by Hermione Lee
Knopf, 869 pp., $35.00
The main impression one has of Edith Wharton after reading this full-scale biography is what a dynamo she was. Whether she was writing her novels or organizing her research for them, setting up hospitals in France during World War I, motoring or sailing about Europe with friends, laying out impressive gardens, building or rebuilding houses and writing about it, entertaining, reading Dante in Italian or Goethe in German or Proust in French, looking at paintings, arranging for her own divorce, putting everyone in his or her place, sweetly or maliciously but always firmly—whatever she was doing, she was inexhaustible. She admired steadiness of spirit and self-discipline in others and could vouch for her own rigorous virtues. She had two aspects: forbidding in public, the perfect dowager; and light-hearted and amusing in private. But even with friends every moment of the day was calibrated down to the second. When she became too exacting and bossy one of her indulgent friends would say she was “Edith at her Edithest.”
Hermione Lee’s triumph lies in rendering the dynamism and integrity of this sometimes remote and always willful and stoic woman without leaving out the nuances, the soft exceptions and endearing contradictions. For instance, who would have guessed that Edith Wharton was so funny—even campy? One of her characters, a female novelist, says, “A keen sense of copyright is my nearest approach to an emotion.” In writing about the excessive use of draperies in American houses, Wharton complains of “lingerie effects.” She kept a commonplace book and a donnée book all her life and extracted from them some of the more pointed remarks in her novels. In one manuscript she wrote, “She wore the most expensive gowns with a penitential air, as though she were under a vow of wealth.”
Wharton could be terribly snobbish. She dismissed America as a land where people ate bananas for breakfast. When one rich American lady was showing off her house and said, “And this I call my Louis Quinze room,” Edith supposedly raised her lorgnette and murmured, “Why, my dear?” In speaking of some neighbors in Lenox, Massachusetts, she said that they had “decided to have books in their library.” Once, looking at a publicity photograph of herself, she said it made her look like “a combination of a South Dakota divorcée & a magnetic healer.” Of Americans in Europe she said they were all “in the same attitude of chronic opposition to a society chronically unaware of them.”
Few biographies could have been more difficult to write. Wharton destroyed all the letters she received and begged her correspondents to destroy those she had sent them. Unfortunately almost all cooperated, but her caddish lover Morton Fullerton kept her letters, which were written with a passion no one had suspected. She wrote a memoir, A Backward Glance, but she was extremely reticent in it. She mentioned few of her close friends, nothing about her lover, little about her husband or divorce. But the problem of writing about Wharton is not only that she covered her traces. Another challenge arises from the fact that she lived such a big life, went so many places, knew so many people, and was such an ambitious culture vulture. Biography is usually the revenge of little people on big people (the application of the biographer’s petit bourgeois campus morality, for instance, to uncautious international high flyers), but Lee is subtle and big-hearted enough to understand her subject.
Lee isn’t alarmed by the fact that toward the end of her life Wharton had twenty-two servants in two houses; at the same time she refuses to turn Wharton into a sort of American duchess, which is what Percy Lubbock did in his hostile, pioneering biography. Wharton was obviously very fair and generous to her staff; they stayed loyal to her over the years and she gave them pensions when they retired.
Lee is careful to point out that Wharton could be anti-Semitic but in the conventional way characteristic of her class and epoch—and she is less virulent in her novels than in her letters (though there is a caricatured Jew, Rosedale, in The House of Mirth). In a letter to Scott Fitzgerald about The Great Gatsby she complimented him for his “perfect Jew,” Gatsby’s crooked friend Meyer Wolfsheim; but she was decidedly for exonerating the Jewish scapegoat Alfred Dreyfus, whereas her earliest French friend, the novelist Paul Bourget, and most of the French and American members of her Paris circle were violently anti-Dreyfusard. In her pro-Dreyfus sentiments she was like Proust, another anti-Semite (though half-Jewish), but she refused to meet Proust precisely because she’d heard that he was snobbish to a fault. (Her social reluctance did not keep her from reading Proust and praising him in print over the years and sending Henry James the first volume of the Recherche soon after it was published.) She drifted toward Catholicism after World War I, but the attraction was as much aesthetic as devotional, and she said, “I don’t believe in God, but I believe in his saints.” This was the sort of (frivolous? honest?) comment worthy of her friend the society priest the Abbé Mugnier, who, when asked if he believed in hell, replied that he had to believe in it since it was a matter of doctrine, but that he didn’t think anyone was in it.
