Edith Wharton (1862-1937), American author, wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Age of Innocence (1920);
Newland reddened. “Living together? Well, why not? Who had the right to make her life over if she hadn’t? I'm sick of the hypocrisy that would bury alive a woman of her age if her husband prefers to live with harlots.”
Set in 1870's New York City, Wharton examines upper-class values and morals in all their conventionality and tradition, rigidity and hypocrisy, at times with her subtle irony and wit. As Newland Archer is living the life of the just and doing all the right things to establish his respectability in society, his naïveté comes to the fore when his affections are torn between two women. Edith Wharton herself broke out of the conventional mores of her time to become the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. She is the source of many such witticisms and concise observations on human nature as “….the only way not to think about money is to have a great deal of it.” (House of Mirth, Bk. 1, Ch. 5); “Mrs. Ballinger is one of the ladies who pursue Culture in bands, as though it were dangerous to meet alone.” (“Xingu”, 1917); and “When people ask for time, it’s always for time to say no. Yes has one more letter in it, but it doesn’t take half as long to say.” (The Children pub. 1928).
Wharton had a great love of architecture, gardens and design and wrote numerous articles and essays on the subjects including Italian Villas and Their Gardens (1904). As the author of numerous best-selling award-winning works including novels, short stories, and travel essays she has inspired many other authors. Some of her works have been adapted to the stage and film and many are still in print today.
Edith Newbold Jones was born into the wealthy family of George Frederic Jones and Lucretia Rhinelander on 24 January 1862 in New York City. She had two brothers, Frederic and Henry “Harry” Edward. To escape the bustling city, the family spent summers at ‘Pencraig’ on the shores of Newport Harbour in Newport, Rhode Island. When Edith was four years old they moved to Europe, spending the next five years traveling throughout Italy, Spain, Germany and France. Back in New York young Edith continued her education under private tutors. She learned French and German and a voracious reader, she studied literature, philosophy, science, and art which would also become a favourite subject of hers. She also started to write short stories and poetry. Fast and Loose was published in 1877 and Verses a collection of poems privately published in 1878. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and the editor of Atlantic Monthly William Dean Howells are said to have read and been impressed by these early works.
After Edith made her debut into society in 1879, the Jones family again traveled to Europe—George Jones was ill and was to take a rest cure in Cannes on the French Riviera. It was to no avail however and he died there on 15 March 1882. While in Bar Harbor, Maine the next year Edith met Walter Berry who would become a lifetime friend. On 29 April 1885 Edith married banker Edward “Teddy” Robbins Wharton in Trinity Chapel, New York. They honeymooned in Europe and for the next few years traveled extensively together although the union would prove to be unhappy. Living in New York on Park Avenue near Central Park, Wharton had her first poems published in Scribner’s Magazine. In 1891 they also printed the first of many of her short stories “Mrs. Manstey’s View”. For the next forty years or so they, along with other publications including Atlantic Monthly, Century Magazine, Harper’s, Lippincott’s and the Saturday Evening Post would publish her stories.
When Edith purchased ‘Land’s End’ in Newport she actively became involved in its remodeling and redesigning. She also co-authored The Decoration of Houses (1897) with architect Ogden Codman. Her next publication was a collection of short stories, The Greater Inclination (1899). Others include Crucial Instances (1901), The Descent of Man and Other Stories (1904), The Hermit and the Wild Woman (1908), Xingu and Other Stories (1917), and The World Over (1936). She also wrote ghost stories collected in Tales of Men and Ghosts (1910), Here and Beyond (1926), and Ghosts (1937), many previously appearing in magazines. After Edith’s mother Lucretia died in 1901 she began the designing of and oversaw the construction of her new home ‘The Mount’ in Lenox, Massachusetts. A stunning example of a Palladin-style English country home, it overlooks Laurel Lake. Edith’s niece Beatrix Ferrand, a landscape architect, helped design the extensive gardens and grass terraces on the property. It is now a National Historic Landmark.
However busy she was with the planning and building of her home, Wharton continued to write. Her next novels were The Valley of Decision (1902) and Sanctuary (1903), published the same year she met Henry James, who would become a good friend and confidante. House of Mirth (1905) became that years’ best-seller. Madame de Treymes (1907) was followed by The Fruit of the Tree (1907) which appeared the same year the Whartons moved from their Park Avenue home to 53 Rue de Varenne in Paris. They soon bought a car and were motoring all over France, which prompted her collection of travel essays A Motor-Flight through France (1908). While in Paris, Wharton met journalist Morton Fullerton, who would become a close friend and was instrumental in getting some of her works published in France. They also had an affair that lasted three years. Teddy had a mistress and had been embezzling funds from Edith to support her. They were divorced in 1913.
Edith had sold The Mount and permanently settled in Paris, but made trips to England to see Henry James and traveled with her friend and art critic Bernard Berenson. Her poetry collection Artemis to Actaeon and Other Verses was published in 1909, followed by her novel set in New England Ethan Frome (1911);
Ethan knew the word for one of exceptional import. Almost everybody in the neighbourhood had “troubles,” frankly localized and specified; but only the chosen had “complications.” To have them was in itself a distinction, though it was also, in most cases, a death-warrant. People struggled on for years with “troubles,” but they almost always succumbed to “complications.”
Familiar themes of Wharton’s are seen in Ethan Frome including the conflict between societal mores and the pursuit of happiness. The Reef (1912) follows four Americans in France and is full of suspense and Wharton’s masterful character developments. It was followed by another highly acclaimed work The Custom of the Country (1913) which satirically examines America’s nouveau riche class in all their desperate and at times greedy ruthlessness.
When World War I began Wharton was in North Africa, but soon devoted much of her time in assisting refugees and orphans in France and Belgium. She helped raise funds for their support, and was involved with creating and running hostels and schools for them. She aided women in self-sufficiency by finding them means of employment. With her good friend Walter Berry she toured battlefields and hospitals and tended to the sick which resulted in her diary and essays in Fighting France (1915) and The Marne (1918). For her efforts she was awarded the title of Chevalier (Knight) in the French Legion of Honour in 1916.
When Wharton learned of the death of her friend Henry James on 28 February 1916 she wrote “We who knew him well know how great he would have been if he had never written a line.” The Bunner Sisters (1917) was published the same year as another of Wharton’s classic contributions to women’s literature, Summer (1917). Also in 1917 she traveled to Morocco of which she wrote about in her collection of travel essays In Morocco (1920). In 1918 she moved to ‘Pavillon Colombe’, located just outside of Paris in Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt where she had an “awful” visit from F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1925. Her collection of essays French Ways and Their Meaning (1919) was followed by The Age of Innocence (1920). In 1921 Wharton sailed to America to receive the Pulitzer Prize for it. Her highly acclaimed The Glimpses of the Moon (1922) was followed by A Son At The Front (1923). That year, she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from Yale University. Further works include Old New York (1924), The Mother’s Recompense (1925), The Writing of Fiction (essays, 1925), Twelve Poems (1926), Twilight Sleep (1927), The Children (1928), Hudson River Bracketed (1929) and it’s sequel The Gods Arrive (1932), Certain People (1930), Human Nature (1933), and A Backward Glance (autobiography, 1934). In 1930 Wharton was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Edith Wharton died of a stroke on 11 August 1937 at Pavillon Colombe. Her funeral service was held at the American Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Paris of which her father was a founding member. She was buried on 14 August in the Cimetière des Gonards, Versailles, France. The epitaph on the cross adorning her gravestone reads O Crux Ave Spes Unica which roughly translates to Hail O Cross Our Only Hope.
Biography written by C. D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc. 2007. All Rights Reserved.
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