Edith Wharton is perhaps best known for translating social history into fiction as she did in two of her most widely read novels, The House of Mirth (1905) and The Age of Innocence (1920), for which she won the Pulitzer Prize, becoming the first woman to do so. Her most popular book, Ethan Frome, a departure for her, was published in 1911. Growing up in New York in a well-to-do family during the Gilded Age, Wharton was an avid reader of important nonfiction works and a close observer of the elegant life and dramatic social change of that era. Despite an unhappy marriage and a difficult relationship with her mother and brothers, Wharton created a distinctive and sometimes extravagant life for herself, mostly abroad.
That story unfolds in Hermione Lee's magnificent new biography Edith Wharton. Lee, Oxford's first female Goldsmith's Professor of English Literature and author of a highly acclaimed biography of Virginia Woolf, says Wharton was passionately interested in France, England, and Italy, but could never be done with the subject of America and Americans. In her richly detailed study, Lee shows how Wharton developed into an extremely ambitious author, publishing at least one book every year between 1897 and her death in 1937. Apart from her writing, Wharton was interested in fine homes and gardens, travel and friendships. Her circle of friends and acquaintances included Henry James, art critic Bernard Berenson, Kenneth Clark and Theodore Roosevelt.
Lee discusses what she calls the two essential underpinnings of [Wharton's] life, money and servants. Of particular interest is Wharton's work in establishing and supporting charities to assist in the war effort in France during World War I. Lee's portrait also reveals some of Wharton's less attractive characteristics, such as snobbery, racism, anti-Semitism and anti-feminism, which she says were commonplace among upper-class Anglo-Americans of the era.
This authoritative book, sensitive and thorough, is surely the definitive biography of Edith Wharton. Roger Bishop is a retired Nashville bookseller and a frequent contributor to BookPage.