Edith Wharton’s Secret

A Feast of Words: The Triumph of Edith Wharton

by Cynthia Griffin Wolff
Oxford University Press, 453 pp., $15.95

Edith Wharton
Edith Wharton; drawing by David Levine

Edith Wharton’s best work belongs to the period of fifteen years which ended in 1920. Just before the turn of the century, she suffered a spell of nervous exhaustion—of asthma, nausea, and depression—in which a troubled childhood, and a distaste for her marriage to Teddy Wharton, can be perceived. Confinement within an unhappy marriage formed part of her confinement within what survived, as much did, of Old New York—her name for the world of her childhood. She has described this as the world of the hereditary rich in that city, infiltrated by the new industrial fortunes, of matrons who believed in an undefiled and ceremonious past, of dry old male celibates, propped by the fireside like wooden Indians, who remembered and related such a past, and could speak of laxities condoned in the Faubourg St. Germain. Miss Edith Jones had an engagement knocked over by jealousies among the contending rich, and she was then let down by a man who went on to become a distinguished snob, and her dearest friend, Walter Berry. Then there was the eligible Teddy Wharton. From the confinements of wealth and caste, however, and of a suitable marriage, she was to imagine and to execute certain escapes.

It was a liberation in itself that she emerged from her illness with the will to write unimpaired. In 1905, the year after James’s The Golden Bowl, one of her finest novels appeared—The House of Mirth. Two years later she began an affair with the fatal Morton Fullerton, who was promiscuous and unreliable and who seems to have awakened her sexually, and she acquired an apartment in Paris, the city where, from then on, she was to be chiefly based. Around 1909, by which time the affair had about a year to run, she is thought to have learned of a rumor which alleged that she was the offspring of an affair between her latterly starchy and punctilious mother and a young Englishman who had served as tutor to the family. In 1911, the story of the captive Ethan Frome was published by the former Edith Jones, and the following year she brought out The Reef, in which a stately woman agonizes over her love for a sexually compromised suitor, and in which, where others have hailed a resemblance to James, James hailed a resemblance to Racine.

Meanwhile Teddy’s mental and physical health was breaking down, and she was shocked to discover that he’d been borrowing her money and splashing it on chorus girls. Divorce, by which Old New York had been affronted, overtook her in 1913—the year of The Custom of the Country—and so, shortly afterward, did the Great War. This refugee from the gilded, from the shocked and shocking, life of her native country set herself to work for the war’s refugees, but she also managed to write a most eloquent book about a very different type…

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