The Age of Innocence was begun when Edith Wharton was fifty seven and published, in October of 1920, when she was fifty-eight. She had come to the writing vocation tardily, after an upbringing in New York society and some years of an increasingly unhappy marriage to a Bostonian, Edward Wharton. She was twenty-nine when her first short story was published, and six more years passed before her first book, a nonfiction collaboration called The Decoration of Houses, appeared. Yet as the new century settled in, she, despite the many distractions of an active social life and travel schedule, and bouts of ill health on both her and her husband’s part, had settled into a daily routine of morning writing and a steady, even copious, production of fiction. The House of Mirth in 1905 was her first masterpiece; Ethan Frome (1911) and The Custom of the Country (1913) followed, among many other well received, if less well remembered, titles. Against the grain of her social class, she had become a thoroughly professional, widely read, critically esteemed writer. Still, the brilliance and fullness of The Age of Innocence, coming so relatively late in her career, suggest a special renewal.
For a novelist, the halls of memory and imagination are adjacent spaces. An exemplary work of fiction is generally the fruit of a new grasp the author has taken of the riches within. Toward the end of the war, in Paris, Wharton had remarked to Bernard Berenson, “Je me cherche, et je ne me retrouve pas.” Her search for herself had been a process of many steps, beginning with her ardent exploration of her father’s library in the Jones house on West Twenty-third Street. Edith Jones’s marriage to the amiable but somewhat feckless and, in the end, mentally unstable Teddy Wharton had been another step, which had left her deeply informed on a favorite theme, the unsatisfactoriness of marriage, especially a socially presentable marriage of mismatched spirits. Teddy Wharton might have been an admirable husband for a less intellectually ambitious and formidably achieving woman than his wife; as it was, they tried each other sorely. Their sex life (for which Edith’s prim and imperious mother had prepared her by telling her to look at Greek statues and exclaiming, “You can’t be as stupid as you pretend”) went from poor to nonexistent; but Edith executed another step, in her self-education, by taking a lover, Morton Fullerton, in 1909.
Her ties to Teddy, who on his side had turned to adultery and embezzlement from his wife’s assets, weakened along with her ties to the United States; in 1911 she sold the Mount, a splendid house she had built in Lenox, Massachusetts, not ten years before, and became a Parisian. Her divorce followed two years later. World War I possessed her, as it did her adopted country; manifesting a prodigious organizational prowess, she founded and ran hostels for refugees, workshops for women unemployed because of the war, hospitals for tubercular patients, and a rescue committee for…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.
Copyright © 1995 by John Updike.