Lee is equally good about the novels. She points out that Wharton ignored many of the great movements and issues of her day and wrote nothing about immigration to America, industrialization, the robber barons, or the amazing technological innovations of the turn of the century. What she did write about were a host of small social questions: “How would a weekend on the Hudson differ from one in Newport or on Long Island? When did lawn tennis supersede archery as the fashionable Newport sport? Why would no one except an eccentric dream of giving a party in Newport on Cup Race Day?” Wharton also shows the rough-and-ready manners of the nouveaux riches; Undine Spragg in The Custom of the Country is greedy and relentless and strangely cold. In one breathtaking passage she thinks about her son Paul, whom she has abandoned and left with his father: “It was dreadful that her little boy should be growing up far away from her, perhaps dressed in clothes she would have hated….”
Lee never reduces Wharton’s books to veiled autobiography, just as she is never reluctant to interpret them in the light of Wharton’s life. She shows how over the course of her long if late-starting career (Wharton published forty-eight titles) she returns again and again to the themes of her own life—repression, sexual hypocrisy, hidden longings. In the 1930s, at the very moment Wharton began to be seen as old-fashioned and excessively ladylike, she was simultaneously rejected by the mass-market magazines, according to Lee, for being “too shocking and grim for optimistic American post-war readers.” By reading Wharton’s entire oeuvre attentively, Lee is able to point out previously unsuspected continuities and sudden ruptures and departures. Lee devotes many pages (for my taste too many) to Wharton’s building and furnishing of houses and her ambitious gardening, and she shows how her early books The Decoration of Houses (written with Ogden Codman) and Italian Villas and Their Gardens demonstrate her concern with the “ethics of style.” For Wharton rooms and gardens were never merely pretty or convenient. “Structure conditions ornament,” she wrote with typical severity, “not ornament structure.”
The moral preoccupations of living arrangements merged into similar ethical concerns in her fiction. In this way Wharton is indisputably a descendant of Hawthorne and a niece to Henry James. But whereas James, for instance, keeps the exact nature of the contested antique pieces of furniture deliberately vague in The Spoils of Poynton (“the array of them, miles away, was complete; each piece, in its turn, was perfect to her; she could have drawn up a catalogue from memory”), Wharton is able to spell out every horror (the cabbage-rose-garlanded carpets, the looped-back yellow damask portiere) and does so with relish.
Lee isn’t reluctant to say which of Wharton’s books she likes and why. She considers The Custom of the Country to be Wharton’s masterpiece (not the more obvious choice, The House of Mirth) and she champions the late novel The Children (1927) and states unequivocally, “Though it has its flaws, it is the most remarkable and surprising of the novels that came after The Age of Innocence.”
Lee is so immersed in Wharton’s life that she sees even the writer’s inferior novels as variations on successful themes developed elsewhere. No one today reads Wharton’s Glimpses of the Moon, for instance, but Lee makes a case for it as a way of converting the tragic situation of The House of Mirth into comedy. Wharton saw it as in the vein of Browning’s elegy for hedonism, “A Toccata of Galuppi’s,” in which the question is posed, “What of soul was left, I wonder, when the kissing had to stop?” For Wharton’s callous young lovers, Venice was simply regarded as a place “affording exceptional opportunities for bathing and adultery.”
Even in the best of Wharton, I’d hazard, there is always something slightly trashy—not in the sex scenes, which are usually convincing and deeply felt and shockingly intimate, but in the melodramatic plot twists, as though Henry James and Wilkie Collins were always struggling over her soul. For instance, in the beginning of The Reef a penniless American ingénue, Sophy Viner, has a romantic and sexual fling in Paris with the wealthy, worldly George Darrow, and these are some of the finest pages Wharton ever wrote. Darrow has put the girl up in a luxurious hotel, her room next to his, and when she enters her room from the corridor he can picture it all:
Everything in it rose before him and pressed itself upon his vision with the same acuity of distinctness as the objects surrounding him. A step sounded on the floor, and he knew which way the step was directed, what pieces of furniture it had to skirt, where it would probably pause, and what was likely to arrest it. He heard another sound and recognized it as that of a wet umbrella placed in the black marble jamb of the chimney-piece, against the hearth. He caught a creak of the hinge, and instantly differentiated it as that of the wardrobe against the opposite wall….
This is the language of desire, hallucinatory and precise.
But then, as if her readers would be disappointed with nothing but a persuasive rendering of sexual excitement, Wharton follows it with the rusty machinery of coincidence and social convention. Darrow is engaged to Anna, a rich American, the widow of a French aristocrat. Sophy has by chance been hired by Anna to work as a governess in the same château; Owen, Anna’s son, falls in love with Sophy. Anna is in love with Darrow but she learns that he’s been sleeping with Sophy, her son’s fiancée—and on and on, through the heavy-handed twists and turns. For me at least this artificial “author-manipulation” (as it’s called in creative writing manuals) spoils the very naturalness of the opening.
