NO GIFTS FROM CHANCE: A Biography of Edith Wharton by Shari Benstock

NO GIFTS FROM CHANCE: A Biography of Edith Wharton

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KIRKUS REVIEW

This conscientious and inclusive biography of Wharton (born Edith Newbold ""Pussy"" Jones, 1862-1937) draws its obscure title from a poem by Matthew Arnold describing someone who ""conquered fate."" Benstock (English/Univ. of Miami), however, tells the story of a young woman whose fate wasn't so bad that it needed to be conquered. Born with great talent, connections, and financial resources, Wharton married into her own leisured class and enjoyed a position that allowed her to travel, entertain, and create beautiful homes. While her marriage to a manic-depressive may have been unfulfilled and her health was always precarious, she was financially and socially able to indulge in the uncertain vocation of writing. Between 1878 and 1937, she published 44 volumes: poems, short stories, travel books, memoirs, cultural criticism (French Ways and Their Meaning, 1919), aesthetics (The Writing of Fiction, 1925), and novels (including Ethan Frome, 1911, and The Age of Innocence, 1920). While critics disagreed over her Victorian elegance as much as over her astute social criticism, she was granted doctorates of letters at Yale, Columbia, and Rutgers; honored by the American Academy; and awarded a Pulitzer Prize. She found ""gifts"" in admiring friends such as Henry James (with whose former lover, Morton Fullerton, she experienced sexual fulfillment in a rather lurid affair) and Theodore Roosevelt. She also found a generous, powerful, grateful publisher, Charles Scribner, who called her ""the George Eliot of her time"" and introduced her to F. Scott Fitzgerald -- who, according to conflicting legends, either fell at her feet or threatened to jump out the window. Despite her writing the first Wharton biography to draw on unpublished as well as published sources, Benstock offers no justification for her thesis that Wharton was either a victim or a hero. Rather, she appears to have been a fortunate woman who made excellent use of her opportunities, resources, and talents.

Pub Date: July 1st, 1994
Page count: 533pp
Publisher: Scribners