Passionate Pilgrim

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,…

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