Edith Wharton

by Hermione Lee

Paperback, 2008




Vintage (2008), Edition: Reprint, 912 pages


Biographer Lee gives us a new Edith Wharton--tough, startlingly modern, as brilliant and complex as her fiction. Born in 1862, Wharton escaped the suffocating fate of the well-born female, traveled adventurously in Europe and eventually settled in France. She developed a forceful literary professionalism and thrived in a luminous society that included Bernard Berenson, Aldous Huxley and most famously Henry James, who here emerges more as peer than as master. Wharton's life was fed by nonliterary enthusiasms as well: houses and gardens, relief efforts during the Great War, and the culture of the Old World, which she never tired of absorbing. Yet intimacy eluded her: unhappily married and childless, her one brush with passion came and went in midlife, an affair intimately recounted here. Lee interweaves Wharton's life with the evolution of her writing, the full scope of which shows her to be far more daring than her stereotype as lapidarian chronicler of the Gilded Age.--From publisher description.… (more)


½ (44 ratings; 3.9)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Cariola
I was eager to read this new biography of one of my favorite novelists, but, unfortunately, either Wharton's life was simply duller than I anticipated, or Lee has rendered it so. The book flies through Wharton's childhood and early married years with little detail and gets overly caught up in her
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travels abroad--complete with long (and untranslated) passages in French and Italian from Wharton's journals that are particularly annoying. Lee does attempt to tie events in Wharton's life to characters, settings, and themes in in her novels, but the overall structure of the biography is uneven and the style and content dry.
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LibraryThing member emily_morine
Although I have almost zero interest in military strategy, I do believe I would read a biography of Vice Admiral Nelson if Hermione Lee wrote one. Her prose is an absolute pleasure, she's insightful and nuanced, and I'm very lucky that she happens to specialize in authors of the late nineteenth and
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early twentieth century, rather than in tire manufacturers or bank directors. Her most recent book, Edith Wharton, only heightens my esteem: she paints a complex, multi-dimensional portrait of Wharton, never glossing over her less attractive features, but never sensationalizing or over-simplifying them either.

Diving into a biography is sometimes daunting, because there are usually many pages before one even reaches the object of one's interest. Many biographers begin far back on the paternal side of the subject's ancestry, working gradually up to her father's meeting with her mother. Then, when the birth of the subject is almost in view, the reader must backtrack into the mists of ancestry on the maternal side, and spend another chunk of time waiting for the subject's mother to meet her father. We then hear all about their courtship, still waiting patiently for the subject to be born. All of this is important information, of course, but the strictly chronological accounts in many biographies don't do much to elucidate why it's important: the ways in which the subject herself interacted with her parents; how her ancestry shaped her; conflicts in her adult life that may have had their seeds in her parents' relationships. Lee takes a more organic approach, incorporating into the accounts of Wharton's upbringing and ancestry glimpses of the woman she would become, and the complicated relationship she would develop with her upper-class "Old New York" parentage. I found that, in addition to being infinitely more enjoyable to read, this method allowed me to get more out of the sections on Wharton's parents than I usually do. Thanks to Lee's early sign-posting of relevant aspects of the parent-child relationship in the Jones household, I was able to absorb, remember, and apply my reading in the early chapters to events much later in the book.

This organic, nuanced approach extends to Lee's treatment of the relationship between art and biography. While the events of a writer's life obviously affect her art, many biographers take an overly simplistic view of the way in which that manifests. Some critics, for example, will reduce the work of a writer who suffered from mental illness into a list of symptoms, completely erasing the writer's own agency in creating her art. Or they will hone in on an artist's political liberalism or conservatism, but fail to examine the nuances of those politics, the tensions and harmonies between the artist and any movements in which he may have taken part. Lee's analysis, by contrast, is patient and complex. This is lucky, because Edith Wharton mined material from her own life in varied and unexpected ways. Characters who display surface details culled from her past in Old New York may share very little with their creator on a deeper level, and in her most autobiographical pieces her "self" is often split between multiple characters in a novel or story. She repeatedly re-worked specific themes - forbidden sexuality, or a person still haunted by obsolete social strictures - which were suggested by her experience and deeply important to her in her own life, but in ways that bear little resemblance to her specific circumstances.

