When Edith Wharton—then Edith Jones—was a little girl, her favorite game was called “making up.” “Making up” involved pacing around with an open book and (before she could read) inventing and then later half reading, half inventing stories about real people, narratives that she would chant very loud and very fast. The constant pacing and shouting were important parts of the game, which (according to Wharton’s memoir, A Backward Glance) had an enraptured, trance-like, slightly erotic aspect. Her parents spied on her, and it made them nervous. Edith’s Old New York, old-money-society mother tried to transcribe what Edith was saying, but she spoke too fast; Mrs. Jones’s anxiety increased when Edith asked her to entertain children who came to play because she was too busy making up.
At ten, Edith was composing sermons, poems, stories and dramas in blank verse. At eleven, she decided to write a novel. It began, “”Oh, how do you do, Mrs. Brown, said Mrs. Tompkins. “If only I had known you were going to call, I would have tidied up the drawing room.” In her memoir, Wharton described “timorously” showing her work to her mother. “Never,” wrote Wharton, “shall I forget the sudden drop of my creative frenzy when she returned it with the icy comment, ‘Drawing rooms are always tidy.’” By eighteen, she had begun to publish poems—mostly on the subject of failed love, renunciation and longing, themes that would continue to resonate in her work throughout the decades.
Her first published book, The Decoration of Houses, written in collaboration with the architect Ogden Codman, was a success. Like the rest of her work, it combined a keen intelligence, a lively sensibility, an eye for close detail, a witty and graceful prose style, strong opinions about society and about how to live, and a certain constriction traceable to the upbringing and class about which she wrote with alternating and sometimes simultaneous savagery and compassion.
For her first novel, The Valley of Decision, a historical romance set in Italy, Edith Wharton chose as her model Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma. She was determined that it be both highly literary and commercially viable. When it appeared in 1902, it sold 25,000 copies in six months and established her career as a writer of fiction. The novel begins,
“It was very still in the small neglected chapel. The voices of the farm came faintly through closed doors—voices shouting at the oxen in the lower fields, the querulous bark of the old house-dog, and Filomena’s angry calls to the little white-faced foundling in the kitchen.
“The February day was closing, and a ray of sunshine, slanting through a slit in the chapel wall, brought out a vision of a pale head floating against the dusky background of the chancel like a water lily on its leaf. The face was that of the saint of Assisi—a sunken ravaged countenance, lit with an ecstasy of suffering that seemed not so much to reflect the anguish of the Christ at whose feet the saint knelt as the mute pain of all poor downtrodden folk on earth.”
Edith Wharton’s passions were (in no particular order) literature, gardens, architecture, travel, Italy, France, friendship, and Morton Fullerton, a journalist with whom, in middle age, she had an intense and ultimately unhappy love affair. Notably absent from this list is her husband, Teddy, a proper Bostonian, suitably pedigreed and fashionably unemployed, whom she married when she was twenty-three (a late marriage for a girl of her time) and whom she divorced after his increasing mental instability turned out to involve a weakness for the ladies and a calamitous recklessness with Edith’s money. Everyone has a theory on why the marriage went so wrong and about what was troubling Teddy, exactly—was he a closeted homosexual or possibly bipolar?—and about whether the union was consummated at all. During the twelve years between her wedding and the publication of her first book, Edith was almost constantly ill, suffering from asthma, fatigue, flu, headaches, various nervous ailments, and long bouts of nausea. It is interesting, if not surprising, to track, in her novels, how often a character’s thoughts of marriage lead directly to associations of obligation, security, and boredom.
Her most famous friend was, of course, Henry James. Another was Teddy Roosevelt, with whom she discussed books, including her own. She had many friends, male and female, whom she wrote, hosted and traveled with, and who greatly affected her life and work. Many of her friends were gay men, though she mostly disapproved of the lesbians in Paris, among them Gertrude Stein. Her friends complained and mocked her domineering grand-dame manners, but one feels that these affections were mutual and intense. Given the number of her friends, it is striking how many of her protagonists are tormented by isolation, by the lack of a single soul they can tell what is going on in their hearts.
One hardly knows what to make of Edith Wharton’s love affair with Morton Fullerton. We can be glad, I suppose, that she discovered passion at all, but regretful that it should have taken her until the age of forty-six. That was when the emotionally vulnerable, sexually innocent, successful writer fell deeply in love with the American journalist, who was three years her junior and who had a tangled sexual and marital past and present. Was it good or bad that Fullerton was so much more experienced than Edith? Among his most striking qualities was the ability to make people fall in love with him and to conduct several love affairs at once. Previous lovers reputedly included his own adopted sister; the so-called Ranee of Sarawak, the wife of a British colonial governor; and the British lord on whom Oscar Wilde modeled one of his seedier fictional bon vivants. Among his many dubious distinctions, Fullerton has that of having turned down Oscar Wilde for a loan, upon the writer’s release from prison.
