Edith Wharton
Edith Wharton; drawing by David Levine

“Pussy Jones,” a well-brought-up member of that upper-class New York clan whose surname was supposed to have lent itself to the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses,” was married to a Bostonian gentleman of leisure, Edward Wharton, when she was twenty-three, in 1885. Mrs. Edith Wharton—as she then became—would publish her first, coauthored, book at thirty-five, in 1897, and her first book of stories two years later. In those twelve years, she constructed a life, as a married woman of her class, which was as interesting, gregarious, and adventurous as she could make it; and she began to feel her way as a writer, publishing poems and stories and articles from the late 1880s onward.

Though she was often ill and depressed, this was by no means an inactive period. But it is more obscure to us than her life after she became a famous, best-selling novelist in 1905 with The House of Mirth. We don’t have many glimpses of her, and she didn’t, in later life, tell many stories about herself in these years. The best known of them shows why she is hard to get close to. This is the story of her first meeting with Henry James, at a dinner in Paris in 1887. Hoping to impress, she wore her newest Doucet dress (“a tea-rose pink, embroidered with iridescent beads”) but was too shy to speak to him. “I was probably not more than twenty-five, those were the principles in which I had been brought up.” He ignored her, and she was mortified.

We don’t know whether this shy, silent twenty-five-year-old was already writing the stories that would lead, within twenty years, to the career which made her Henry James’s friend and equal, outflanking him in sales and popularity. Some of the first stories she sent for publication in the early 1890s, or which were included in her first collection, The Greater Inclination (1899), were painful tales of disappointment and frustration in married life—“The Fulness of Life,” “A Journey,” “The Lamp of Psyche.” But we can’t be sure whether she started writing those in the 1880s, turning to fiction as a relief from married life—though she remembered, looking back, a “Pelion and Ossa of slowly accumulating manuscripts, plays, novels and dramas.” What is clear, though, is that although Mrs. Edward Wharton spent a good deal of time in the early years of her marriage setting up and decorating houses in Newport and New York, she also made sure that social and domestic life in America, which would have satisfied Teddy, only made up half their life. Every year, between 1886 and 1897, the Whartons spent several months in Europe, mostly in Italy, but with frequent visits to Paris and to England. Edith was left a substantial legacy in 1888, which backed up their travels and their house purchases.

One unpublished piece of writing from those years came to light, by an amazing chance, over fifty years after her death, and has now been re-published. She told her friend Bernard Berenson in 1925 that she had kept “a very meticulous diary” of the cruise she took when she was twenty-six years old. This diary was thought for a long time to have been destroyed or to have disappeared. But in 1991, a French scholar, Claudine Lesage, happened to be working in Hyères, the town where Wharton had her Mediterranean house from 1919 onward. Lesage was working on Conrad, not Wharton, but the librarian at the Hyères Municipal Library handed her a leather-bound manuscript in English which no one had ever consulted. Lesage did some homework, and realized that this was the diary which filled out the brief account Wharton gives in A Backward Glance of the Aegean and Mediterranean cruise of 1888, which she called “the greatest step forward in my making.” The diary was published in a modest edition in 1991 by a university publishing house in Amiens.

It is a mark of Wharton’s immensely accelerated reputation that The Cruise of the Vanadis has now been reprinted in a deluxe edition, with a foreword by Louis Auchincloss, and some mannered, stylish photographs by Jonas Dovydenas. It is published by Rizzoli in America (under the auspices of the Edith Wharton Restoration society, which has been doing up Wharton’s house at The Mount for many years) and by Bloomsbury in the UK. Its glossy format does suggest that there is a “coffee-table book” aspect to the vogue for Edith Wharton. It is somewhat ironic that the woman who satirized her milieu so ferociously, from her critical analysis in the 1890s of the way Americans decorated their houses to her savage fictional accounts of 1930s American decadence, should now be packaged for “conspicuous consumption” in beautifully produced books on gardens, houses, and travel. Still, The Cruise of the Vanadis has an interesting literary and cultural story to tell.


