Thursday, May 6, 2010

Chunkster: The Age of Edith Wharton


It’s been a while since I’ve posted here, but a lot of the past few weeks has been devoted to the wildly thorough and very entrancing biography of Edith Wharton by Oxford professor Hermione Lee. Lee, whose previous biography was that of Virginia Woolf (one that, though I am a big Woolf fan, I haven’t managed to get through just yet), is quite interested in biography, or in her and Woolf’s words, life-writing. She actually has a book of essays on the topic. But enough about Professor Lee’s own biography.

This narrative about one of New York’s and America’s greatest writers at the turn of the century isn’t interested in the bare facts. That wouldn’t be Lee’s style, who is writing in the veins of Woolf and Coetzee and others who have turned their back against the traditional bare facts way of telling a life story. Instead, Lee sees several different themes of Wharton’s life – her affair with Morton Fullerton; her success with The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence; her issues with modernism and ‘jazz’ writers; her interest in interior and exterior house and gardens design – and lumps what she can into chapters devoted on such topics. If one doesn’t mind creating one’s own timeline for Ms Wharton’s life, then one will find this to be a terrific vision of a writer’s life.

Through this biography, we get transplated to the Gilded Age of America (though I don’t think the term was used in this work), to see Edith grow up in a wealthy household. At a young age, she was not interested in entertaining friends; in fact she would walk around her home with a book in hand (it could have been upside down too) and told her mother that she was ‘making up’ and that it would be best if she [her mother] would entertain the friends. Wharton, who is never formally educated, finds her way to an unhappy marriage to Teddy Wharton, who becomes more like Camille Raquin, phlegmatic and detestable, not interested in bettering himself physically or mentally. There are questions as to whether he abused her in any way. But he did philander, which is how they later got a divorce.

That’s not to say that Ms Wharton didn’t have sexual issues of her own. She fell in love, hard, for Morton Fullerton. And for someone who was terribly conscious of what others were saying about her, who was interested in the utmost secrecy and had her friends burn her letters after she died, who wouldn’t be able to handle being in the gossip columns of tabloids, she had to work to make sure that people weren’t suspicious. Of course close friends knew of the affair – her first collaborator, Ogden Codman, an eccentric man who helped write The Decoration of Houses with her; and Henry James, the writer, the ‘Master’, whose writing hers would always be compared to, whose friendship is legendary at this point.

Lee takes us into her convoluted relationships with her publishers – from those serialising her work to Charles Scribner (of Scribner fame). She writes about Wharton’s interest in Scott Fitzgerald, who she wishes would control himself in The Beautiful and Damned, who should have given Jay Gatsby a more tangible back history in The Great Gatsby. She tried to keep abreast of contemporary writing, but it seemed that she was usually contemptuous to it, disregarding Hemingway and Faulkner, Joyce and Woolf.

As you can imagine, there’s way too much to discuss here, but Lee does a terrific job of looking at the life and works of Wharton (she does a terrific job at looking at The Age of Innocence, and it’s worth just sampling that chapter). I feel like I’ve received quite enough information about this woman, received in an entertaining manner. I’m not even terribly enthusiastic about Wharton. But now I’m planning on relooking at some of the novels of hers I read back in high school. And some of the novels that I now feel are necessary reads.

1 comment:

Kari said…

If this book took you weeks to get through, I can't even imagine how long it would take us mere mortals. 🙂

I probably would've enjoyed this in high school. I had an Edith Wharton kick back then, and I really enjoyed carrying around (and yes, actually reading) pretentious looking biographies on individuals no one else my age had ever heard of. Now, I don't think I'd have the patience for it. It would be interesting to learn how her lifestyle influenced the settings/lifestyles she created in her novels, though.