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The Rescue of Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton: A Biography

by R.W.B. Lewis
Harper & Row, 592 pp., $15.00

Cunnilingus between father and daughter is an uncommon theme to engage the pen of a septuagenarian lady of fashion, even when she also happens to be a literary genius. If Edith Wharton detailed and preserved a vivid fantasy of incestuous passion around the time she was writing her autobiography, one may be excused for asking how it fits into the pattern of her family history.

Several of Wharton’s most brilliant works have hints of incest among their motifs. In the superb short novel Summer, for example, a middle-aged lawyer marries a girl whom he had adopted as an infant and who bears his name. There is evidence that Wharton, in her mid-forties, heard and ridiculed a rumor that she was herself illegitimate. She had grown up as a literary swan in a flock of Philistine ducks, and the rumor may have arisen from that glaring fact. But such a story would also have made it easier for her to handle some unconscious attitudes toward her father and one brother. One attraction of being thought a bastard is that the condition liberates one for sexual relations within the family.

Wharton had to face the situation directly at the age when sexual pressures rise as menopause approaches; for the single openly passionate relationship of her life was established in her forty-seventh year with a man already engaged to a girl who had been brought up as his own sister. This androgynous Casanova from Waltham, Mass., was named Morton Fullerton. Short, slight, and boyishly intellectual, he drifted high-mindedly into affairs with both sexes, and his fantasies about women were filial.

Edith Wharton succumbed to Fullerton because he allowed her to shift roles gracefully, from spiritual comrade to lustful mistress. Her uncertain sexual character was not challenged by him. She could be dependent and obliging in the bedroom, bossy in the drawing room, collegiate in the study. She could put him off when he made advances or carry him away on pastoral-erotic weekends, like a mature Artemis yielding to a mustachioed Hippolytus.

It is not surprising that in her subtlest novel, The Reef, Wharton recalled not only her affair with Fullerton but also the patterns of Racine’s Phèdre, with Psyche and Oedipus thrown in. The heroine, Anna, is the widow of Fraser Leath (cf. death and Lethe), with a stepson, Owen, by her late husband’s first marriage. She lives with Lucretia de Chantelle, her mother-in-law, whose barren second marriage had been with a French aristocrat, now dead. The ancestral seat of that marquis is the setting of the story, though all the characters are American.

Anna also has a little girl of her own, the one bright episode in a loveless match with an epicene spouse. Now she wishes to make the most of the vitality that remains to her, and marry George Darrow, a bachelor diplomat. But the two are hardly engaged when Anna finds that George has repeatedly lied to her about his liaison with a much younger woman, Sophie, now unfortunately on the brink of marrying the stepson. Even while Anna’s love for George remains too powerful for her to give him up, her gnawing distrust of his words and gestures keeps her from being happy in his presence.

The parallels between Darrow’s conduct and Fullerton’s promiscuous adaptability are obvious. So are the parallels between Anna’s foot-dragging reversals of attitude and Edith Wharton’s. So also are those between Owen—a remarkably innocent youth who loves field sports—and the Hippolyte of Racine’s tragedy, which was one of Wharton’s favorite books. In that masterpiece a second wife (Phèdre), who thinks her husband is dead, yields to a ruinous desire for her stepson (Hippolyte).

As Wharton elaborates the plot of The Reef, she quietly compares the masochistically inquisitive Anna (Wharton’s curiosity was notorious) to Oedipus; and she compares Anna’s love to the light that deprived Psyche of Cupid. Wharton’s account of Darrow’s dallying with Sophie is demonstrably drawn from Fullerton’s connection with Wharton; and few readers will doubt that the incestuous fantasy of Wharton’s old age derived from the same source.

Why should sexual passion, for Wharton, have evoked relations with fathers and brothers? A strange feature of The Reef is the establishment of a completely American dramatis personae in a French family seat. This becomes less odd when we realize that “George” and “Lucretia” are the names of Wharton’s father and mother, and that in spite of their ancient American roots not only they but also their three children died in France.

Wharton’s parents, George and Lucretia Jones, were rich and as well-born as New Yorkers could be. Yet they led curiously mobile lives, and Edith had meager opportunities to make deep attachments outside the family. The child was only four when she went abroad with her invariably kind governess, her strong-willed and clothes-conscious mother, and her mild, much-loved father. An elder brother, Freddy, stayed behind and married; sixteen-year-old Harry went to Cambridge University; and the rest of the family ambled over Western Europe until Edith was ten.