Against opposition from both sides of the family, the Whartons decided to spend their “whole income for the year” on the cruise—about $10,000—of which the hire of the yacht was $4,000. They went with a wealthy New York friend, James Van Alen, who knew how to set about chartering a yacht from England, and who had experience of some wild travels in Greece. For a week or so they were also joined by the American minister in Greece on the Vanadis, a steam yacht (as she proudly described it in her diary) of “333 tons, with a length of 167 feet.” They had a deck-house sitting room, two comfortable bedrooms each with a “large bath-tub,” a room for Van Alen, a room each for the maid and the valet, and a separate room for the servants to eat in. There were sixteen crew including two cooks and two stewards. She liked the crew, but found the Captain “surly and inefficient.”

It was an ambitious and carefully planned journey. They picked up the yacht on February 17 after a cold, foggy stay in Paris, a train journey to Marseilles, and a steamer to Algiers. From Algiers they went to Tunis, Malta, Sicily (with trips to Taormina and Monreale), Corfu, the island of Zante, a number of the Cycladean islands, and Rhodes. Then up the Turkish coast to Chios, Smyrna, and Mitylene, across the Aegean to Mount Athos, down between the coast of Greece and Euboea to Marathon and Athens, and westward to Cephalonia and Ithaca. Then up the Dalmatian coast, with a trip inland to “unconquered Montenegro,” north to Ragusa (Dubrovnik), Spalato (Split), and Zadar (Zara), and last across the Adriatic to Ancona, where they left the yacht on May 7, and took the train to Rimini.

The American minister’s appearance set the social tone for the trip. Wharton would always travel in style, and this was no exception. Bank directors were ready at various ports to deal with letters and money. When they went to inspect the festival of the Annunciation on the island of Tenos, they arrived with the American consul and an introduction from the governor of the Cyclades, and made their entrance “preceded by the Mayor and a soldier to clear the way.” At Mitylene they went ashore on the governor’s boat, flags flying. At Corfu they were entertained by the consul’s wife, “who showed us her large collection of Dalmatian buckles, Albanian peasant ornaments, embroidered dresses from Cyprus, and silver yataghans and pistols.” In Smyrna they heard appalling stories of brigandage at dinner with the American consul and his wife; after a wild journey to Cettinje, in Montenegro, they had lunch with the English chargé d’affaires, the Hon. Walter Baring, in his “wretched little house”: “Cettinje cannot be a very pleasant round in the diplomatic ladder.”

As that sentence suggests, there is an air of grandeur to the proceedings. Doors open to these privileged sightseers, who stop now and then to do a little shopping, or retreat to the yacht when tourism gets tiring. Wharton’s tone sometimes confirms this picture of well-cushioned American imperialism. She doesn’t always seem alert to the politics of the eastern Mediterranean (“then came some allusion to the Greek Independence, and to the King and Queen, at which the people cheered loudly”) and has some of the standard views of her time, as when she speaks of “a long bridge and causeway, built, of course, like every other good road in the Ionian islands, under the English administration.” Turks usually feature as “barbarians,” or in “a crowd of Turks, Jews and infidels”; the inhabitants of one island are “a sullen, ill-favoured lot.” She can sometimes sound like the mother she so detested, the genteel and philistine Lucretia Jones:

We went to see the village school…. As we stepped into the room, a hundred and twenty five little Greek boys rose with one accord from their seats…. They were a nice, clean-looking set, but I should not think that their education would advance very quickly, as we found the priest gossiping with some friends outside the door, while the boys were apparently left to their own devices. We left some money with the priest to give the boys a treat, and continued on our way through the village.

Wharton is fussy, as she was, notoriously, all her life, about the hotels. However, like all travelers to remote parts, she wants everything to be picturesque (the word recurs throughout) and is cross when the sights are disappointingly Western or commercial. A dedicated reader of Ruskin, she disapproves, as she always would, of restoration.

This was no ordinary American tourist, but a “passionate pilgrim” (Henry James’s phrase), brim-full with historical information and literary expectations. She may have been fussy and grand, but she was game for anything, and always very proud (as she would be in later travels in Italy, France, Spain, and North Africa) of getting far off “the beaten track,” of riding on mules and donkeys, of climbing for eight hours in a horse-drawn carriage up into the wild country of Montenegro, of rescuing a drowning fisherman, or of stoically enduring swelling seas: “we bounced about so much that our Greek friends were rather unnerved.”


