Losing the American Tone

Edith Wharton Collection/Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University
Edith Wharton, circa 1901; photograph by Zaida Ben-Yusuf

The marriage of Edith and Teddy Wharton had for a long time looked workable, marked by a shared passion for travel and dogs and later for automobiles, if not by passion itself. They each suffered from the neurasthenia common in their time and class, and lacking children their movements from house to house and continent to continent were a touch more restless than the change of seasons required. Her one affair stayed secret. None of his did, but when in 1913 Edith sued in Paris for divorce her husband’s adultery was the least of her reasons. Teddy had embezzled $50,000 from her trust funds; he had shouted and wailed and indulged in verbal abuse. Increasingly they lived apart, though he sometimes moved back in simply to announce that he refused to stay on.

Megalomania, the doctors said, and people remembered that his father had killed himself; Henry James described him as “noisily and topsyturvily, and alas vulgarly…off his poor little head.”1 Nothing helped, not even the Mount, the country place in Lenox, Massachusetts, where they had once been happy. In 1911 she gave him her power of attorney when she sailed for France, and landed to the news that he’d sold the house: an act of vengeance against a place she had loved, the vengeance of a man without a profession or talent against a woman who had both. Wharton filed for divorce in Paris both because she was there—they had a flat on the rue de Varenne—and because the French kept such proceedings private. No reporters saw the court records, and the news didn’t appear in either the gossip sheets or The New York Times. But the end of her marriage also meant the end of her American life. France was now her home, and she afterward made just two brief visits to her native land.

Those paired facts—Wharton’s divorce and her expatriation—provide the ground for the four novels gathered in this new volume from the Library of America. Unhappy marriages are fiction’s stock-in-trade, and divorce had always figured in her work, going back to the amiably scandalous Carry Fisher in The House of Mirth (1905), the book in which she first accepted James’s plea to “do New York!” She had never expected that she might need a divorce of her own, however, and doesn’t seem to have contemplated one during her 1908 affair with the journalist Morton Fullerton.

Still, she could see the smash of her marriage coming from a long way off, and her work of the period shows it. Ethan Frome (1911) depicts the prison of marriages that cannot end, and in The Custom of the Country (1913) Undine Spragg burns through three husbands before returning to the first of them; that caustic novel was…

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