When they returned to this country, they proceeded to divide their time between houses in Newport and Manhattan. Harry was with them, adored by a sister half his age. Wharton once said her literary taste and creative powers came from her father—a lonely man, she said, “haunted by something always unexpressed and unattained”; and she blamed her earth-bound mother for shriveling up his “buds of fancy.” In herself, I suppose the girl hoped to give her father’s spirit the life it had missed. Not only was Wharton drawn to men like him; she wished to be the person he might have been.

It was Lucretia who held the decisive place in the family. Elegant speech and fastidious use of language were among her contributions to the girl’s education. If Mr. Jones supplied a library of standard authors, Mrs. Jones supervised Edith’s reading, depriving her of most novels and compelling her to fall back on Dante, Racine, and others of that class. European culture came to the girl naturally; she picked up French, German, and Italian during childhood and practiced them with tutors after the family came back to America in 1872. Even as a child, she could judge the suffocating ugliness of our towns against the standard of Paris and Rome. When she finally settled permanently in France, she was only reviving the scenes of her childhood. Both her brothers had homes there before her.

In 1879 George Jones became ill; and on the advice of doctors, the foursome renewed their European travels when Edith was almost eighteen. But Mediterranean weather failed to heal him, and he died in Cannes over two years later. An eligible young man had courted Edith Jones in New York, Newport, and Bar Harbor; he followed her to Europe and pursued her again in Newport when the mother and two children were once more there. The couple became engaged at last; but a few months before Edith turned twenty-one, the resistance of her fiancé’s mercenary mother forced her to break the engagement.

Edith’s humiliation was crowned at Bar Harbor the following summer when another appropriate young man, Walter Berry, seemed to take her to the verge of matrimony but then evaporate. From the girl’s point of view her efforts—which we know were hesitant—to leave the family had produced shame and misery.

Unsure of her feminine character, grieving over the loss of her amiable father, shaken by two additional desertions, and yoked to a capricious mother, Edith was at last steered into marriage with Edward (“Teddy”) Wharton, born in Brookline and educated at Harvard. He was an affable and humorous gentleman thirteen years her senior, or about the age of the adored brother Harry; and like Harry he lived at home with his mother, whom he once described as “the most attractive woman I know.” Teddy Wharton’s family was perfectly correct; yet he had no career, and his fortune was inferior to his wife’s.

Although Teddy possessed an adaptable nature and enjoyed the outdoors, his sexual habits left him more at ease with coarse or humble women than with those of his own class. Edith Wharton received no information about sexual functions before her marriage. While she was certainly repressed, she had strong sexual impulses; and in the affair with Fullerton she deeply enjoyed every aspect of physical relations. But Teddy’s fumblings were aggravated by the bride’s reluctance. Not only was the consummation of the marriage delayed for three weeks after the wedding, but it was also a disaster from which the couple never recovered; for they never repeated the critical experiment.

In “Beatrice Palmato,” the incestuous fantasy of her old age, Wharton has the girl’s father arrange a marriage for her with a simple-minded country squire, in order to screen his own intercourse. The squire is clumsy and inadequate in bed; and Beatrice yearns for her father’s accomplishments “with the more passionate eagerness bred of privation and of the dull misery of her marriage.” The product of the furtive liaison is an “original, brilliant” bastard girl to be set beside the dull boy sired by the husband.

Only a fool would treat the incest motif as the key to Wharton’s superb art. But it does illustrate how pervasively her family history is distributed through her work. The ineffectual men of the four best novels—The House of Mirth, The Reef, The Custom of the Country, and The Age of Innocence—mingle the traits of her father, brother, and husband, of Berry and Fullerton, each of whom was a variation on his predecessor. As an adult, Edith Wharton was most at ease among males who did not challenge her to assert her womanhood: effete or homosexual men, a French novelist with a sickly wife, a Jewish art historian—comrades who were matrimonially unthinkable for an endogamous blue blood. As well dressed as her mother, and often as demanding, she laughed and joked with them the way a bright tomboy might do with a sympathetic papa or big brother. The betrayed women of her tragedies—Lily Bart in The House of Mirth, Anna in The Reef, Charity Royall in Summer—display the reversals of feeling, the split between heart and morality, that cursed Wharton’s own life.

