid as you pretend." Wharton felt that the sexual ignorance her mother perpetuated "did more than anything else to falsify and misdirect my whole life."
The newlyweds settled into an amiable if passionless relationship. Teddy was good natured and admired Edith, and she began to act maternally towards him even though he was 13 years her senior. They never had children, and always kept numerous small lap dogs as pets. In the early years of their marriage, the Whartons lived in Newport from June to February and traveled in Europe, mostly Italy, the rest of the year. In the winter of 1888, in Athens, at the end of a four-month cruise through the Aegean that had cost the Whartons their annual income of $10,000, Edith learned that she had come into a substantial legacy of $120,000, an amount equivalent to $500,000 at the end of the 20th century.
In 1889, the Whartons bought a home in New York, and Edith accumulated a group of friends from old New York families who shared her interest in books and painting. She tended to draw around her a group of unmarried men who fed her intellectual interests and might give her a measure of attention. Among an early group were Ogden Codman, an architect, John Cadwalader, a lawyer, and Egerton Winthrop, a cosmopolitan widower twice Edith's age who introduced her to the scientific theory of evolution and directed her reading to Darwin, Spencer, Huxley, and Haeckel. Her fiction would reflect this influence as she created characters who were at once shaped by their surroundings and defeated by the unbending forces in their social environments.
At 26, with an independent fortune, Wharton began asserting herself in new ways; she was separating herself from her mother by putting distance between them, living in houses in New York (884 Park Avenue) and Newport (Land's End) that were at opposite ends of town from Lucretia's houses, and she was beginning to write poetry again. Three years later, her first short story was published by Edward Burlingame in Scribner's Magazine, but it would be a year before she completed another, as she began to suffer from bouts of illness which took the form of nausea, fatigue, and depression. The stories she wrote at this time, "The Fullness of Life," "The Valley of Childish Things," and "The Lamp of Psyche," are concerned with a theme that held Wharton captive in these years: a woman's disenchantment with the man she has loved. Moreover, Edith was becoming frustrated with the social life at Newport; entertaining depressed her because she felt that unlike their European counterparts, members of American high society were isolated and completely out of touch with cultural movements. Eventually, she would abandon Newport for Lenox, Massachusetts, where she would build a house modeled on Christopher Wren's Belton House in Lincolnshire. Wharton began to make new friends, such as Paul Bourget, a French intellectual and novelist, who would introduce her to the scholarly Englishwoman Violet Paget , who wrote under the pseudonym Vernon Lee and was the author of Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy, a book Edith knew and admired. Then, after a 14-year absence, Walter Berry re-entered her life to play a crucial role in supporting her ambition and her sense of identity as a creative artist. Berry helped her rewrite a book on The Decoration of Houses (1897) which she had been working on with Ogden Codman—an attack on the interior design of houses like the one in which she grew up for being unlivable, dreary places full of "exquisite discomfort." And it was Berry who was sympathetic during her periodic depressions, reminding her how, like herself, such writers as Flaubert and George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans ) were also prone to a loss of perspective after intense periods of concentration.
Wharton's steady, productive literary career did not begin until she was 37, in 1898. That year she made a list of "favorite books," which included the poetry of Walt Whitman, Madame Bovary, and Stendhal's La Chartreuse de Parme and Le Rouge et le noir. Her collection of short stories, The Greater Inclination, was published by Scribner's and the Bookman praised it for its "rare creative power called literary genius." Others spoke of her particular talent for conveying women's interior lives. Between 1900 and 1902, she would complete a novella, The Touchstone, another book of short stories, Crucial Instances, and a massive two-volume novel, The Valley of Decision. Moreover, she would make her mark in every literary genre, publishing poems, travel sketches, literary and dramatic criticism, and translations, as well as three plays of her own. As Wharton's creative energy grew, she added new friends to her inner circle, such as the art critic Bernard Berenson and the eminent novelist Henry James. Teddy's health worsened, and at 54, he suffered the first of a number of nervous breakdowns. His health always improved on a motor trip, and Edith took him to Italy where they drove through Tuscan cities for a magazine assignment that would become Italian Villas and Their Gardens. In 1904, in Paris, the couple purchased a Panhard-Levassor which Teddy drove happily through the French countryside, and in England they often picked up Henry James at his home in Rye, Sussex, and toured the area. James sometimes complained that Wharton could be a difficult and demanding, though never mean, companion. At times, he may very well have been envious of the enormous financial success of Wharton's fiction, especially in light of her already considerable independent wealth. The House of Mirth (1905), a satiric portrait of fashionable New York which maps the destruction of its beautiful and vital protagonist Lily Bart, sold more than 140,000 copies. Some said they recognized Walter Berry in the book's weak hero, Lawrence Selden, and Lily was the nickname Edith had been given by the Rutherford children in her youthful Newport days. The success of The House of Mirth inspired Paul Bourget to introduce Wharton to the intellectual and social circle of the Faubourg St. Germain in Paris where artists mixed with royalty. She was particularly taken with Comtesse Anna de Noailles , a beautiful, intense artist who entertained such guests as Marcel Proust. The atmosphere in these worldly salons of la belle époque gave individuals a wide berth in which to experiment and express themselves, and it was in this milieu that, at 45, Edith ventured into a love affair with a Parisian-based American journalist, Morton Fullerton. Wharton confided her thoughts in a journal addressed to Fullerton in which she expresses her joy in feeling an uninhibited sensual pleasure she had never before experienced, and she wrote a fictional fragment, "Beatrice Palmato," which specifically reflects this erotic knowledge. And, at the height of her involvement during an unwanted separation from Fullerton, she wrote a story, "The Choice," about a married woman who wishes that her husband would die. In 1908, her collection of short stories, The Hermit and the Wild Woman, reflects the themes of imprisonment and the failed desire to escape. Fullerton did not respond to the kind of escalating commitment Wharton desired, and it was a sense of hopelessness concerning their future together, as well as a growing despair about her relationship with Teddy, which dominated her life at this time. The intensity of these private feelings seemed to go directly into the fiction she was then working on, Ethan Frome, a novella, and the novel The Reef.
