Mrs. Wharton's reputation is under more than one cloud. Q.D. Lewis has called her ""the heiress of Henry James"" and that for many critics seems to have settled the question of her ""originality."" Her public image, to the extent that it exists at all, is that of a grande dame of New York and Paris. Though she left an autobiography, recently re-issued, its aristocratic reticence has not dispelled the mystery surrounding her private life. Yale has her manuscripts and papers but these will not be opened until 1968. Anyone therefore attempting a Wharton portrait has to do so rather obliquely; the case here being a perusal of the James half of the Wharton-James correspondence and some other ""inner circle"" material, all purporting to detail ""the story of their friendship."" What results is a pioneering work of great charm and interest, illuminating not only the James relationship, but also Mrs. Wharton's sad domesticity (the philistine husband who became deranged), an apparently unrequired love (the lawyer Walter Berry), her rue de Varenne salon full of literary lights and royalty, her European travels, and of course her long artistic labors. Miss Bell has the novelist's touch, both in a psychological and panoramic sense; the ironic, witty, marvellously assured James is particularly well drawn, and there are little sun bursts of insight all along the line concerning Mrs. Wharton. This is a very felt study, one more suggestive than conclusive; it doesn't get beyond its subject's chic anguish, but considering the limitations how could it?