The value of her work may have little to do with its hidden origins; but creative work, as a writer, gardener, and interior decorator, was clearly what rescued her. Without that she would have succumbed to the panies of her childhood, the breakdowns of her early married years, and the neurotic depressions and exhaustions of maturity. A woman of incredible energy and vitality, she kept her balance with the help of a relentless social round, but it was literary accomplishment that supplied the gyroscope of her selfhood.

From the abundance of her bleak frustrations Wharton wrung a view of human possibility that must touch any perceptive reader. She may seem to deal with the evolution of manners and the woes of marriage. But she really employs these materials to illustrate deep and persuasive moral insights. A story like “Bunner Sisters,” a novella like Ethan Frome or Summer, achieves its immense power by the victory of her imagination over the apparent straitness of her background. In these amazing works she deals with the most impoverished of American lives, always implying that in the lowest as in the highest strata of society the chance of sinking yet farther or of aspiring yet higher remains present. No class is exempt from the dangers of pride or the chastening rod of humiliation.

By careful adjustments of her point of view; by a loving attention to landscape, architecture, and furniture; by a classic, often ironic prose style; and by evocative images and allusions, Wharton gave the dramatic turns of her fiction the suggestiveness of a parable. So Ann Eliza Bunner, a destitute spinster falling into beggary, must learn that her married sister has endured inconceivable abominations. Self-sacrifice, she finds, may darken one’s own life; it will rarely brighten another’s. In Summer, what looks like the last abyss of degradation opens to disclose yet lower reaches, grimly identified with a series of decayed dwellings ending in a wilderness shanty.

The doctrine that emerges is not simple. For Wharton, life without love is insipid. But love outside social institutions is self-devouring; and marriage means a gray compromise as integrity yields to need. The best things in life are anything but free, because few forms of happiness can be purchased except at the cost of a friend’s pain.

Thus in The Reef, if Anna can bring herself to retain George Darrow, it is only after Owen has lost Sophie and fled from his devoted stepmother. At times Wharton even implies there is a law of the conservation of happiness, and that hedonists who deny it only succeed in disguising their vices as renunciations. This is the point of her masterly story “The Eyes,” based on the characters of Fullerton and Berry.

Yet it was Berry who meant most to her. Teddy Wharton was reduced to the role of an equerry as his wife’s absorption in other people grew with her fame and wealth. He became a difficult manic-depressive whom (with many misgivings) she divorced even while her brother Harry was at last in the process of being married—at sixty-three!—to a mistress whom Edith could not treat kindly. The older brother, Freddy, had been divorced long since; but Edith remained an intimate friend of his former wife. I think she had shunned his example but felt strengthened in the resolve to discard Teddy by the spectacle of her favorite’s treachery.

Berry often went out with beautiful young women, but he never married. A distinguished international lawyer, he at last accepted a lucrative post in Paris, where he mixed gracefully with old families and young artists. When he fell in love, it was probably with men, but the evidence is ambiguous. After re-entering Wharton’s life near the beginning of her literary career, he certainly devoted himself to her. He became an intellectual and literary mentor, training her taste and her style.

But Percy Lubbock, one of Wharton’s most knowledgeable admirers, said Berry represented the worst influence upon her character, inculcating a narrow rationalism and drying up her sympathies. The description makes him sound like Fraser Leath in The Reef. In Berry, we are told, there existed “the harshness of a dogmatist, the bleakness of an egotist, and the pretentiousness…of a snob.” As for Wharton’s lifelong intimacy with him, “if ever there was a friendship that needed to be sunned and freshened by exposure to the light, to the…common influences of the weather, it was a friendship with that man.” I am persuaded by this analysis. It would not be the first time that “an adventurous mind and a genial imagination” have been chained—consciously, I suspect—to a pygmy’s car. Nevertheless, Edith Wharton saw to it that when she died her grave should be dug beside that of Walter Berry.

