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Edith Whartonby Hermione Lee
Synopses & Reviews
The definitive biography of one of America's greatest writers, from the author of the acclaimed masterpiece Virginia Woolf.
Delving into heretofore untapped sources, Hermione Lee does away with the image of the snobbish bluestocking and gives us a new Edith Wharton — tough, startlingly modern, as brilliant and complex as her fiction.
Born in 1862, Wharton escaped the suffocating fate of the well-born female, traveled adventurously in Europe and eventually settled in France. After tentative beginnings, she developed a forceful literary professionalism and thrived in a luminous society that included Bernard Berenson, Aldous Huxley and most famously Henry James, who here emerges more as peer than as master. Wharton's life was fed by nonliterary enthusiasms as well: her fabled houses and gardens, her heroic relief efforts during the Great War, the culture of the Old World, which she never tired of absorbing. Yet intimacy eluded her: unhappily married and childless, her one brush with passion came and went in midlife, an affair vividly, intimately recounted here.
With profound empathy and insight, Lee brilliantly interweaves Wharton's life with the evolution of her writing, the full scope of which shows her far to be more daring than her stereotype as lapidarian chronicler of the Gilded Age. In its revelation of both the woman and the writer, Edith Wharton is a landmark biography.
"One might think that R.W.B. Lewis's excellent 1975 biography had precluded the need for another book about Edith Wharton. Not so. Reading Lee's superb new biography is akin to comparing a fine watercolor sketch to a vivid masterpiece. Access to previously unrevealed letters, and the same meticulous research for which her Virginia Woolf biography was praised, allow Lee to illuminate many dark corners of Wharton's life and to reinterpret previously accepted opinions. Most important, Lee exhibits an intuitive empathy with her subject (never glossing over her less admirable characteristics) and thus animates Wharton as a fully dimensional figure of complex and contradictory values and impulses — a woman of fierce ambition and lingering self-doubt, of generous friendships and ignoble snobbery and prejudices, with a zest for travel and adventure despite frequent, debilitating ill health. Lee challenges several traditional stereotypes about Wharton, including her literary relationship with Henry James — more peer than acolyte, Lee shows — and with Walter Berry and Bernard Berenson. (Although she provides many instances of Wharton's violent anti-Semitism, Lee does not note the paradox of Wharton's close relationship with Berenson.) In no other biography is there a more perceptive analysis of how Wharton's life was reflected in her work. Her nightmarish marriage and midlife passionate affair with Morton Fullerton, the straitjacket social code that she violated by seeking a divorce were transmogrified in the novels, stories and poetry (some of it erotic). Lee's portrait of Wharton as a strong-willed woman determined to surmount the background she drew on for inspiration, a woman obsessed with 'double lives, repression, sexual hypocrisy, hidden longings,' is a major achievement. 24 pages of photos. 75,000 first printing. (Apr. 30)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Since Edith Wharton's death in 1937, biographies of the great early 20th-century novelist have gone through several perhaps predictable phases: sanitized, slightly dismissive, even vindictive (by her ex-friend Percy Lubbock); highly selective and careful of her reputation (Professor R.W.B. Lewis' authorized biography); feminist reappraisals, and so on. Nevertheless, certain details about this rich,... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) prolific, socially prominent author, who lived most of her adult life in Europe, have emerged only slowly (in part because she destroyed much of her correspondence and papers and was reticent in her autobiographical writings). Some secrets still remain, biographer Hermione Lee acknowledges, notably about sexual problems in her marriage, the nature of her illnesses as a young bride and her relationship with her father. But the things about herself that Wharton was most determined to hide — details of her divorce, for instance, or her love affair with the intriguing Morton Fullerton, or her long friendships with Henry James and Walter Berry — have turned out mostly to her credit, as they become known. And her work, once synonymous with dated, Jamesian propriety, upon re-examination is bold, insightful and passionate on some formerly taboo topics such as female sexuality and rebelliousness, something her readers perhaps always understood. Today, at the remove of a century, she seems a greater writer than many earlier critics allowed. Certainly, as Lee's thorough and intelligent biography makes clear, she was a remarkable human being. On the heels of several recent works on Wharton, Lee, a professor at Oxford and the author of a distinguished biography of Virginia Woolf, focuses on the writer as an American in France, where she lived nearly all her adult life, a representative of a family and a social class somehow more comfortable in Europe than America. Lee points out, as an example, that both Wharton's parents were living in France when they died, her two brothers also lived in France, and her close friend Henry James was not far away, in England. Wharton fit into a long line of expatriate American writers, especially those who found themselves with a special affinity for Paris, going all