The main impression one has of Edith Wharton after reading this full-scale biography is what a dynamo she was. Whether she was writing her novels or organizing her research for them, setting up hospitals in France during World War I, motoring or sailing about Europe with friends, laying out impressive gardens, building or rebuilding houses and writing about it, entertaining, reading Dante in Italian or Goethe in German or Proust in French, looking at paintings, arranging for her own divorce, putting everyone in his or her place, sweetly or maliciously but always firmly—whatever she was doing, she was inexhaustible. She admired steadiness of spirit and self-discipline in others and could vouch for her own rigorous virtues. She had two aspects: forbidding in public, the perfect dowager; and light-hearted and amusing in private. But even with friends every moment of the day was calibrated down to the second. When she became too exacting and bossy one of her indulgent friends would say she was “Edith at her Edithest.”
Hermione Lee’s triumph lies in rendering the dynamism and integrity of this sometimes remote and always willful and stoic woman without leaving out the nuances, the soft exceptions and endearing contradictions. For instance, who would have guessed that Edith Wharton was so funny—even campy? One of her characters, a female novelist, says, “A keen sense of copyright is my nearest approach to an emotion.” In writing about the excessive use of draperies in American houses, Wharton complains of “lingerie effects.” She kept a commonplace book and a donnée book all her life and extracted from them some of the more pointed remarks in her novels. In one manuscript she wrote, “She wore the most expensive gowns with a penitential air, as though she were under a vow of wealth.”
Wharton could be terribly snobbish. She dismissed America as a land where people ate bananas for breakfast. When one rich American lady was showing off her house and said, “And this I call my Louis Quinze room,” Edith supposedly raised her lorgnette and murmured, “Why, my dear?” In speaking of some neighbors in Lenox, Massachusetts, she said that they had “decided to have books in their library.” Once, looking at a publicity photograph of herself, she said it made her look like “a combination of a South Dakota divorcée & a magnetic healer.” Of Americans in Europe she said they were all “in the same attitude of chronic opposition to a society chronically unaware of them.”
Few biographies could have been more difficult to write. Wharton destroyed all the letters she received and begged her correspondents to destroy those she had sent them. Unfortunately almost all cooperated, but her caddish lover Morton Fullerton kept her letters, which were written with a passion no one had suspected. She wrote a memoir, A Backward Glance, but she was extremely reticent in it. She mentioned few of her close friends, nothing about her lover, little about her husband or divorce. But the problem of writing about Wharton is not only that she covered her traces. Another challenge arises from the fact that she lived such a big life, went so many places, knew so many people, and was such an ambitious culture vulture. Biography is usually the revenge of little people on big people (the application of the biographer’s petit bourgeois campus morality, for instance, to uncautious international high flyers), but Lee is subtle and big-hearted enough to understand her subject.
Lee isn’t alarmed by the fact that toward the end of her life Wharton had twenty-two servants in two houses; at the same time she refuses to turn Wharton into a sort of American duchess, which is what Percy Lubbock did in his hostile, pioneering biography. Wharton was obviously very fair and generous to her staff; they stayed loyal to her over the years and she gave them pensions when they retired.
Lee is careful to point out that Wharton could be anti-Semitic but in the conventional way characteristic of her class and epoch—and she is less virulent in her novels than in her letters (though there is a caricatured Jew, Rosedale, in The House of Mirth). In a letter to Scott Fitzgerald about The Great Gatsby she complimented him for his “perfect Jew,” Gatsby’s crooked friend Meyer Wolfsheim; but she was decidedly for exonerating the Jewish scapegoat Alfred Dreyfus, whereas her earliest French friend, the novelist Paul Bourget, and most of the French and American members of her Paris circle were violently anti-Dreyfusard. In her pro-Dreyfus sentiments she was like Proust, another anti-Semite (though half-Jewish), but she refused to meet Proust precisely because she’d heard that he was snobbish to a fault. (Her social reluctance did not keep her from reading Proust and praising him in print over the years and sending Henry James the first volume of the Recherche soon after it was published.) She drifted toward Catholicism after World War I, but the attraction was as much aesthetic as devotional, and she said, “I don’t believe in God, but I believe in his saints.” This was the sort of (frivolous? honest?) comment worthy of her friend the society priest the Abbé Mugnier, who, when asked if he believed in hell, replied that he had to believe in it since it was a matter of doctrine, but that he didn’t think anyone was in it.