In 1913, after her husband’s breakdown and her divorce, after losing Fullerton and enduring periods of ill health, Edith Wharton recorded the following dream:
A pale demon with black hair came in, followed by four black gnome-like creatures carrying a great black trunk. They set it down and opened it, and the Demon crying out, ‘Here’s your year—here are all the horrors that have happened to you, and that are still going to happen!” dragged out a succession of limp black squirming things and threw them on the floor before me…I knew what they were: the hideous, the incredible things that have happened to me in this dreadful year, or were to happen to me before its close; and I stared, horror-struck, as the Demon dragged them out, more and more, till finally, flinging down a blacker, hatefuller one, he said laughing, ‘There—that’s the last of them.’
“The gnomes laughed too; but I, as I stared at the great black pile and at the empty trunk, I said to the demon, ‘Are you sure it hasn’t a false bottom?’”
In the first chapter of The House of Mirth, Wharton manages to show us how a relationship between one man and woman can progress, within a few hours, from zero to sixty on the road to erotic attraction. The scene begins when Lawrence Selden spots Lily Bart in the crowd at Grand Central Station. Lily has two hours to wait until her train leaves, and more or less on her daring suggestion, they go to Selden’s apartment for tea. Along the way, Selden is so dazzled by her beauty that he suffers something like a sort of sunstroke and has a disquieting revelation about what she is made of.
“He had a confused sense that she must have cost a great deal to make, that a great many dull and ugly people must, in some mysterious way, been sacrificed to produce her. He was aware that the qualities distinguishing her from the herd of her sex were chiefly external: as though a fine glaze of beauty and fastidiousness had been applied to vulgar clay. Yet the analogy left him unsatisfied, for a coarse texture will not take a high finish; and was it not possible that the material was fine, but that circumstance had fashioned it into a futile shape.”
Lily’s conversation is flattering, flirtatious. The talk rapidly becomes more intimate. They discuss her love for money, a failed romance, her fear of becoming an old maid. She smokes a cigarette. They exchange a bit of banter about her marrying him. (“Dear Mr. Selden, it’s stupid of you to make love to me, and it isn’t like you to be stupid.”) As she studies herself in the mirror, Selden thinks her a “captured dryad,” and reflects that “it was the same streak of sylvan freedom in her nature that lent such savor to her artificiality.”
Lily leaves, and in the brightness of the street, things turn suddenly dark. She runs into someone she knows, not just anyone, but the insufferable Simon Rosedale, “a plump rosy man of the blond Jewish type, with smart London clothes fitting him like upholstery, and small sidelong eyes which gave him the air of appraising people as if they were bric a brac.” Lily fears he will gossip about where he’s seen her, especially since she’s already snubbed the thwarted social climber, who, “with that mixture of artistic sensibility and business astuteness which characterizes his race,” had gravitated to Lily. (Rosedale has been identified by the socialite Mrs. Trenor as “the same little Jew who had been served up and rejected at the social board a dozen times within her memory.”)
One might ascribe these reflections purely to Lily and Mrs. Trenor, even imagine the author is criticizing her characters for their prejudice. But sadly, there is evidence that Edith Wharton was vehemently anti-Semitic, even by the standards of her milieu and her era. According to her biographer, Hermione Lee, Edith Wharton remarked, on her deathbed, that she “’hated the Jews’ because of the Crucifixion.” Telling a friend about a newspaper crime story involving a certain Rachel Gobsweib, she writes, “Her name alone makes the nature of her offence sufficiently clear.” And one can’t help wondering how puzzled she might be to see me here, after having written, in response to a charity solicitation, “I’m not much interested in traveling scholarships for women…they’d much better stay home and mind the baby. Still less am I interested in scholarships for female Yids.”
Edith Wharton wrote The Age of Innocence—to my mind, her greatest novel—in six months, between September 1919 and March 1920. She was writing about the world—Old New York—in which she had grown up, a world that had already vanished. But writing from a temporal and geographical distance, and through the magnifying lens of retrospect, she was able to enrich her portrait of a society and of a moment in time with everything she had learned and experienced since, with everything she knew about passion and obligation, about the perils of personal fear and social convention, about renunciation and regret, youth and age, memory and fantasy, anticipation and disappointment. America and Europe.
Having read the novel, you can open it at random and be instantly returned to the enthralling if progressively more unhappy inner life of Newland Archer, married to one woman and infatuated with another. You can attend the choreographed dinners and lawn parties, ride in carriages and on ferries, and eavesdrop on seemingly straightforward conversations that conceal—that barely conceal—layers of nuance, subtext, unspoken longing, suppressed declarations of love and overt demarcations of territory. We get to know the characters so well that we know instantly how each major figure is responding to a bit of new information or a changed view of the situation. After a while the author no longer needs to tell us.
No one has written more incisively not just about a historical period and a particular social milieu but about something more timeless—the ardor with which we flee and return to the prison of conditioning and convenience. Wharton’s graceful sentences create dramatic, populous tableaux and peel back layer after layer of artifice and pretense, of what we say and how we wish to appear, revealing the hidden kernel of what human beings are like, alone and together.