A particularly subtle, and touching, elucidation of the life/art relationship has to do with The Age of Innocence, which Wharton wrote just after the death of her dear friend and fellow-writer, Henry James. The two were close in a deep yet complicated way that allowed for certain resentments on either side. James tended to caricature Wharton to other members of their peer group, and Wharton spent her entire career fighting against a critical reputation as "a female Henry James." Yet the two supported each other more-or-less successfully through dark times. (As a gossipy aside, James was instrumental in introducing Wharton to the one physical passion of her life, Morton Fullerton, and proceeded to form an awkward third to many of their rendezvous and quarrels, much like a character out of one of his own novels). Lee points out that The Age of Innocence was the first book Wharton had written since her very early career that James would not read, and delicately examines the many nods to different James plots and characters that are scattered throughout the novel. Considering Wharton's life-long struggle to divorce her work from James in the public imagination, it's even more poignant that she would engage in this kind of public elegy for her lost friend, in the medium they shared - and, at the same time, as always, she is re-working and commenting on his writing as she honors it.

One of the things I appreciate most about Lee is that she respects the passions of her subjects, even if they may be unexpected from a reader's point of view. As she begins a long section on Wharton's gardens, she reminds us that

This expensive, pleasurable, and profound obsession should not be thought of by non-gardeners as a form of quietism or a mere hobby. ... Apart from traveling, writing, reading, and seeing her friends, this, for the rest of her life, was what she did. ... She was a writer and gardener, and her gardens became, for those who saw them and heard about them, as admired as her books.

As a reader and a human, I find this kind of reminder extremely useful. There exists in every life more than we expect, more than we care about when we begin our examination. Just because we enter into the life of Wharton wanting to read about her books, doesn't mean that we should pass over other passions that sustained her just as much. Lee does a beautiful job of portraying how crucial and soul-sustaining gardening was for Wharton, how she strove toward her gardening vision, exulted in her successes, and mourned deeply when her entire garden was killed by a freak storm and cold snap as she approached old age. Gardens may not be that important to me, but through Lee's eloquence I grasped their deep and lasting importance for Wharton, and connected that importance to similarly life-giving elements of my own life.

But as lovely as the gardening section is, my favorite pages deal with Wharton's 4,000-volume library, beautifully bound, much read and marked up. Only a careful and passionate reader like Lee could communicate the excitement and joy of connecting with Wharton through the record she left of a life of reading:

These marginal marks make up a form of autobiography. There are love gifts from Fullerton and copies of his work; affectionate dedications from James; copies of Berry's books; books she could not discuss with Teddy, or that were left over from his own minimal collection; books that once belonged to her father, her mother or her brothers; early gifts from a great variety of French writers, presentation copies from Theodore Roosevelt. There are old book-plates from Land's End, and the ownership signatures of "Edith Jones." There are corrections she made in her copies of her own works. Her books do not just provide evidence for her life story, they were also protagonists in it, and the equivalent of old friends.

I love this idea of books, marked-up and idiosyncratically organized, as somewhere between a record of one's life and a room of one's friends. It's how I feel about my own library, and a source of joy to me every day. Occurring, as it does, toward the end of the biography, this section on Wharton's library is a chance for the reader to look back over the course of her long life from a different perspective, and to access her feelings in a different, and possibly more intimate, way.