the way back to Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper. Edith Jones was born into a New York patrician clan in 1862. Not very pretty, well-educated at home and very intelligent, as a child she took to writing almost as a secret vice. She would later refer somewhat bitterly to the disapproval she had to endure in a family and social circle that viewed intellectual activity as a terrible thing in a girl, dooming her to spinsterhood; indeed, Wharton's intellectualism was a whispered explanation for the breaking off of an early engagement. As a result, secrecy, privacy, a sense of being a misfit or foundling child became one of her main subjects, along with a sense of the tragedy of lives unfulfilled, revealing her idea of her father, and perhaps of herself, at least until her sexual awakening 20 years after her marriage. She had made a good marriage at 23 to Edward ('Teddy') Wharton, a friend of her older brother. But it was a terrible union of two unsuited people. Teddy squandered her money and chased women; he complained she was always in her study writing books or motoring around France with literary friends. Eventually, he sank into manic-depressive madness, the explanation for their divorce. Lee gives the latest word on controversies surrounding the marriage, the identity of the lover Wharton took in her 40s (American writer and man-about-Paris Morton Fullerton), and the divorce. Lee also provides the most complete account of Wharton's remarkable activities during World War I, when she stayed in France and almost single-handedly organized (and financially supported) massive relief efforts on behalf of Belgian women and orphans, and American, French and other Allied soldiers, for which she got the Ligion d'honneur, France's highest recognition, after the war. Lee is detailed and interesting about the rigid society into which Wharton was born, with its ostracisms and rules. Even the friendships and good works of her later years, a recitation that might have degenerated into a list, Lee somehow makes lively, right down to the details of Wharton's garden-planting. She discusses the most important of Wharton's 48 books and other writings with considerable penetration. 'The House of Mirth' became a best-seller and gave her money, a profession and intellectual confidence. Another novel, 'The Age of Innocence,' will be for many their favorite, especially after the 1993 film by Martin Scorsese, but Lee is convincing in choosing as Wharton's masterpiece the satirical novel 'The Custom of the Country,' with its nouveau riche heroine Undine Spragg and her upwardly mobile career. Wharton's take on American values, American marriage and the war between the sexes makes for a witty novel of American manners unexcelled by any writer since. Lee is insightful in bringing Wharton's personal life into the interpretation of her work without implying a relentlessly biographical connection, and she is at her most tactful when dealing with the strange, somewhat pornographic (for its day, at least) fragment 'Beatrice Palmato,' which some have supposed to reveal that Wharton was molested by her father and/or harbored incestuous desire for him. Lee points out that there is no evidence for this and nothing in Wharton's tone about her father that would imply it; on the contrary, she credited him with encouraging her writing, and from her sense of his frustrations in life takes some of her most convincing and affecting portraits, such as Ethan Frome in her novella of the same name or Newland Archer in 'The Age of Innocence.' This meticulous, generous biography is likely to suffice for a long time. The virtue of such a compendious work from a distinguished biographer is that one can at last grasp the full range of Wharton's writing and the full power of her energy. Diane Johnson is a critic and novelist. Her most recent books are 'Into a Paris Quartier' and 'L'Affaire.'" Reviewed by Julie PowellJonathan YardleyDarrin M. McMahonAnthony CudaPeter D. KramerDiane Johnson, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"This meticulous, generous biography is likely to suffice for a long time. The virtue of such a compendious work from a distinguished biographer is that one can at last grasp the full range of Wharton's writing and the full power of her energy." Chicago Sun-Times
"The text is unquestionably authoritative....Lee's biography is a remarkable feat, as she marshals with aplomb vast amounts of information about Wharton." Claire Messud, New York Times
"Wharton's life, as Lee smoothly and wittily presents it, reads like one of her novels." San Francisco Chronicle
"Here...is everything you will ever need and want to know about Edith Wharton." Boston Globe
"[A] weighty tome, filled to bursting with the friends, travels, projects and writings that engaged Wharton's attention and energies." Newsday
Delving into heretofore untapped sources, the author of the acclaimed masterpiece "Virginia Woolf" brilliantly interweaves Edith Wharton's life with the evolution of her writing, the full scope of which shows her to be far more daring than her stereotype as lapidarian chronicler of the Gilded Age.
About the Author
Hermione Lee is the first woman Goldsmiths Professor of English Literature at Oxford University. Her books include a major biography of Virginia Woolf; studies of Elizabeth Bowen, Willa Cather and Philip Roth; and a collection of essays on life-writing, Virginia Woolfs Nose. Also a well-known critic, Lee served as the Chair of Judges for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, 2006. She lives in Oxford and Yorkshire.
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