Absorbing life of the expatriate novelist and socialite whose work, though not widely read today, underlies film after film.
She was hailed as both a “citizen of the world” and “the last Victorian writer” when she died 70 years ago. Edith Wharton was indeed an accomplished traveler who transcended idle moneyed tourism to endure a few discomforts in search of an interesting story. Still, as Lee (Virginia Woolf, 1997, etc.) tells us, Wharton came up in wealth and enjoyed every ounce of accumulated privilege, which included the wherewithal to build splendid neo-palaces and restore real ones—and manors and farmhouses and gardens. She lived abroad in post–Gilded Age luxury thanks to the inheritance of three fortunes and, for at least part of her life, a solid income as a writer. Wharton, Lee allows, had the prejudices of her age and class; on her deathbed, she “talked about her love of Balzac, her strong feelings for the Catholic Church and her dislike of Jews.” Yet she was a pioneer who took the circumstances of her own life, such as her unhappy marriage to a depressive alcoholic, and turned them into romans à clef such as The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence. The Wharton who emerges as a vigorous and visible presence in these pages loved life, was at home in many languages and places and was free of other kinds of prejudices; she may be one of the earliest American writers to have used the word “gay” in its modern connotation. She was also a brilliant writer, recognized as such in her time, mentioned in the same breath as Henry James, with whom she had a long relationship—and who is now mentioned less than she, at least “as an indicator for certain subjects: wealth, social status, old New York.”
An exemplary biography of a not-always-exemplary subject. Sure to be the standard work on Wharton for years to come.