At Her Epistolary Best - Edith Wharton

I hate excessively to be forty,” wrote Edith Wharton to her friend, Sara Norton, a response to the latter’s 1902 birthday greeting. “Not that I think it a bad thing to be—only I’m not ready yet!”
Behind Edith Wharton at this point were years of privilege and achievement: her comfortable “old New York” girlhood, marriage to the affable if uninspiring Teddy Wharton, an inheritance that helped to support multiple grand homes— Park Avenue and Newport—as well as frequent excursions to Europe, and the foundations of a successful literary career with publications dating from her late 20’s of poems and stories. Behind her, too, were telling conflicts and depressions: the relationship with a difficult mother, sexual disappointment in the marriage, and stretches as her letters looked back to them of “neurasthenia [that] consumed the best years of my youth.” It was an existence that would loom in retrospect as that of “my numb dumb former self,” of “wearing a mask,” but that evidently, on the threshold of 40, she had no confidence age would improve.
The Letters of Edith Wharton, edited by Wharton biographer, R.W.B. Lewis, in collaboration with his wife, Nancy Lewis, stands as a heartening counterassertion to the writer’s 40th birthday apprehension. First of all, it is the second half of her life—life after 40—that is the volume’s focus and emphasis. One reason the birthday pronouncement commands our attention is how soon we come upon it in our reading. Twenty pages bring Edith Wharton to her 40th birthday; the subsequent 550 pages deal with the 35 years that came after. If this seems an odd apportionment, in part it can be explained by the availability of material. Edith Wharton was in her late 30’s, say the editors, before anyone other than her publishers at Scribner’s considered her letters worth saving. More significant, however, is the weight of interest. It was in her 40’s that Edith Wharton achieved the stature of a major novelist with the 1905 publication of The House of Mirth, that she came to know Henry James whose friendship decades later upon his death she would describe as “the pride and honor of my life,” and that she experienced the sexual awakening of her life in a turbulent affair with W. Morton Fullerton, Paris-based correspondent for the London Times, her letters to whom provide much of the fascination of this volume. And indeed, this was only the beginning. The impression that builds from the letters as they move the subject at a fairly even pace through her 40’s, and then her 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s—400 letters have been selected from an available 4,000 with the intention “to show Edith Wharton at her epistolary best and most characteristic”—is of her extended and unabating expression of verve and energy—in writing, in reading, in one, perhaps two grand passions, in the creation of several splendid homes, in philanthropic work during the war (she opened an ouvroir for unemployed seamstresses and hostels for civilian refugees in Paris), in avid travel, and many friendships.
The editors have grouped the letters into phases of Wharton’s life, each succeeding phase no less replete with interest than the foregoing. There is the 1902—07 period of “Withdrawal from America,” time and allegiance divided between Europe and not so much America as Wharton’s last gracious American house, the Mount in Lenox, Massachusetts; the Paris-based 1907—10 years of the affair with Fullerton; the prewar 1911—14 years, dubbed “Separations and Sojourns,” a period in which Wharton’s social and literary connections expanded (Bernard Berenson became a major correspondent), and driven to action by her husband’s mental deterioration and embezzlement of her money, she sought and obtained a divorce. Following is the experience of “The Writer in Wartime,” the years of Wharton’s indefatigable war work, relieved by motor car tours to the front described in letters to “Dearest cher maître,” Henry James, that he deemed “inexpressibly splendid bounties.” And finally, we have two postwar stretches, 1919—27 and 1928—37, years of continued literary productivity and fame, of motor touring in Europe and Africa, of residence divided between two well-maintained estates, Pavilion Colombe outside of Paris and Sainte-Claire, Hyeres in the south of France—the topics of Edith Wharton’s letters include her servants and her gardens—and years, too, despite bouts of ill health and grief at the death of friends (“Why do our friends die one after the other?” she lamented to her long-time friend and ultimate executor, Gaillard Lapsley), of perhaps her greatest serenity. In a letter to Mary Berenson, written, as it turned out, in Wharton’s last year, she expressed her incomprehension of other people’s failure to engage wholeheartedly in life:
I wish I knew what people mean when they say they find “emptiness” in this wonderful adventure of living, which seems to me to pile up its glories like a horizon-wide sunset as the light declines. I’m afraid I’m an incorrigible life-lover &life-wonderer and adventurer.
What a contrast this presents with the writer of the 40th birthday letter who certainly had a better understanding of “emptiness”:
Don’t I know that feeling you describe, when one longs to go to a hospital & have something cut out& come out minus an organ, but alive & active & like other people, instead of dragging on with this bloodless existence.
Of course, these are moods, and as soon as expressed, they shift. Concluding her self-portrayal as a life-lover, Wharton remembered “how bodily suffering strikes at the root of these joys.” The earlier letter’s reference to “this bloodless existence” is followed by a sprightly ensuing paragraph, talk of seeing Mrs. Pat Campbell in a play. Wharton knew well the art of modulation. Nonetheless, the volume’s cumulative impression—the sense of a life that builds from the compilation and juxtaposition of letters—is that of a figure who began really only in her 40’s to achieve her own resonant and authoritative voice and whose letters, as she aged, gained rather than diminished in exuberance and vitality.
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