The life of Edith Wharton is not an inspiriting rags-to-riches saga, nor is it a cautionary tale of riches to rags—riches to riches, rather. Born Edith Newbold Jones, in January of 1862, into one of the leading families of New York—the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” is said to have originated with reference to her great-aunts Mary and Rebecca Jones, who shocked the rest of their staid society by building a mansion north of Fifty-seventh Street, unthinkably uptown in the nineteenth century—the author maintained multiple establishments and travelled in the highest style, with a host of servants, augmenting her several inheritances by writing best-selling fiction. In the Depression year of 1936, when two thousand dollars was a good annual income, her writing earned her a hundred and thirty thousand, much of it from plays adapted from her works. Yet her well-padded, auspiciously sponsored life was not an easy one. The aristocratic social set into which she was born expected its women to be ornamental, well-sheltered, intellectually idle agents of their interwoven clans, whereas Edith was an awkward, red-haired bookworm and dreamer, teased by her two older brothers about her big hands and feet and out of sympathy with her intensely conventional mother, née Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander—a mother-daughter disharmony that rankled in Edith’s fiction to the end. She felt like a changeling, writing, in a last, unfinished effort of autobiography, “Life and I,” that her parents “were beginning to regard me with fear, like some pale predestined child who disappears at night to dance with ‘the little people.’
”In truth, some of her imaginative activity was alarming, as she describes it; from the age of four or five she would march up and down the house with a book in hand, pretending to read aloud words that she concocted in an “ ‘ecstasy’ of invention.” In “Life and I,” she writes of “the rapture of finding myself again in my own rich world of dreams” and of “the ecstasy which transported my little body.” Her mother disapproved and attempted to distract her with suitable playmates; her father’s library was the site of her reading pleasure, as she lay stretched out on the rug. George Frederic Jones had graduated from Columbia College, sat on charitable boards, and had inherited enough money to keep up (just barely) with his wife’s expenditures. Thrift and a dip in the family fortune prompted him to move the family to Italy and France, with their dollar-friendly economies, between 1866 and 1872; Edith returned, at the age of ten, knowing French, Italian, and German, and with a lifelong love of Europe.
In 1881, the family went again to Europe, this time for the father’s health; he and Edith saw sights in Italy with Ruskin’s writing as their guide. But George Frederic Jones died the following year, in Cannes, at the age of sixty-one, when Edith was twenty. She gave him credit for her bookish, culturally voracious side, though in her memoir “A Backward Glance” she credits her mother with arranging the private printing of her first book, “Verses,” when Edith was sixteen. Others remembered it as her father’s idea, and on her deathbed she assigned her father credit. In 1905, when “The House of Mirth” was published, to great success and acclaim, she wrote to a friend, “I often think of Papa, and wish he could have been here to encourage me with my work.” Yet had he lived, her unhappy married life, and her eventual blooming into one of the twentieth century’s finest American writers, might well have taken other turns, to posterity’s loss. The upper crust builds thick inhibitions around its would-be writers; a live father and a more compatible husband might have kept Wharton’s rather dour, frequently satiric genius sealed in a carapace of good manners and amateurish diffidence.
As Wharton’s reputation gradually emerged, after her death, in 1937, from under the cloud of her late, commercially successful but critically denigrated novels and the impression they reinforced of a facile, popular “lady novelist,” she has not lacked for biographical and critical attention. Her literary executor, Gaillard Lapsley, a conservative Cambridge historian, sold her manuscripts and letters to Yale, embargoing “anything of a biographical sort” for thirty years. However, in the mid-nineteen-forties he invited Percy Lubbock, another Cambridge scholar whom Wharton had met through Henry James, to compose a memoir of her, which to some other of her acquaintances seemed a poor caricature. The embargo was lifted in 1968, and Louis Auchincloss’s friendly, elegantly illustrated brief biography, “Edith Wharton: A Woman in Her Time,” followed, in 1971. As early as 1966, a number of eminent American writers, including Edmund Wilson, Leon Edel, and Alfred Kazin, had been considered by the custodians of the Wharton lode for the authorized biography; the Yale professor R. W. B. Lewis was chosen. His “Edith Wharton: A Biography” came out in 1975, winning the Pulitzer Prize, and it remains, more than thirty years later, the gold standard—the Wharton biography that most people have read. Now an equally long and territorially similar biography, simply titled “Edith Wharton” (Knopf; $35), has been produced by Hermione Lee, the first female Goldsmiths’ Professor of English Literature at Oxford and the author of book-length studies of Elizabeth Bowen, Willa Cather, and Philip Roth, and of a greatly admired, nearly nine-hundred-page biography of Virginia Woolf. The reader peruses her biography of Wharton, watchful for the ways in which it differs from, and improves on, Lewis’s.
Lee tells us that her Wharton “makes use of the recent publication of her letters to Léon Bélugou and Louis Bromfield, draws on a large scatter of unpublished letters . . . and follows her trail more closely in France, Italy, and England.” These are real additions to the record, but nothing on the sensational order of the revelations that Lewis’s biography contained: an account of Wharton’s passionate affair, from 1908 to 1910, with the hitherto obscure journalist Morton Fullerton; the publication, in an appendix, of an enthusiastically pornographic fragment of an unfinished story titled “Beatrice Palmato”; and the inclusion, complete, in Lewis’s text of a long, long-lined poem, “Terminus,” addressed to Fullerton in the hot wake of his embraces in the Charing Cross Hotel.