There's no avoiding it, Edith Wharton is long: 762 pages in paperback, discounting the copious notes section. It's a commitment, and there are quirks that strike the modern reader as odd: Lee's decision, for example, not to translate most of her French quotations. (I personally quite liked this, since I read French middling-well and prefer not to read the same passage twice, but I can understand how it might get frustrating for the majority of English readers.) But to me, every page of this tome was worthwhile. I now feel I know someone new: a driven, passionate, flawed individual, one I appreciate and disagree with, one who would probably not like or humor me if we had dinner together, but one who seems tangibly present thanks to this biography. My own copy of Edith Wharton is just as marked-up as Wharton's volumes of Keats or Proust, and will be a good friend to me from now on.
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LibraryThing member theageofsilt
Lee's work is as much an exploration of a time and culture as it is a biography of Edith Wharton. This very well-written and highly readable book tells of Wharton's fascinating life as a gardener, novelist, decorator, traveller and keen observer of American, English and French society. It also
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depicts, as did Wharton's novels, the decline of an elite society that made New York City, Newport and the Berkshires its kingdom. I have to say I think Edith Wharton is a much better writer than Henry James, so there!!!
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LibraryThing member mjmbecky
In short, Lee's biography is more than just a book about the famous author Edith Wharton. In this densely written book, we learn about the culture of turn of the century, upper-class society in New York City. We learn about gardens and landscaping in the United States in comparison to Italy and
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other European countries. We learn about little lap dogs, and their popularity way before the likes of Paris Hilton started toting them around. We learn of the ever sophisticated, cultural center that was Paris, as the escape for artists in all walks of life. We learn that writing reflects the pain of one's life so directly, that the mental anguish or non-disclosure of such pain can eek out into the words on the page whether the writer want them to or not. For Edith Wharton, the complexities of her life were shown in all of these lessons and a million more.

I can't really, adequately review a book of this nature without directing more of my thoughts around how the book was written. In a pretty weighty, yet engaging academic voice, Hermione Lee takes a linear approach to Edith Wharton's life, in a very non-linear way. Although she starts with her early childhood and marriage, she also bounces around to show how things that occurred in her life are reflected and influence events later on. This moving backward and forward through Wharton's life leaves the chapters in the biography feeling more like individual academic essays that could be lifted from the book for research. I would think that unless you are really, really interested in Wharton's life, that I would only pick up this hefty book for individual research or curiosity. This is not easy reading, by any means, but it is richly satisfying and made me appreciate the artist's life much more. For college students or academics, Lee's book would be a brilliant resource that I can heartily recommend. Give yourself plenty of time to peruse, because you'll need it!
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LibraryThing member otterley
This is not an easy read - but it's one that's worth the effort. Edith Wharton was a woman of phenomenal energy, application and gifts, who happened to born into a world of wealth, ease and socially stultifying privilege. This biography takes a broadly traditional and linear approach, and as such
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acts as a fascinating mirror on to Wharton's live. The denseness of the book reflects a life stuffed full of achievement, friendship, reading, love, gardening, interior design, and many passions and frustrations. During the long years of illness and unhappiness before she became a published writer, the reader longs for her liberation - we rush through the exhilaration Wharton found in the war years in France - and we learn to read the books alongside the life; understanding her artfulness as a creator, existing alongside her often artless approach to people. The biography took me back to the work, and enabled me to read it with much more understanding and appreciation - the best one can ask for from a literary biography.
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LibraryThing member Maura49
Having read some of Edith Wharton's novels I had picked up a little bit of information about her life, but after reading this monumental biography I feel that I know a lot more. This exhaustive account of her life is a tough read, and took me a long time. The early part of the book is fascinating
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with it's descriptions of a privileged New York upbringing. It made me want to know more about the "Gilded Age" and the speed of change in late 19th Century Society.
Edith Wharton herself is both inspiring and a little terrifying. What strength of will, to overcome the limitations placed upon a women in her time and to emerge in her forties as a creative woman and competent manager of her own affairs.
The sheer breadth and depth of her interests commands our respect, while her indomitable will and formidable personality make this reader at least feel a little inadequate. I felt that there was a little too much detail about her Italian Garden period and also about her admirable charity work in World War One. Hermione Lee is a respected Professor of English, and is interesting on the novels, stories and other writings when she gets to them, but one has first to plough through a lot of sometimes wearying description of holidays, developing friendships and descriptions of homes . I was left with the wish to read more of Edith Wharton's work, particularly her short stories, so I feel that Ms Lee has been successful in sharing her enthusiasm for it. She also does her best to demolish the myth that the fiction is limited to stories of "Old New York", and points to the fact that much of Mrs Wharton's output is little read.
While groaning a bit at the effort I was glad that I persevered with this long book, but I agree with other reviewers who have found it rather academic in tone. The extensive notes bear this out, being mostly references to cited works and not adding much information . Not being a French speaker I was very irritated by the lack of translations for the many passages in that language. I can see myself making use of the very full bibliography though and hunting out other books on this amazing woman's life and times.
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LibraryThing member corinneblackmer
This biography of one of our greatest national literary treasures has, despite its many merits of thoroughness and doggedness, a certain blindness that leads one into the otherwise impolite sense that Americans ought probably write the biographies of notable Americans, and not Englishwomen who take
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a liking to writing the lives of great women writers, per se. There is a certain tone deafness here, as well as the feel of a "seed catalogue" in which the author could not or would not commit herself to deciding what fact was more--or less--important, so ended by including them all. Wharton still awaits her great biographer, although I found the sections on money and estates useful for my own critical purposes.
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LibraryThing member stevetempo
Highly recommended for all lovers of Edith Wharton...so much about her and how she lived...Hermione Lee does a masterly job in connecting the dots of her life with her works...I had read two of her top novels before reading this book: House of Mirth and Age of Innocence...but I recommend any
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potential reader also read Ethan Frome and several of her popular short stories...especially enjoyed chapters and sections on Edith's library and reading...a truly remarkable person and writer...plan to read more of her work and reread this excellent bio again at a future date...
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LibraryThing member lauralkeet
Edith Wharton is one of my favorite authors, so when I came across this biography in a used bookshop, I snapped it up. And then it sat on my shelves for over a decade. So much for my fan-girl enthusiasm. I decided 2022 was the year to right this wrong. With more than 700 pages of text I knew I
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would need to pace myself, and spread my reading out over the first three months of the year.