Edith Jones was born on January 24, 1862, at 14 West 23rd Street in New York City. Her father had extensive Manhattan land holdings and her mother was from an old, prominent family, the Rhinelanders. Throughout her girlhood Edith was known as “Pussy Jones” and intimate friends always called her “Pussy.” Two of her great-aunts (daughters of John Mason, one of the founders of the Chemical Bank) built impressive houses in what was considered the wilds above 57th Street; the urge to rival them supposedly gave birth to the expression “keeping up with the Joneses.” One of these two great-aunts was the model for Mrs. Manson Mingott in The Age of Innocence—a grande dame who ruled her world “with a kind of haughty effrontery.” Pussy was red-haired with intense eyes but by no means a beauty; she was not “good-featured.” She was a withdrawn child with an icy, disapproving mother named Lucretia; she would often be called “cold” and “inexpressive.” Edith once said of her childhood, “I had two absolutely inscrutable beings to please—God and my mother.” She gave up believing in either of them.
Edith had the run of her father’s library and was always reading; in fact one of her relatives warned his child against reading too much lest she come to resemble “weird cousin Edith.” She was very shy and once as an adult in England when she was reluctant to come indoors to meet the elderly novelist George Meredith she explained that she was opposed to “human sight-seeing.” This reluctance did not extend to places; she said she wanted to travel everywhere and “eat the world leaf by leaf.”
When she was just four her family moved to Europe and stayed there for the next six years, until 1872. Her early exposure to German, French, and Italian meant that she was extremely proficient in these languages (much later she wrote the first draft of her most American novel, Ethan Frome, in French as an exercise), though it seems she spoke French with a strong American accent which made her public speeches in that language painful to listen to.
As a small child she had a curious practice of what she called “making up.” Before she could read she would sit for hours with a book in her lap and pretend she was reading a story from it. The blacker and denser the print the better. She would walk up and down rapidly and enter into a sort of ecstasy of spoken composition; once her mother tried to take down what she was saying but couldn’t keep up. When a child came to pay a call, she asked her mother to “entertain that little girl for me. I’ve got to make up.” Later, when she learned to read, her delving into real texts continued to parallel these obsessive inventions.
As a teenager she began to read serious writers—Herbert Spencer, Darwin, and Nietzsche. She received little instruction but taught herself how to read and to write; one of her friends used to say that Edith Wharton and her friend Teddy Roosevelt were “both self-made men.” Despite her precocious reading and the private publication of her verses when she was sixteen, she was slow to develop her talent. She was thirty-seven before she became a professional writer.
In the interim she married (at age twenty-two) and immediately fell into twelve years of depression and daily bouts of nausea. During that long period she suffered from continuous ill-health and mental lassitude. She and her husband, Teddy Wharton, had little in common. Sexually their relationship was a disaster from the start—separate bedrooms, no children, much frustration. Teddy was at first blush a joking, easy-going clubman, but it turned out he had inherited the mental illness that had driven his father to suicide. Teddy seems to us like a classic bipolar case: he would go on wild, aggressive tangents and then subside into mute depression. He had almost no culture, little money, few interests beyond motoring, and no judgment at all; what he did possess was a good pedigree. Maybe he was the only eligible man to propose marriage to the odd, chilly Pussy Jones.
In 1888, three years after they were married, Edith inherited a substantial legacy and decided against everyone’s advice to spend $10,000 of it on a three-month cruise of the Mediterranean in a 167-foot-long steam yacht with her husband and a crew of sixteen. No casual tourist, she came armed with scholarly works in several languages and applied herself to every Greek isle and Italian port with formidable energy. All her life she would be what Henry James called a “passionate pilgrim.”
Edith’s twelve years of unhappiness came to an end when she and her husband at last moved away from Newport (and the proximity to her mother and other relatives) and took up living in Lenox, Massachusetts, also a “social” town but one with more scope for Edith. It was there that she built a thirty-five-room house, The Mount, which Henry James described as “a delicate French château mirrored in a Massachusetts pond.” At last she was able to get rid of the clutter and ill-sorted bric-a-brac of her Victorian girlhood. Her book on decoration was so successful that it banished forever the practice of having in the same house various rooms from different cultures and epochs (the Turkish corner, the Gothic dining hall, the Louis XVI bedroom, etc.).
