Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Birthday: "After all, one knows one's weak points so well, that it's rather bewildering to have the critics overlook them and invent others."

Edith Newbold Jones Wharton (1862-1937)

Born to an age and class which viewed the roles of women as to marry well, be decorative, avoid scandal and produce heirs, Edith Wharton managed to escape its straightjacket as an author while remaining a firm pillar of that Establishment.

At her death, The New York Times declared

...her reputation rested mostly upon her achievement as the chronicler of Fifth Avenue, when the brownstone front hid wealth and dignity at its ease upon the antimacassar-covered plush chairs of the Brown Decade.

As a child she lived within the inner circle of New York society that always thought of itself as spelled with a capital S. In her ancestry was a long succession of important names. The Schermerhorns, the Joneses, Pendletons, Stevenses, Ledyards, Rhinelanders and Gallatins, who had led the social life of New York before Mrs. Astor's horse was a symbol, before the Commodore from Staten Island, or men with strange new names from the West had descended on the town. Her own father, although not overly rich, was, nevertheless, able to live, as she said, "a life of leisure and amiable hospitality."

Besides Fifth Avenue, there was Newport. Beyond that was only Europe. When little Edith walked on the Avenue she passed nothing but brownstone and the cow pasture of the Misses Kennedy. When she went on Bailey's Beach she shielded her fair skin from the sun with a black veil. When she went to Europe it was an escape from the crudities of American society--even that with a capital S. Innocence was the life of her childhood and it was the stuff of her better books.

She began writing short stories in her early teens, but they were never about "real people." Little happened to the real people she knew; what did "happen" was generally not talked about.

It was from this background that Mrs. Wharton was to inherit the belief from which she never departed, that "any one gifted with the least creative faculty knows the absurdity of such a charge" as that of "putting flesh-and-blood people into books." Later critics were to say that in this was her greatest lack.

The young author wrote her first efforts on brown paper salvaged from parcels. She was not encouraged. "In the eyes of our provincial society," she was later to say, "authorship was still regarded as something between a black art and a form of manual labor." Each was equally despised in her social level. Her first acceptance was three poems which she sent to the editor with her calling card attached.

Wharton was a bonus baby, trailing two much older brothers. She spent her childhood in Europe, to which her family  withdrew after the Civil War. Their fortunes diminished by the Civil War, the Joneses- whose New York life had spawned the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses”- found gentility at a lower cost on the Continent.

Edith was a bright child, returning to America at ten fluent in French, German and Italian. She read widely in her father’s library, and those of her father’s friends, but her mother forbade her the reading of novels until she was married. Such were the strictures of her class that Wharton obeyed her mother’s command.

There was, however, a storyteller in the girl. She tried her hand at childhood tales, and was firmly discouraged by her mother. The Times obituary recalled,

Her first novel, written when she was 11, began: "'Oh, how do you do, Mrs. Brown?' said Mrs. Tompkins. 'If only I had known you were going to call I should have tidied up the drawing room.'" The little girl showed it to her mother, whose icy comment was: "Drawing rooms are always tidy."

Turning to verse, she won a competition at fifteen. Her mother would only allow the winning entry to be published under the name of a male family friend. In 1878 her father allowed a private publication of some of her verse; in 1890 she had five poems published in The Atlantic Monthly, whose prestige, presumably, outweighed the potential for scandal.

Her family pressed to marry her off as well, and as early, as possible, to sublimate her literary inclinations in the serious business of household management. She came out-or, more properly, was pushed- into Society at 17, a year early. A hastily-arranged engagement was broken a month before the wedding, when Wharton was twenty. Three years later she married a Boston banker, Edward Robbins Wharton.

A friend of her brothers, Wharton was twelve years older, bright charming and from a well-vetted family; he lived off a trust fund and lived with his mother. Days before the wedding, Edith, at twenty-three, still did not know what to expect, and gingerly initiated a conversation with her mother about what marriage was “really like”:

Her mother responded with open contempt: "You've seen enough pictures and statues in your life," she said. "Haven't you noticed that men are… made differently from women?" When her daughter shyly indicated that she had noticed, Lucretia Jones decided that the case was closed. "Then for heaven's sake," she said, "don't ask me any more silly questions. You can't be as stupid as you pretend."

The early years of the marriage were conventionally, publicly happy; the couple spent four months of each year in Europe. They lived in a cottage her parents owned, across the street from her parents’ Newport summer place. In 1893, Edith asserted a degree of independence and bought her own Newport place in another part of town.

Edith, however, suffered a variety of ailments arising from the stress and depression of her stifled life: migraines, asthma, stomach ailments. From the mid-1880s, though, Teddy Wharton began suffering from increasing debilitating depression. His breakdowns were interspersed with extramarital affairs and wild sprees.