She wanted to see everything and she looked with curiosity, judgment, and an intense susceptibility to the beauties of color, landscape, sea, and sky. She had done her homework, and was able to outline the bloody history of the Balkans (“After the subjugation of Servia by the Turks in the fourteenth century, Montenegro asserted itself as an independent state,” etc.) or the origins of the monasteries on Mount Athos. But her sense of history is empathetic. She always imagined herself into the past, as at Marathon, where she thinks of the battle on the plain and the “dead Greeks” buried beneath the beach. Her imagination is especially fired by the history of the Knights of St. John—founded by Italian merchants in the eleventh century in Jerusalem, growing from pilgrim-hospitalers to a military order, driven by the Turks to Cyprus, and then to Rhodes, and then, in 1522, retreating, under the Grand Master L’Isle Adam, to Malta. In Rhodes she looks for every architectural trace of the “Knights in their crowning days of strength,” and fantasizes about their feelings of exile: “No wonder that the heart of L’Isle Adam yearned over Rhodes, and that he hesitated and temporized long before abandoning all hopes of its recovery and accepting instead the desolate rock of Malta.” In Malta she finds, of all the relics of the order, “saddest and most interesting of all, the silver trumpet which sounded the retreat from Rhodes.” You can see her beginning to make a novel out of it, one of her narratives of cultural conflict, high ideals dwindling into decadence, failure, and longing—not unlike the plot of the Italian novel she would write a few years later, The Valley of Decision.

Her preference for the traces of the Knights’ houses in Rhodes (mutilated though they are by Turkish “barbarians”) to the “debased late Renaissance Auberges” in Malta is typical of her choosy judgments. Unlike the guidebooks, she finds the cathedral at Monreale too bright, and prefers the Benedictine cloister next door. She carefully notes the architectural plan of Greek churches, quarrels with a description of a church at Lindos as Byzantine, and finds the Golden Gate of the palace at Spalato “over-praised.” So she continues on her way, noting, comparing, and refusing any ready-made opinions. It is a practice run for the discriminations and observant judgments of her later books about places and travel, Italian Backgrounds, Italian Villas and Their Gardens, A Motor-Flight Through France, and In Morocco.

At the same time she is thinking hard about the lives of the inhabitants, even if she is sometimes caricaturing or dismissive. On the island of Chios, she is very struck by a sense of blight that seems to hang over the lovely scene, the legacy of the frightful Turkish massacre, followed, sixty years later, in 1881 (only seven years before their visit), by the terrible earthquake that killed nearly six thousand people and demolished every town and monastery on the island. She never forgot this place, and would use it in a story called “A Coward,” published in The Greater Inclination, in which a young American traveler who is looking after a paralyzed friend on the island panics (like Conrad’s Lord Jim) when the earthquake strikes, and runs away, leaving the friend to his fate. He is haunted all the rest of his life by his act, looking always for a chance to redeem himself.

Wherever she goes, women’s lives—and their clothes—excite her imagination, whether it’s the Jewesses in their silk dresses and gold-embroidered jackets in Algeria, or the gorgeously dressed peasant women with enormous silver shoe-buckles in Corfu, or the “silent and interested” women of the Greek consul’s household on Patmos. Priests, monks, and hermits also fascinate her (and would continue to do so). Edith Wharton is thought to have been the first American to write about Mount Athos. She is so frustrated at not being allowed onto “the Sacred Holy Mountain,” forbidden to women—where the two men go on shore to view the Orthodox monasteries and their treasures, leaving her on board—that she gets the launch from the yacht to go “as near the forbidden shores” as it can. But she is waved away by some wild-looking hermits. A caustic note about this all-male community creeps in: hens aren’t allowed on the island, so eggs have to be brought in. “As we blew our whistle in passing a hermit appeared on each balcony with the promptitude of cuckoos in Swiss clocks when the hour strikes.” But she is entranced by the idea of a way of life that has gone on “unaffected by modern inventions” for centuries, as “archaic as the frescoes on the chapel walls.”