Lee is equally good about the novels. She points out that Wharton ignored many of the great movements and issues of her day and wrote nothing about immigration to America, industrialization, the robber barons, or the amazing technological innovations of the turn of the century. What she did write about were a host of small social questions: “How would a weekend on the Hudson differ from one in Newport or on Long Island? When did lawn tennis supersede archery as the fashionable Newport sport? Why would no one except an eccentric dream of giving a party in Newport on Cup Race Day?” Wharton also shows the rough-and-ready manners of the nouveaux riches; Undine Spragg in The Custom of the Country is greedy and relentless and strangely cold. In one breathtaking passage she thinks about her son Paul, whom she has abandoned and left with his father: “It was dreadful that her little boy should be growing up far away from her, perhaps dressed in clothes she would have hated….”
Lee never reduces Wharton’s books to veiled autobiography, just as she is never reluctant to interpret them in the light of Wharton’s life. She shows how over the course of her long if late-starting career (Wharton published forty-eight titles) she returns again and again to the themes of her own life—repression, sexual hypocrisy, hidden longings. In the 1930s, at the very moment Wharton began to be seen as old-fashioned and excessively ladylike, she was simultaneously rejected by the mass-market magazines, according to Lee, for being “too shocking and grim for optimistic American post-war readers.” By reading Wharton’s entire oeuvre attentively, Lee is able to point out previously unsuspected continuities and sudden ruptures and departures. Lee devotes many pages (for my taste too many) to Wharton’s building and furnishing of houses and her ambitious gardening, and she shows how her early books The Decoration of Houses(written with Ogden Codman) and Italian Villas and Their Gardens demonstrate her concern with the “ethics of style.” For Wharton rooms and gardens were never merely pretty or convenient. “Structure conditions ornament,” she wrote with typical severity, “not ornament structure.”
The moral preoccupations of living arrangements merged into similar ethical concerns in her fiction. In this way Wharton is indisputably a descendant of Hawthorne and a niece to Henry James. But whereas James, for instance, keeps the exact nature of the contested antique pieces of furniture deliberately vague in The Spoils of Poynton(“the array of them, miles away, was complete; each piece, in its turn, was perfect to her; she could have drawn up a catalogue from memory”), Wharton is able to spell out every horror (the cabbage-rose-garlanded carpets, the looped-back yellow damask portiere) and does so with relish.
Lee isn’t reluctant to say which of Wharton’s books she likes and why. She considersThe Custom of the Country to be Wharton’s masterpiece (not the more obvious choice,The House of Mirth) and she champions the late novel The Children (1927) and states unequivocally, “Though it has its flaws, it is the most remarkable and surprising of the novels that came after The Age of Innocence.”
Lee is so immersed in Wharton’s life that she sees even the writer’s inferior novels as variations on successful themes developed elsewhere. No one today reads Wharton’sGlimpses of the Moon, for instance, but Lee makes a case for it as a way of converting the tragic situation of The House of Mirth into comedy. Wharton saw it as in the vein of Browning’s elegy for hedonism, “A Toccata of Galuppi’s,” in which the question is posed, “What of soul was left, I wonder, when the kissing had to stop?” For Wharton’s callous young lovers, Venice was simply regarded as a place “affording exceptional opportunities for bathing and adultery.”
Even in the best of Wharton, I’d hazard, there is always something slightly trashy—notin the sex scenes, which are usually convincing and deeply felt and shockingly intimate, but in the melodramatic plot twists, as though Henry James and Wilkie Collins were always struggling over her soul. For instance, in the beginning of The Reef a penniless American ingénue, Sophy Viner, has a romantic and sexual fling in Paris with the wealthy, worldly George Darrow, and these are some of the finest pages Wharton ever wrote. Darrow has put the girl up in a luxurious hotel, her room next to his, and when she enters her room from the corridor he can picture it all:
Everything in it rose before him and pressed itself upon his vision with the same acuity of distinctness as the objects surrounding him. A step sounded on the floor, and he knew which way the step was directed, what pieces of furniture it had to skirt, where it would probably pause, and what was likely to arrest it. He heard another sound and recognized it as that of a wet umbrella placed in the black marble jamb of the chimney-piece, against the hearth. He caught a creak of the hinge, and instantly differentiated it as that of the wardrobe against the opposite wall….
This is the language of desire, hallucinatory and precise.
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