After a decade and a half in which she published a handful of short works- to great reader acclaim- Wharton seemed to find her footing. She published The Decoration of Houses in 1899, then put her views to work designing The Mount, a large country home in Lenox, Massachusetts. Airy and light, the house drive a stake in the heart of the Victorian era’s fondness for ferns, fans, gloom and clutter.

She was in demand; her stories were sought by the best magazines. She threw off, almost entirely, her family’s Newport set for the friendship of writers and scholars. The Whartons’ roles were reversed. She made the money; her large personal suite at The Mount contrasted sharply with Teddy’s smaller, spartan office and bedroom. He managed the household and paid the bills. She wrote in bed every morning, dropping the completed pages on the floor for her secretary to collect later.

In 1907, Wharton discovered Teddy was siphoning her earnings to keep up his mistress. Hospitalized, he was pronounced incurable in 1908. Edith moved to France in 1911, and divorced him in 1913.

By then Wharton was one of the best-known authors in the English-speaking world, the author of The House of Mirth (1905) and Ethan Frome (1911). When The Great War came, Wharton opened a factory for seamstresses displaced by war work; she supported 900 Belgian Refugees and opened a relief hostel for the displaced of war newly arrived in Paris. She wrote books and pamphlets in support of war relief, and raised so much money the French Government gave her the Legion of Honor in 1916.

After the war, Wharton bought a French country estate that was her base for the rest of her life. The Age of Innocence (1920) was her masterpiece, and made her the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1921 (only after the Prize Board overruled the three male fiction judges, who preferred the male author Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street). She made her only return to America in 1924, to receive an honorary degree from Yale.

For one whose first novel was published at forty, Wharton more than made up for lost time. Her collected works include fifteen novels, 85 short stories, and books on landscape and interior design, travel, literary and social criticism, and several plays. She was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature three times, and elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1930. She found true love, for a time, in her mid-forties, with a journalist called Morton Fullerton, though she never remarried.

Her most engaging, and sustaining friendship was with her fellow expatriate, Henry James. The two had attended the same dinner parties twice in year youth, when James was the lion of London, without his noticing her. By the early 1900s, however, he was writing her encouraging fan mail, though encouraging her not to encroach on his turf:

''I egg you on in, your study of the American life that surrounds you. Let yourself go in it & at it - it's an untouched field, really.''
''Use to the full your ironic and satiric gifts,'' he added, ''they form a most valuable (I hold) & beneficent engine.''
For her part, Wharton struggled to get out from under critics’ cavils that her early novels were James-lite in construction. She found the vast intricacies of James’s plots offputting, and in 1904 told her editor she hadn’t been able to read anything James had published in the last ten years. James, who had devoted his life to the sacred altar of Literature, was jealous of the apparently easy- and late- success of Wharton.

But, somehow, they hit it off. “Perhaps it was our common sense of fun that first brought about out understanding,” she wrote. “The real marriage of true minds is for any two people to possess a sense of humor pitched in exactly the same key, so that their joint glances at any subject cross like interarching searchlights.” James encouraged Wharton, and she returned the favor as the declining sales, poor health and depression of his last years confined him largely to the country, churning out work to sustain himself. Wharton campaigned for the Nobel for James, and, in 1907, secretly directed $8,000 of her book royalties as an advance for his next book. She organized a major celebration of his 70th birthday to revive his reputation.

Her works have been made into numerous plays and film productions. Edith Wharton stands as a sort of anti-Jane Austen. Her great theme is stifled passion and the suffocating soul; she explored this through the charged erotic constellation of marriage, adultery, divorce, and betrayal. She explores it through the changing lens of her own experience. At the core of her work lies passion, that dangerous, forbidden, and powerful presence. Her bravery in venturing into banned territory, and her courage in setting down what she found, with such eloquence and intensity, is the true legacy of Edith Wharton,” novelist Roxanna Robinson said at the 150th anniversary of Wharton’s birth. No amount of cleverness and goodwill and common sense can rescue her characters from the clammy grip of Society and its rulers from their ancient graves. Eighty years after her death, Wharton remains widely read, and loved: a modernist who set herself free.

She was revising her interior design book when she had a stroke and died in 1937. Wharton was buried in the American cemetery at Versailles, near friends. Edith outlived Teddy by nine years; he is buried in his family’s plot near The Mount.

Edith sold the house in 1912. After two private ownerships, it became a dormitory for a private girls’ school, then home to a theater company. A nonprofit group bought it in 1980, and restored it as a museum and center for Wharton studies. It is now one of the five percent of National Trust For Historic Preservation sites devoted to noteworthy American women.

#HenryBemisBooks #LiteraryBirthdays #Charlotte #EdithWharton

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