Wharton writes a lavish description of the beauty of Mount Athos in springtime. Her appetite for scenery is insatiable. She writes with particular eloquence about gardens and flowers, as in this account of the gardens of the Duc d’Aumale’s palace at Palermo. She is practicing her craft, showing off her knowledge, as if to an audience, and, also, expressing a profound sense of pleasure:

On we rambled between hedges of China roses, laurustinus and cytisus, with the golden and pale yellow fruit hanging in masses over our heads, and the ground everywhere carpeted with blossoming yellow oxalis, coming now upon a stone seat under an olive-tree, now coming upon a fountain smothered in ivy and Adiantum… now entering a tropical jungle of cycas revoluta, yuccas, agaves and epiphyllums; now wandering through shrubberies of oleander, salvia and geranium; but always finding ourselves again under the interminable shade of the orange and lemon groves….

She says nothing at all about her relations with her companions. But in one of these descriptions, of the enchanting spring hillsides of Ithaca, she makes a point of noting that “we”—she and Teddy, presumably—waited alone for their companions in a grove of olive trees, with bees humming over their heads and the air full of sweetness. It’s tempting to imagine from the language used that, for this moment at least, however badly the marriage was turning out, they shared at least a moment of delight.

Wharton probably couldn’t share her literary allusions, though, with the unliterary Teddy. Europe comes at her through her reading, not just of histories, guidebooks, and travel narratives, but of Homer and Shelley, Pindar and Macaulay. On her first sight of Sicily, from the coast, Wharton sees what seems to her “the very goatherds of Theocritus.” She expects her sights to live up to their literary billing: “The Girgenti of which we have talked and dreamed, the splendour-loving Acragas of Pindar, the topaz-bastioned city of Symonds—was this Girgenti?” Of all her literary mentors, none has such a powerful impact on her as Goethe. She gives her cruise diary an epigram from Faust—his expression of longing for a magic cloak that would carry him into unknown lands. The “wanderlust” that Goethe gives his romantic heroes, particularly Wilhelm Meister (whose “apprenticeship” and “travels” Wharton had been reading and marking up since she was fifteen) fires this diary, as it does all her later travel writings.

As for many nineteenth-century lovers of Italy, Goethe’s Italian Journey (written between 1786 and 1788) was one of the inspirations for Wharton’s travels. She marked up the copy, took detailed notes from it in her workbooks for The Valley of Decision, and referred to it more than once on the Vanadis cruise (imagining, for instance, how dull Goethe’s conscientious trip to observe the wheatfields across the middle of Sicily must have been). It’s appropriate that the final destination of the Vanadis was Italy. Even after the taste of the Aegean, of Greece and Turkey, that her cruise gave her, Italy was the place Wharton most wanted to be, from her mid-twenties to her early forties, when her passion for France took over.

Some of the most eloquent writing in the Vanadis diary is about Sicily, and when, twenty years later, Wharton was writing up her Italian experiences for Italian Backgrounds, she got out her old diary of the Vanadis cruise and reworked long passages from it, especially the descriptions of the country around Syracuse, in this “clear smiling land where only the spring seemed to have written its tale.” She reused her description of the “gardens of fantastic beauty,” the paths shaded by orange and lemon trees, the dark cypresses.

This is the Italy Goethe longed for, the Italy that’s invoked in the plaintive song of Mignon, the androgynous waif in Wilhelm Meister who always wants to travel south, yearning for the country she has come from and never refinds. Back in Rome as an old lady, in 1932, rereading Goethe, nearly fifty years after the cruise of the Vanadis, Wharton thinks again of Mignon’s song “Kennst du das Land”: “Dahin! dahin/Möcht ich mit dir, o mein Geliebter, ziehn.

Do you know the land where the lemons blossom

The golden oranges gleam among dark leaves,

a gentle wind blows from the blue sky,

the myrtle grows quietly, the laurels tall.

Do you really know it?

Thither, thither

I long to go with you, O my beloved.

This Issue

November 4, 2004