Hermione Lee has built a reputation for solid, well-researched biographies of literary figures, and this book is no exception. Wharton’s life story is divided into three parts: from her birth in 1861 to World War I, the war years, and the post-war period until her death in 1937. Wharton came of age in New York society, and is known for novels set in that milieu. But her early career was focused on the decorative arts, bringing European style to America before making her name in fiction with The House of Mirth, published in 1905. Wharton made a disastrous marriage, which she escaped by moving to Paris and becoming part of a learned and literary set (divorce came years later, and only after her husband exhibited serious mental health issues). Wharton threw herself into the war effort by founding and operating a number of charities. Post-war she remained in Europe, ultimately owning two homes in France.

Lee delves deep both into Wharton’s literary career, and her personal life and relationships. She comes across as simultaneously sympathetic and complicated and difficult, a product of her time and class. There is no debate about her literary genius, but even there Lee shows how her reputation grew and then, around the time of her death, began to decline. In the late 20th century, Wharton’s work experienced a resurgence thanks to the 1990s film adaptation of The Age of Innocence and feminist publishers like Virago Press.

I have just two quibbles about this book. First, its length, requiring a genuine interest in Wharton to even attempt it. And second, Lee assumes readers have a basic command of French. Not surprisingly, much of Wharton’s correspondence was in French. Sometimes these passages are translated, but far too often they are not. This makes additional work for the non-fluent reader, and I found the inconsistency annoying. That said, I really enjoyed this deep dive into a favorite author’s life and would recommend it highly to any Edith Wharton fan.
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LibraryThing member lschiff
Another great Christmas gift from my parents.

Just finished a few days ago. Lots of incredible detail (too much in fact) but surprisingly absent is much discussion about how Wharton actually became a professional writer. To me that's one of the most interesting questions. Still, as a Henry James
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fanatic, it's nice to get a richer sense of this very important person in his life.
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Original language


Original publication date


Physical description

912 p.; 8 inches


0375702873 / 9780375702877
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