R. W. B. Lewis’s life of Wharton is one of the most efficient literary biographies I have read. Few scholars could in so short a time have taken materials so copious and reduced them to a book so comprehensive and lively, orderly and fresh, rich in new discoveries but directed toward psychological insight and critical judgment. Much of the work, as Lewis eloquently acknowledges, comes from the research of others, notably the startling account of Fullerton, the fragment of “Beatrice Palmato,” and the backgrounds of Wharton’s French acquaintances.

But it is Lewis who went through thousands of manuscripts in institutional libraries and private collections. It is he who interviewed and corresponded with the surviving friends of Edith Wharton. It is Lewis who mastered Wharton’s bulky oeuvre and assimilated the numerous published sources dealing with her life and works. Though he received lavish support from expert assistants, it is he who imposed a clear design upon a useful, readable book.

That design is essentially a chronicle of the events in Wharton’s life with anticipatory surveys at the start of each section and pauses for brief summaries and analyses of the works as they were written and published. Lewis provides neat, suggestive sketches of scores of people she knew, with full characterizations of the chief figures and brief essays on important topics. He keeps us in touch with public affairs as they affect Wharton’s development. At appropriate moments he indulges in cautious and convincing interpretations of her emotional crises or psychosomatic illnesses. In examining the main works, he tactfully connects the themes and persons with Wharton’s own friends and preoccupations.

Lewis has a light touch with literary criticism. He indicates his preferences and suggests Wharton’s fundamental lines of development. But he allows himself little space to enlarge on even the most important novels. I am not always persuaded by his judgment. The biographical interpretation of The Age of Innocence is elegant and illuminating, well-phrased and even moving. But the summary of the plot of The House of Mirth has some errors; and in his penetrating appreciation of The Custom of the Country, Lewis gives Wharton’s bland view of social history more backing than it deserves. His judgment of the short stories is sometimes capricious. To single out “The Other Two” as Wharton’s “most nearly perfect short story” and then to misinterpret it (the point is not the pliability of the wife but the husband’s compromise with that pliability) seems a fault of both taste and understanding.

The effect of the book is one of disciplined factuality. Lewis writes with grace and clarity, often with wit. If he allows himself some curious solecisms, he also modulates his style nicely from crispness to eloquence. Yet the facts are what count most: the value and interest of the book finally rest on them; and I think few readers will find them dull.

So I worry about the difficulty of verifying most of Lewis’s information, coming as it does from unpublished documents. Where I can check, the standard of accuracy is not always high. For example, the account of the Boswell papers is incorrect. The summary of the plot of The Reef has several mistakes. Lewis might well have been less casual about supplying references for particular data. He has no system of notes, and usually one cannot tell where he found his evidence. Since this shapely, absorbing biography must be the starting point of all future studies of Wharton, the lack of documentation will trouble many scholars.

The choice of details and the proportions of the chronicle might also be queried. Most readers would have desired more attention to Wharton’s early years and less to the final decade and a half. We could have done with fuller information—or even a few guesses—about her parents and brothers. The portrait of the father is sketchy. We are barely told that Freddy was divorced, but neither when nor why. How about the rumor that he left his wife for a mistress in 1896?

Wharton traveled incessantly, and maintained a social calendar that would have taxed the stamina of a royal personage. Lewis might have preserved fewer notes of her engagements and expeditions. One house party or luncheon is very like another, even if one meets the Comtesse de Noailles and the Marquess of Ripon. So also he might have omitted the discussion of many minor works and left himself scope for a more lingering view of the best.

The book dazzles us with more glittering trifles than we require. I suppose some readers will be glad to learn what Edith Wharton served at her picnics (ham, chicken, eggs, olives, etc.), or how many silver knives she once borrowed from Henry Adams’s lady friend (four dozen). But would they rather receive such knowledge than the following anecdote, about teen-age Edith, which Lewis shrinks to half a sentence?

It was not thought necessary to feed my literary ambitions with foolscap, and for lack of paper I was driven to begging for the wrappings of the parcels delivered at the house. After a while these were regarded as belonging to me, and I always kept a stack in my room. It never occurred to me to fold and cut the big brown sheets, and I used to spread them on the floor and travel over them on my hands and knees, building up long parallel columns of blank verse headed: “Scene: A Venetian palace,” or “Dramatis Personae” (which I never knew how to pronounce).

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