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September 17, 2007

David Womersley asks, might Hermione Lee's new biography signal an overdue revival in Edith Wharton's fortunes? Edith Wharton - Hermione Lee

Posted by David Womersley

Edith Wharton
by Hermione Lee
Pp. 854. London: Chatto and Windus, 2007
Hardback, £25

What do we want from literary biography, and how is it different from other kinds of biography? Literary biography necessarily takes the form of relating a public, literary achievement which the reader will often know in great detail to a private life which for the most part will previously have been entirely hidden from the reader. It is vital that the two elements in this linkage are not just reduced to shadows of each other. We want to see connections drawn between the life and work, but it is implausible if the work is treated as a pure projection from the life, or the life is treated as a mere seed-bed for the work. There will surely be disconnections, tension, and puzzles between the two, and a good biography will identify them, place them before the reader, and reflect on their significance. Hamlet's rebuke to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, that they would

pluck out the heart of my mystery,
stands as golden advice to biographers, just as Mr Casaubon's "Key to All Mythologies" warns them about the likely fate of a book which tries to explain too much. Tact, reticence, a sense of the counter-factual, of how things might have been different and hence of the precariousness or strangeness of what came to pass, are all invaluable assets for the biographer. As one would expect and hope from a writer who has reflected on her craft, these assets are richly displayed in Hermione Lee's capacious, but also nimble and acute biography of Edith Wharton.

Wharton was born in 1862 into a wealthy old New York family, with a crushing mother and an elusive father, and was largely self-educated. Particular areas of enthusiasm and expertise were French and Italian architecture and garden design (by the end of her life she had created two splendid gardens at her French houses, one just outside Paris, the other in Provence). Her forceful personality and plain looks made her an unconventional social proposition, but nevertheless in 1885 she married Teddy Wharton, a Bostonian from apparently the right background, but who shared none of Edith's intellectual interests, and in whose family there ran a strain of mental instability. The marriage was a failure on every level, and the misery of both parties was compounded by Teddy's periodic attempts to assert himself (they lived largely off Edith's money). They kept house in Paris and New England, but their periodic relocations provided no relief from the imprisonment of their ill-judged marriage. Teddy's behaviour became ever more erratic. He took mistresses, speculated disastrously with his wife’s money, declined into alcoholism and depression. Unsurprisingly, they divorced in 1913.

Edith was now free to live life on her own terms. Beginning with The House of Mirth (1905), and continuing with Ethan Frome (1911), The Custom of the Country (1913) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Age of Innocence (1920), she had begun to make useful amounts of money from writing, which supplemented her inherited wealth. She took up residence in France, after flirting with the possibility of living in England, and became a passionate advocate of the French cause during the First World War, when she exerted herself magnificently in practical benevolence, and in consequence became deservedly admired in her adopted country. She travelled widely and socialised energetically, but the absence of intimate companionship made these years also something of a desert.

In 1907 she had embarked on a reckless, short-lived affair with Morton Fullerton, an American chancer and adventurer. Wharton's unpublished poem "Terminus" describes in heightened terms a night of love with him in London, and includes the poignant observation that he had taught her to know

what happy women must feel.
The gates of that particular paradise were shut behind her after only the briefest of visits, and although her life was in many respects exceptionally privileged, taken all in all it is difficult to envy her.

What are the leading themes of this biography? In the first place, Lee stresses Wharton's courage and indomitability (the admirable aspect of her sometimes devastating social manner). This comes through not only in her personal life, but also in relation to her war-work, where she visited the front line and risked a great deal of personal capital in attempts to shame America out of its isolationist stance.

Secondly, Lee is very good on Wharton's literary relations. The central figure here of course is Henry James, but Lee also has good things to say about Wharton's friendship with the French novelist Paul Bourget, and about her dealings with other cultural figures such as Bernard Berenson. In respect of James, the received opinion says that Wharton is a lesser version of her older compatriot, but Lee is persuasive in shifting the image of this relationship, making James's position seem less securely one of effortless superiority, and in the process bringing out how Wharton's fiction, although touching many Jamesian themes, is in fact very different: The Age of Innocence, for example, almost demands to be read as not The Portrait of a Lady.

Lee is unable to produce any great archival discoveries to rival R. W. B. Lewis's uncovering of the erotic poem "Terminus" and the sexually-frank unfinished "Beatrice Palmato", which addresses the subject of parent-child incest. But her accounts of the major novels are full and shrewd. The book is also very finely-written, and has been imaginatively organised, with a broadly chronological treatment cunningly married to thematic clustering. This results in occasional mild repetition, as a quotation or observation is used twice. But the benefit of Lee's way of proceeding is a deeper and more collected presentation of Wharton's life, which takes on an additional interest because it began in the depths of the Victorian era, and survived into the era of Modernism.

Might this biography signal a revival in Wharton's fortunes? It is still not the case that all Wharton's writings are available in modern editions, and although the major novels are relatively easy to come by, the non-fictional writings are scarce. Greater availability can only help Wharton's cause, however, as I have never encountered anyone who, having read her, did not agree that Wharton was an outstanding, subtle and original writer. Hermione Lee's biography is a fitting tribute.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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