The main impression one has of Edith Wharton after reading this full-scale biography is what a dynamo she was. Whether she was writing her novels or organizing her research for them, setting up hospitals in France during World War I, motoring or sailing about Europe with friends, laying out impressive gardens, building or rebuilding houses and writing about it, entertaining, reading Dante in Italian or Goethe in German or Proust in French, looking at paintings, arranging for her own divorce, putting everyone in his or her place, sweetly or maliciously but always firmly—whatever she was doing, she was inexhaustible. She admired steadiness of spirit and self-discipline in others and could vouch for her own rigorous virtues. She had two aspects: forbidding in public, the perfect dowager; and light-hearted and amusing in private. But even with friends every moment of the day was calibrated down to the second. When she became too exacting and bossy one of her indulgent friends would say she was “Edith at her Edithest.”
Hermione Lee’s triumph lies in rendering the dynamism and integrity of this sometimes remote and always willful and stoic woman without leaving out the nuances, the soft exceptions and endearing contradictions. For instance, who would have guessed that Edith Wharton was so funny—even campy? One of her characters, a female novelist, says, “A keen sense of copyright is my nearest approach to an emotion.” In writing about the excessive use of draperies in American houses, Wharton complains of “lingerie effects.” She kept a commonplace book and a donnée book all her life and extracted from them some of the more pointed remarks in her novels. In one manuscript she wrote, “She wore the most expensive gowns with a penitential air, as though she were under a vow of wealth.”
Wharton could be terribly snobbish. She dismissed America as a land where people ate bananas for breakfast. When one rich American lady was showing off her house and said, “And this I call my Louis Quinze room,” Edith supposedly raised her lorgnette and murmured, “Why, my dear?” In speaking of some neighbors in Lenox, Massachusetts, she said that they had “decided to have books in their library.” Once, looking at a publicity photograph of herself, she said it made her look like “a combination of a South Dakota divorcée & a magnetic healer.” Of Americans in Europe she said they were all “in the same attitude of chronic opposition to a society chronically unaware of them.”
Few biographies could have been more difficult to write. Wharton destroyed all the letters she received and begged her correspondents to destroy those she had sent them. Unfortunately almost all cooperated, but her caddish lover Morton Fullerton kept her letters, which were written with a passion no one had suspected. She wrote a memoir, A Backward Glance, but she was extremely reticent in it. She mentioned few of her close friends, nothing about her lover, little about her husband or divorce. But the problem of writing about Wharton…
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