Teddy began to experience dramatic mood swings, and during a manic period he embezzled $50,000 out of Edith's trusts and admitted to purchasing an apartment in Boston for his mistress as well as renting out apartments for several chorus girls. He became extremely remorseful and Edith forgave him, although his emotional instability caused her to insist that he no longer be in charge of her financial arrangements. Teddy had no profession of his own and once he gave up this one function in Edith's life which caused her to rely upon him, he felt forlorn and useless and became abusive, insisting that she reinstate him in his financial position. In 1913, after various fruitless attempts to reconcile, they divorced.
Wharton remained in Paris and did not return to the United States to live. She never re-married. Though Fullerton remained part of her life for some time after their affair ended in 1910, she stayed closest to Walter Berry. After her divorce, she traveled extensively, but she kept to a daily routine of writing each morning, and except for an interruption during the Great War, sustained her enormous creative energy, publishing a book each year until her death.
In 1913, her most powerful novel to exploit her knowledge of prewar American and European society, The Custom of the Country, was serialized in Scribner's Magazine, and its reception confirmed her major importance as an American writer. Wharton felt that World War I permanently altered the nature of life, and found it difficult to get her literary bearings afterwards. With André Gide, she discussed the possibility of translating her novella Summer and The Custom of the Country into French. In 1920, she published The Age of Innocence, the story of a New York lawyer who attempts without success to escape from the society that shaped him. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize, making Wharton the first woman to be so honored. As a writer approaching the final stages of life, Wharton explored inter-generational relationships in novels like The Mother's Recompense and The Children. She published stories, novellas and novels, yet by the late 1920s feared that her current work would be considered old-fashioned, or that she had been away from America too long and was no longer writing in a current idiom. Wharton continued to receive enormous advances for her work and relied upon making large amounts of money to support her two homes, Pavillon Colombe, 12 miles outside of Paris, and her château, Ste. Claire, in southern France. Her style of living had always been lavish, with servants, a cook, chauffeur, and gardeners, and she was personally responsible for the support of a number of individuals. Sinclair Lewis and F. Scott Fitzgerald paid her homage, and she was the first woman to whom Yale offered an honorary doctorate. Wharton was also recommended for the Nobel Prize in Literature. She published her autobiography, A Backward Glance, in 1934, and at the time of her death in 1937 left unfinished a novel that would be published the following year as The Buccaneers.
Although Edith Wharton lived in and wrote about a world vastly different than that of the early 21st century, her work remains not only respected but widely popular with readers. A number of her novels also have been made into movies or television series, proving that her later fears of her writing being out of touch were wholly unfounded. While many of the conventions and strictures of society that she detailed with such a keen eye have vanished, the human impulses both behind and against them remain universal.
Lewis, R.W.B. Edith Wharton: A Biography. NY: Harper & Row, 1975.
Lubbock, Percy. Portrait of Edith Wharton. NY: D. Appleton-Century, 1947.
Wharton, Edith. A Backward Glance: The Autobiography of Edith Wharton. NY: Scribner, 1934.
Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. A Feast Of Words: The Triumph of Edith Wharton. NY: Oxford University Press, 1977.
Howe, Irving, ed. Edith Wharton: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1962.
The Age of Innocence (81 min. film), starring Irene Dunne , Lionel Atwill, and Helen Westley, released in 1934.
Ethan Frome (107 min. film), starring Liam Neeson, Joan Allen , and Patricia Arquette , released in 1993 (an earlier televised adaptation of Ethan Frome starred Julie Harris and Sterling Hayden).
The House of Mirth (film), starring Gillian Anderson and Eric Stoltz, released in 2000.
Alice Goode-Elman , author of various publications and Department Head, Humanities, Suffolk Community College, Selden, New York