EDITH WHARTON by R. W. B. Lewis

EDITH WHARTON

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Critic and professor Lewis of Yale University has had the ""exclusive"" access to Edith Wharton's voluminous papers (letters, diaries, etc.) on which this scrupulous and commodious biography is based. Earlier there was the Portrait (1947) by her friend, Percy Lubbock, narrow and, to a degree, pejorative. Lewis has tried to extend her since she had great creative energy and a ""faith in the possibilities of life""--its spectacle always fascinated her--however insulated she remained behind the conventions of social breeding, wealth, and her own immaculate taste. Always the grande dame, Edith was born in the old world of New York and Newport where politeness and probity prevailed; to offset it, she had her own susceptibility to beauty in any form. Marrying ""Teddy"" Wharton, as childish as his nickname, but personable if superficial, the relationship was sustained for almost a quarter of a century in spite of its incompleteness, her early neurasthenic breakdowns, his later ones. The continuity of her life was established from the time when she built her first large house in Lenox and her own ""small human community""; her friends were carefully chosen (Bourget, Berenson, Kenneth Clark and of course the dismissive Henry James who initially commented ""She must be tethered in native pastures even if it reduces her to a backyard in New York""). In time her backyard became the world--she lived abroad for much of her life; she wrote just as steadily (earning a great deal of money from The House of Mirth through The Age of Innocence with Ethan Frome, her freest work, in between); she had one love affair in which much passion was spent (""sense and spirit. . . perfected to commingle"") and one longstanding friendship reputed to be more; she became a ""rooted possessive person, and I always shall be""--close to certain places and her ""happy few"" but toward the faltering end, open toward younger mores and talents. Still she remains rather unapproachable--this composed, fastidious woman. Lewis cannot be faulted for he has faithfully represented her and her world; it is a civilized, somewhat lenitive, portrait--the one she invites.

Pub Date: Aug. 20th, 1975
Publisher: Harper & Row