But if the building and decorating of her house (and entertaining artistic and intellectual friends) pulled her out of her long slump, what finally saved her was writing, “making up” short stories and novels and nonfiction books. In 1899 she published The Greater Inclination, her first collection of stories. The next year she brought out a novella, The Touchstone, and soon after, in 1902, a historical novel, The Valley of Decision, set in eighteenth-century Italy. Henry James read this book, complimented Wharton on it, but told her to turn to “the American Subject. There it is around you. Don’t pass it by—the immediate, the real, the only, the yours, the novelist’s that it waits for. Take hold of it and keep hold and let it pull you where it will…Do New York!”
She followed his advice and at age forty-three published The House of Mirth, which was both a critical and commercial success (it sold 140,000 copies in its first year). In fact she’d been scribbling unsuccessfully for some thirty years; in this way, as in so many others, she resembled Proust, who also had a very long if nearly invisible (to his contemporaries) apprenticeship. As she put it, she had now become a citizen “of the Land of Letters.” In Lily Bart she’d created, as Lee justifiably claims, a tragic heroine of the stature of Isabel Archer and Emma Bovary. Lily has no money but is beautiful and charming and well-connected, though she “cannot quite turn herself into a commodity.” Slowly she slips down the social ladder and ends up killing herself in a rented room. Though Lee is quite right in saying that Wharton was hostile to feminists, nevertheless she was an expert in dramatizing “the politics of sexual injustice.”
Once she was launched with The House of Mirth in 1905, Wharton began to publish at the rate of a book a year, more or less. As she prospered her husband became increasingly crazy and sometimes unmanageable, subject to sudden rages or just drunken sprees. During these stressful if artistically fulfilling years Wharton came to depend on her closest friend, the cultivated lawyer Walter Berry. She had realized straightaway after meeting Berry in Newport in 1883 that his friendship would mean much more to her than any potential flirtation. He disappeared from her life for more than a decade but then reemerged in Paris, where she and her ailing husband settled full-time in 1911 (though they had been living there off and on from 1906 on). Berry, who specialized in Anglo-French legal dealings, was known as the “first American citizen of Paris.”
Wharton loved France and its culture and her admiration served as a theme in her writing as well as a useful counterexample to the rawer American experience. In 1906 she and her husband bought their first car and began to make their “motor-flights” with friends throughout France, England, Italy, Germany, and Spain. Again, these tours were rapid, highly cultured, and tightly organized. They were driven by a chauffeur and the maids and other staff members were sent ahead on the train to prepare for their arrival. In 1908 she published A Motor-Flight Through France.
One of her frequent passengers was Henry James, with whom she enjoyed a strong literary friendship until his death in 1916. James introduced her to his circle of younger, admiring gay men (Percy Lubbock, Kenneth Clark, Howard Sturgis) and for the rest of her life she counted many gay and bisexual men in her intimate circle. As Hermione Lee writes: “This was the only family where Wharton felt secure.” It stood in contrast to her formal French world of the Faubourg St. Germain and the mindless, selfish world of her New York set. One of her friends called Wharton’s gay friends her “male wives.”
But as Lee puts it, “Hugging and yearning went along with satire and malice.” James liked to present himself to his other friends as the impoverished country cousin whom the demonic lady would swoop down on, drive around in her roaring car, and then drop when he was exhausted and wrung dry. In a letter to a friend, James (referring to himself in the third person) complained “that such fantastic wealth and freedom were not his portion—such incoherence, such a nightmare of perpetually renewable choice and decision, such a luxury of bloated alternatives….” James called her Panhard-Levassor the “Vehicle of Passion” and turned it into a metaphor for Wharton herself, “the wondrous cushioned general Car of your so wondrously India-rubber-tyred and deep-cushioned fortune.” That was to her face, but behind her back James referred to her as “The Angel of Devastation” or “The Firebird” (after the new Stravinsky ballet).
From the beginning of her career Wharton was always discussed by critics as a sort of poor man’s version of Henry James. Of course there are strong resemblances: the subject of the young woman obliged to make crucial decisions about her future in a society where she is kept mostly in the dark; the combination of melodramatic plots, witty and refined dialogue, and a richly nuanced narrative voice; a point of view restricted to one or two characters; the shared interest in ghost stories and the uncanny; and, most importantly, the international theme. Like James she was more a great romantic like Balzac than a modern ironist like the Flaubert of A Sentimental Education. Characteristically, when she read poetry she marked the romantic passages, whereas when she read fiction she underlined the epigrams.
