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Edith Whartonby Hermione Lee
Synopses & Reviews
Chapter One: An American in Paris
In Paris, in February 1848, a young American couple on their Grand Tour of Europe found themselves, to their surprise, in the middle of a French revolution. Up to then, the travels of George Frederic Jones and his wife of three years, Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander Jones, with their one-year-old son, Frederic, had been undramatic. They had a lengthy European itinerary, the usual thing for Americans of their class, backed by the substantial funds of the Jones family, one of the leading, old-established New York clans. Starting in England and Paris in April 1847, they had "done" Brussels, Amsterdam, Hanover, Berlin and Dresden, Prague, Linz, Salzburg and Munich, Frankfurt, Cologne, Coblenz, Friburg, Geneva, Lake Como and the major Italian cities. George Frederic, at twenty-seven an experienced traveller (his father had taken him on his first European tour when he was seventeen), was able to indulge all his appetites for architecture, scenery, paintings, collectable objects, shopping, theatre, entertainment and seeing life. "Lu," though more limited by looking after little Frederic and by her frequent illnesses and "her tremendous headaches," was very definite about what she liked and did not like on her first trip abroad: "Lu rather disgusted with the Catholic ceremonies." 1]
George Frederic voiced his own prejudices confidently all over Europe. "More disgusted than ever with London . . . London prices are fearful . . . Decidedly disgusted with Milan." In Amsterdam, "the smell from the canal in most parts of the city fearful . . . Drove to the Jewish synagoage sic] . . . but as soon as the carriage stopped, we were surrounded by such an infernal-looking set of scoundrels that we gave it up in disgust." (But he enjoyed the Breughels.) In a Berlin restaurant, "the company mostly men, all hard eating, hard drinking, loud talking and very little refinement anywhere." In the Dresden picture gallery, he was "much pleased" with the card players of Caravaggio, and a head of Christ by Guido. (Just the sort of thing that the "simpler majority" of nineteenth-century American tourists always liked and bought copies of, Edith Wharton would remark.) 2] In the Prague Cabinet of Antiquities, "the cameos were particularly beautiful, one, the apotheosis of Augustus, is said to have cost 12,000 ducats." In Venice he was very pleased with the Palace of the Doges the Palazzo Ducale]. In Florence he rated the Pitti Palace "a much finer gallery than the other."
But his heart belonged to Paris. When they first landed at Boulogne at the start of the trip, he wrote: "Glad to be again in France." Once they settled into their rooms on the Champs-Élyséeacute;es, everything interested him: the Palais Royal, the Louvre, the riding at Franconi's, the flower market, a new ballet at the Acadéeacute;mie Royale ("some pretty grouping but on the whole rather tedious"), the Hôocirc;tel des Invalides where they were building a chapel to contain the remains of Napoleon. Meanwhile, Lu, as her daughter would note, was buying clothes, among them "a white satin bonnet trimmed with white marabout and crystal drops . . . and a 'capeline' of gorge de pigeon taffetas with a wreath of flowers in shiny brown kid, which was one of the triumphs of
A critical biography of one of America's greatest writers describes Wharton's adventure-filled travels in Europe, the literary and artistic circles in which she lived and worked, her heroism during World War I, and the evolution of her writing.
From Hermione Lee, the internationally acclaimed, award-winning biographer of Virginia Woolf and Willa Cather, comes a superb reexamination of one of the most famous American women of letters.
Delving into heretofore untapped sources, 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 into a wealthy family, Wharton left America as an adult and eventually chose to create a life in France. Her renowned novels and stories have become classics of American literature, but as Lee shows, Wharton's own life, filled with success and scandal, was as intriguing as those of her heroines. Bridging two centuries and two very different sensibilities, Wharton here comes to life in the skillful hands of one of the great literary biographers of our time.
About the Author
Hermione Lee is the first woman Goldsmiths' Professor of English at Oxford University. Her books include the internationally acclaimed biography, Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather, and Body Parts: Essays on Life-writing. She is also a well-known critic, and is the Chair of the Judges for the Man Booker Prize, 2006.
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