The whirling princess: how a little rich girl known as Pussy Jones became Edith Wharton, writing her way into the aristocracy of American letters.

Author:Gilbert, Sandra M.
SUMMARY

Book review

 
FREE EXCERPT

EDITH WHARTON By Hermione Lee Knopf\ $35

In the early 1900s, Edith New. bold Jones Wharton and her feckless, somewhat weak-minded husband, Teddy (Edward Robbins Wharton), began to build a summer home in Lenox, Massachusetts, a structure that was, as the biographer Hermione Lee dryly informs us, "by no means a modest house." In fact, The Mount, as it was eventually called, "had thirty-five rooms, and a hundred windows" (although some of these were "blind windows, made to balance real ones"). Perhaps appropriately, Lee's new life of Wharton is also far from modest in scale: like The Mount, it has numerous rooms and a bewildering array of windows, most of them looking out on various aspects of the novelist's complicated career. Tolstoyan in length and scope, Lee's book is itself a kind of Wharton novel, capturing what the biographer herself calls "the thick enclosing texture of wealthy late-Victorian genteel America" and "the conservative manners and habits of [the novelist's] provincial tribe": manners and mores that became central subjects for the writer. Yet like The Mount--and, indeed, like some of the even more massive mansions erected by Wharton's compatriots in Gilded Age New York--Lee's biography at times seems bloated. Her research is superb, her readings of Wharton's novels are often definitive, and her sense of that "thick enclosing texture" is absolutely sure. Nonetheless, as Teddy Wharton reportedly said of Henry James's Golden Bowl, her book's "size in all ways is against it. Cut out 1/4 & it would have been" even better than it already is.

To be fair to Lee, Wharton's achievements were so grand in scale that it's understandably difficult to explore them in a manageable narrative. The fiercely energetic author of such acerbic masterpieces as The House of Mirth and The Custom of the Country claimed that as a young wife she had suffered for "twelve years" from nausea and "unutterable fatigue," insisting that this "neurasthenia consumed the best years of my youth." But she recovered from this lassitude (which was, paradoxically, marked by numerous publications and adventures) to become among the most productive and versatile of modern writers. Lee notes that by 1906, when the publication of The House of Mirth broke whatever neurasthenic spell its author had been under, "it seemed there was nothing Wharton could not do. Novels, novellas, stories, plays, poems, books on Italy and on house-decoration.... As she put it, [she had]...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP