Edith Wharton’s ‘background’ – the word is her own – has always seemed improbable for a future novelist. Persistent rumours that she was not the daughter of George Frederic Jones but the illegitimate offspring of a Scottish peer or an English tutor clearly attest to a sense that there was something otherwise inexplicable about this ambitious daughter of Old New York. Her autobiography, A Backward Glance(1934), says nothing about these rumours, but it is easy to see how her own accounts of the past would have fuelled them. Despite the fact that she recalled ‘making up’ stories from her first conscious moment, both her memoirs and her fiction represent the world of her childhood as pretty much impervious to the imagination. ‘In the well-regulated well-fed Summers world,’ her heroine recalls inThe Reef(1912), ‘the unusual was regarded as either immoral or ill-bred, and people with emotions were not visited.’ Anna Leath’s memory of Old New York is scarcely distinguishable from her creator’s. ‘In a community composed entirely of people like her parents and her parents’ friends she did not see how the magnificent things one read about could ever have happened.’
Asked what she wished to be when she grew up, Lucretia Jones’s small daughter dutifully replied (as she later recorded it): ‘The best-dressed woman in New York.’ This is not the sort of ambition James Wood had in mind when he recently suggested in the LRB (4 January) that we owe half of English literature to the aspirant mother. Of course, those sensitive and ambitious women are usually the mothers of lower-class males; and in Wharton’s case, as in that of other 19th-century women writers, identifying with a father might have been more to the point. But while she speaks more fondly of her father than of her ‘beautifully dressed mother’, the most she can manage for his literary influence is a wistful fantasy of a ‘rather rudimentary love of verse’ – predictably stifled, as she imagines it, by his wife’s ‘matter-of-factness’ – and an immense debt of gratitude for his ‘gentleman’s library’.
That library is the scene of the child’s most formative experiences and the occasion for her warmest recollections of the past. Even her mother’s prohibition of novel-reading proves ironically fruitful, as it prevents her ‘wasting … time over ephemeral rubbish’ and throws her back instead to ‘the great classics’. Both the impressive range of Wharton’s later reading and her lifelong habits of self-education evidently had their origins here. Characteristically, the arrangement of domestic architecture doubles in her telling as an architecture of the self: ‘there was in me a secret retreat where I wished no one to intrude.’
Books offered a way out of Old New York; and by the time she published her autobiography, Wharton’s own library contained some four thousand of them, divided between her two houses in France. Yet in Wharton’s retrospective account of herself, the small child’s imaginative resistance to her environment precedes even the ability to decipher print. Edith had not yet learned to read when she first engaged in that ecstatic and solitary ritual she called ‘making up’: though she always required a book as a prop, the very unintelligibility of the pages with which she gestured permitted her to evoke whatever her fancy chose. Even before she was a reader, in other words, she was a storyteller; and the stories she was busy telling were of alternative worlds and alternative selves.
If there is some myth-making in this portrait of the artist, that myth is itself one of her many creations. Though the mature novelist would express great scorn for the American belief in perpetual self-improvement, the construction of Edith Wharton, as Hermione Lee’s biography demonstrates, was a lifelong activity. The absence of Wharton’s important women friends from A Backward Glance, Lee suggests, intensifies the impression that the achievement was the author’s alone. With formidable energy, she turned herself into an interior decorator, a writer, a charitable organiser, a war correspondent, an honorary Frenchwoman, a gardener; and at the height of her earning power, the proceeds from her books far exceeded the income she had inherited. Despite the substantial comfort into which she was born – or because of it – there is considerable truth in a friend’s joke that both Teddy Roosevelt and Edith Wharton were ‘self-made men’.
‘Atrophy,’ Lee notes, was one of Wharton’s key words; and ‘paralysis in America … what she most feared’. Though the spare New England setting of Ethan Frome (1911) is far removed from the well-stuffed interiors of Wharton’s childhood, the relentless plot of that novel, in which dreams of suicidal escape end in literal paralysis and the protagonist’s hated wife is nightmarishly doubled by his immobilised lover, grimly dramatises its author’s terror. Closer to home, and to the immobility against which the young Edith chafed, is the ‘static force’ of Lily Bart’s aunt in The House of Mirth(1905): ‘To attempt to bring her into active relation with life was like tugging at a piece of furniture which has been screwed to the floor.’ Long after Wharton herself had escaped first into writing and then to Europe, her narratives enter the cul-de-sac in which Lily passively colludes in her own destruction. But tugging at that furniture also gave her energy – so much so that she gleefully screwed it to the floor again and again. The satirical vehemence with which Wharton represents her parents’ world can make it easy to forget that the obdurate environment of Old New York is at least partly her creation too.
Furniture was more than a metaphor for Wharton. ‘You don’t know her till you have seen her as builder and restorer, designer, decorator, gardener,’ Henry James wrote to another impassioned interior decorator, their mutual friend Mary Hunter, in 1913. At the time, Wharton was contemplating the purchase of a substantial estate near where Hunter lived in Essex; but while this came to nothing, the novelist’s relations with domestic property loom almost as large in her history as her relations with books. An often repeated anecdote in A Backward Glance tells of her first attempt at novel-writing being summarily quashed by her literal-minded mother, who responded to the 11-year-old’s opening lines – ‘“Oh, how do you do, Mrs Brown?” said Mrs Tompkins. “If only I had known you were going to call I should have tidied up the drawing-room”’ – by icily observing: ‘Drawing-rooms are always tidy.’ That put a stop to fiction for a time. But Lucretia Jones’s capacity to freeze up her daughter’s energies should not obscure the premonitory significance of the exchange. From Wharton’s first published book, The Decoration of Houses, written with Ogden Codman in 1897, to the extravagant gardens at her French property in Hyères whose design she oversaw in her sixties, her imagination was deeply invested in the arrangement of domestic space. Though Mrs Edward (Teddy) Wharton began her married life in a ‘cottage’ on her mother’s Newport estate, a substantial legacy from a millionaire cousin in the late 1880s assured that none of her future drawing-rooms would belong to her mother. Codman worked with Wharton on houses for the couple in Newport and New York: Land’s End, an $80,000 mansion overlooking the Atlantic that she later described as ‘incurably’ ugly, and ‘a little shanty in Park Avenue’ that she and Teddy called the smallest house in New York. These were followed by her most famous residence in the US – the 35-room mansion known as The Mount in Lenox, Massachusetts – and eventually by apartments in Paris, an 18th-century villa near Fontainebleau, and the Provençal house that she named Ste-Claire-le-Château, built on the site of a 17th-century convent in the old part of Hyères. Only The Mount was constructed from scratch, but all bore the unmistakeable imprint of Wharton’s design.
A sophisticated gardener as well as interior decorator, whose Italian Villas and Their Gardens (1904) is still cited by writers on garden history, Wharton threw herself into the arrangement of plants and flowers with the same passion and eye for detail that she devoted to her books. Reconstructing gardens in print is not easy, but Lee makes a convincing case for the theatrical flair and colour of Wharton’s. Towards the end of her life, Wharton herself told a friend that she thought her gardens were ‘better than her books’. However that may be, they were clearly more ephemeral: one of the most poignant episodes in Lee’s biography concerns Wharton’s devastation when a catastrophic frost in the winter of 1928-29 wiped out virtually everything she had planted at Hyères. ‘How dangerous to care too much,’ she noted in her diary, ‘even for a garden!’
Wharton’s zeal for home-making had little to do with her feelings for her husband. Long before she divorced him in 1913, her publicly acknowledged affections attached themselves more to place than to family. ‘I feel as if I were going to get married – to the right man at last,’ she joked to a friend in anticipation of the move to Hyères in 1922. Though her marriage endured for 28 years, she and Teddy seem to have had scarcely anything in common apart from a zest for travel, a love of motor cars and a fondness for little dogs; and the increasing evidence of his mental illness – what we would now call bipolar disorder or manic depression – meant that most observers seem to have sympathised with the wife. ‘A divorce is always a good thing to have: you never can tell when you may want it,’ a friend advises the superbly vulgar heroine of The Custom of the Country (1913), the fierce satire of contemporary American mores that was appearing in serial form even as Wharton filed for divorce in a Paris court. Lee contends that previous biographers have unduly emphasised the ladylike reluctance with which Wharton took that step: once it had become clear that Teddy was impossible to live with, she argues, Wharton proceeded to free herself with grim determination. The heroine of The Custom of the Country is emphatically not her author; but neither the appetite nor the ambition of Undine Spragg (‘US’, in short) was altogether alien to her. Attacking the very ease with which the thrice-divorced Undine sheds inconvenient partners would have helped to drive home the difference.
At the age of 20, Edith Jones had been briefly engaged to a wealthy young man called Harry Stevens; but according to Town Topics, the sort of gossip rag she would send up in The House of Mirth, ‘an alleged preponderance of intellectuality on the part of the intended bride’ caused the engagement to be broken off. She first became acquainted with the lawyer and future diplomat Walter Berry in the aftermath of that engagement; in later years, many who knew them assumed that she and Berry were lovers. But the truth about this long-lived intimacy, as about much of Wharton’s private life, is elusive. Though she could make high comedy out of her mother’s habits of censorship, her own powers of concealment rivaled Lucretia’s. Berry’s death in 1927 may have left Wharton ‘utterly rudderless’, as she wrote to Bernard Berenson; but she still managed to get into his Paris apartment and to burn almost all the letters she had ever written to him. ‘No words can say, because such things are unsayable, how the influence of his thought, his character, his deepest personality, were interwoven with mine,’ she declared in A Backward Glance; but this is far from the only aspect of her history, as Lee makes clear, that is treated as ‘unsayable’. In that book Teddy himself puts in only the most minimal appearance, while he disappears entirely from the published records of their travels in Italy and France. Wharton’s mother once instructed her to ‘look out of the other window’ when the notorious mistress of a New York banker was passing in her carriage; and A Backward Glance sedulously looks elsewhere when it comes to the passionate affair the still-married author herself conducted with the journalist Morton Fullerton in her forties.