There are also great differences. James usually stays true to his “super-subtle fry” as he called them, whereas Wharton tried to deal with the proletariat in her novels Ethan Frome and Summer, both based on her desire to imagine her way into the lives of the poor she observed in or near Lenox, Massachusetts. James’s heroines are nearly always pure and innocent compared to the schemers who surround them (Milly Theale in The Wings of the Dove, Isabel Archer in Portrait of a Lady), whereas Wharton’s women are less idealized and more disabused, even frankly opportunistic (Undine Spragg in The Custom of the Country). In the late James novels (The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl—books that Wharton considered unreadable) the moral point of view can seem perversely, excruciatingly remote from everyday experience. Perhaps because Wharton had actually grown up in an elite New York family, had married and eventually divorced, had had a lover, hidden her passions, and played a big part on the Paris social stage, she was more informed about—and more interested in—the nuances of the rich and the powerful; her very knowledge made her less likely to rethink social realities and use them as allegorical tropes. Still, Wharton always recognized James as the master he was, and he in turn praised and encouraged her, despite the sometimes hypercritical remarks he made to her about her work.
Edith was married to Teddy Wharton for twenty-eight years. When she was fifty-one she divorced him after he had speculated disastrously with $50,000 of her fortune, lived riotously in Boston with another woman, and returned to Paris to subject her to violent abuse. She wrote patient and prudent letters to Teddy and made copies that she carefully set aside and marked “For my biographer.” As she entered into painful divorce proceedings (unusual and scandalous for the period), she relied more and more on her friendships with Bernard Berenson and Walter Berry. Her divorce became final in 1913.
The high point of her romantic life was her affair with Morton Fullerton. Henry James had sent him to her door in Paris in 1907, when Edith was forty-six, though James had warned her that Fullerton was unreliable (“He’s so incalculable”). Fullerton was a forty-two-year-old American, a Paris correspondent for the London Times since 1891, and a magnetic bisexual (he had an affair with Lord Roland Gower, the model for Oscar Wilde’s Lord Henry in The Picture of Dorian Gray). After a “motor-flight” with Edith, Fullerton sent her a thank-you note and a branch of witch hazel. Immediately she began a secret erotic journal, which she called “The Life Apart: L’Âme Close.” They became lovers, ate in bad restaurants on the Left Bank where they would be sure not to see anyone they knew, snatched moments together in America and France. As Lee observes, “Happiness made her sad.” Wharton confided to her journal, “Now I am asking to be happy all the rest of my life.”
As is the case with so many writers, Edith “dramatized her love-affair and watched herself having it,” in Lee’s phrase. She longed to unpack for Fullerton her inner treasures but feared they’d seem to him like “the old familiar red calico beads of the clever trader.” Wharton based some of the inexplicit but steamy sex scenes in her novel The Reef on her affair with him (a book he not only inspired but advised her on). Fullerton, despite his affairs with men such as Bliss Carman, the American poet, was a tireless bachelor womanizer; he took up with Wharton while he was living with a French actress who blackmailed him (she had incriminating love letters from Lord Gower), and Edith and Henry James helped him pay her off.
As Lee summarizes, “So, when Morton Fullerton met Edith Wharton in 1907, he had a potentially scandalous homosexual past, a French wife whom he had divorced with startling rapidity, a blackmailing mistress, in whose house he was still living (for convenience, not as a lover), and a frustrated career.” Why did James send such a man to Edith? Richard Howard in his poem “The Lesson of the Master” suggests that James had some complicated game up his sleeve. But he cannot say what it was.
Edith Wharton is a splendid biography, extremely rich in social and historical detail, a telling picture of the many years Wharton’s life spanned (she died in 1937), and the source of almost everything I’ve mentioned in this review. (Full disclosure: I’m mentioned in the acknowledgments along with scores of others.) As in Lee’s excellent biography of Virginia Woolf, the order here is roughly chronological but everything about a given subject (Fullerton, the war, Henry James, Teddy Wharton, for example) gets grouped together in individual chapters. Sometimes this thematic approach leads to repetitions and a moment of confusion. At other times secondary and even tertiary characters get the full treatment, which can slow things down.
No matter. There is no sense in quibbling with a sophisticated, finely written portrait of a woman who embraced the modern age but dismissed modernism in art, who, so far as we know, maintained her dignity but wrote passionate pornography (one story, “Beatrice Palmato,” is about incest between a father and a willing daughter), who could be vulnerable but who also dealt with adversity late in life: “At my age, and with a will-to-live (& to work) as strong as mine, one comes soon, I find, to accept sorrows and renunciations, & to build with them, instead of letting them tear one down.” Edith Wharton would have been horrified by the “indiscretions” in this biography, but it is the balanced, richly detailed, and researched portrait she deserves.
Bunner & the Sisters June 14, 2007