Sunday, April 29, 2007

Edith Wharton by Hermione Lee

Unraveling the wonders of Wharton

It was with some trepidation that I began reading Hermione Lee's bulky tome on the mysterious Edith Wharton. After all, Lee's formidable reputation as the author of the definitive biography of Virginia Woolf precedes this book. Wharton was the writer of many well-known books —"The House of Mirth," "The Custom of the Country" and "The Age of Innocence," in which she caricatured the high society she was born into.

Wharton believed that new wealth — with all its attendant glamours — constrained women to a certain kind of life that eschewed all possibility of personal freedom. Always interested in the workings of the underclass, be it moral or economical, her books force the reader into a morally ambivalent sphere.

After an uneventful childhood, Wharton was married off to Edward "Teddy" Wharton, "a friend of the family who seemed a perfectly reasonable (though not wealthy) match." The pair's relationship was doomed from the start and mirrors, in its claustrophobic incompatibility, the miseries of Wharton's protagonists.

The book further explores Wharton's passionate love affair with William Morton Fullerton, a magnetic journalist given to serial affairs. This relationship, too, brought only fugitive comfort to Wharton, and she was destined to never experience long-lasting romantic bliss.

A central theme running through Wharton's life — and this biography — is her association with writer Henry James. Owing to their similarity of style, Wharton was often compared to James, and this troubled her deeply. Lee discredits any talk of James' influence on Wharton's writing; rather, she hints at the opposite, saying Wharton was often the template for James' "satirized figures." Notwithstanding these professional blips, Wharton and James shared a rock-solid friendship whose foundation was unaffected by the differences in their personalities.

This is not to suggest that Wharton's life lacked spice. She was like Bloomsbury's Virginia — the by turns maternal and imperious grand dame of a group populated by the likes of James, Howard Sturgis and Percy Lubbock. Their meeting ground was Sturgis' English country house — the iconic Qu'Acre — and here, Wharton was the flirtatious "Firebird," not the dowdy novelist reminiscing on the Gilded Age.

Lee dwells on Wharton's writings about France, her adopted country, and introduces the reader to some crisp observations that are part of the rich cross-fertilized writing of France and America by writers who straddled both countries: Wharton, James, William Dean Howells and Henry Adams.

The vast scope of this biography permits Lee to devote enough space to the major and minor players in Wharton's life. Insightful and intelligent, this account of Edith Wharton's life (and times) is unlikely to be bettered.


From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

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