Edith Wharton by Hermione Lee
Reviewed by Andrew Delbanco
The New Republic Online
This past spring, Hermione Lee delivered the Lionel Trilling Seminar at Columbia University on the subject of literary biography in general and the life of Edith Wharton in particular. Such an event would not have taken place when I came to the university two decades ago. In those days, literary theory was all the rage, and biography was condescended to as an "undertheorized" and therefore unserious genre -- a higher form of gossip that belonged on the beach-house bookshelf with bodice-rippers and barbecue cookbooks. If a young scholar thought of submitting a biography as his "tenure book," some more seasoned colleague would have told him what Madame Merle tells Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady: "That is very crude of you....What do you call [the] self? Where does it begin? Where does it end?"
That was long ago. We are all theorists now, at least in the rudimentary sense of conceding that facts do not add up by sheer accumulation to truth, and that motives are often unknowable, and that the mysterious force we call the market may be as much responsible as the will of the artist for the production and consumption of works of art. None of these notions is the least bit new, but their resurgence means that the idea of a "definitive" biography -- once a standard term of praise -- has been pretty much discarded.
And yet biography is booming again, even in the academy, all the methodological and epistemological skepticism notwithstanding. Hermione Lee is arguably its leading practitioner. A few years ago, in the brief opening sentence of Virginia Woolf's Nose: Essays on Biography, she summed up nicely why the form will always be with us: "We all want stories." And of all the forms of literary criticism, biography is most likely to deliver what we want:
History, politics, sociology, gossip, fiction, literary criticism, psychoanalysis, documentary, journalism, ethics, and philosophy are all scrambled up inside the genre. But the target of all these approaches is a living person in a body...through all the documents and letters and witnesses, the conflicting opinions and partial memories and fictionalized versions, we keep catching sight of a real body, a physical life: the young Dickens coming quickly into a room, sprightly, long-haired, bright-eyed, dandyish, in a crimson velvet waistcoat or tartan trousers....Rimbaud, dust-covered and scrawny and dressed in baggy grey khaki trousers, leading a caravan of camels across the desert sands of Abyssynia....Edith Wharton and Henry James, veiled and hatted, tucked up comfortably in the back of the Panhard behind the chauffeur, exchanging impressions as they zoom along the empty French roads.
It was that last pair with whom Lee was traveling when she wrote those lines, and now, ten years after the appearance of her magisterial life of Virginia Woolf, she has delivered a vast life of Edith Wharton. It is a post-theory biography -- authoritative and tentative at the same time.
The authority is earned. Although Lee once confessed (in her life of Woolf) to "periodic attacks of archive-faintness," she shows no faint-heartedness here. She has examined every scrap of writing, private and public, in the Wharton archive, and regrets that there is not more. (Wharton's letters to Henry James, for instance, went up in a bonfire at Lamb House, James's home, in 1915.) The resulting book is an amazingly informed account of friendships, flirtations, marriages, estrangements, divorces, collaborations, jealousies, and generosities mainly among well-to-do Americans who, from the late nineteenth century through the first third of the twentieth century, journeyed and sojourned with European and Europhile friends, zig-zagging across the Continent via holiday resorts, health spas, the estates of friends, and their own multiple residences. Along the way, we learn about everything from Wharton's marriage and her compensatory flirtations to her parquet floors (the pattern was diagonal), the furnishings in her vestibule (there was a blue urn on a pedestal), and the breeds (Pekingese, Pomeranian, Papillon, among others) and names (Mimi, Miza, Jules, and so on) of her dogs.
Over her lifetime of seventy-five years, Edith Wharton, born Edith Newbold Jones in 1862 to a moderately wealthy New York family, spent less and less time in her native city. When she was there, she generally wished to be somewhere else. According to James, she was a "poor dear goaded wanderer" -- beginning with childhood travels in tow to her parents, later hopping from friend to friend at estates with portentous names like Qu'Acre and Hill Hall, or for colloquies with James at Lamb House, or with Bernard Berenson at I Tatti -- sometimes accompanied by her occasionally "violent & scenic" (James's words) husband Teddy, more often without him as he went off on his own to such exotic places as India, where the "obsessive Indian consumption of whiskey and soda" earned his disapproval -- mainly, one suspects, because of the diluting effect of the soda.
Like James, Wharton wrote especially well about Americans in Europe. She knew the subject from within. She kept homes in London and, most happily, in Paris, at No. 53, later No. 58, Rue de Varenne, until the end of World War I, when she moved to the quieter district of Saint-Brice-sous-Fort, where she lived until her death in 1937. Paris, as she says of a character in a late novel, was her "great traceried window opening on the universe."
The corner of the universe that Wharton knew best was where old society and new money converged. Sometimes the new money belonged to an industrialist from the west, such as Abner Spragg in The Custom of the Country (1913), whose daughter, Undine, makes her assault first on the society of New York, then of Paris. Sometimes it belonged to an arriviste from the east, such as the Jewish speculator Simon Rosedale (modeled on August Belmont) in The House of Mirth (1905), who lurks around the edgesof Old New York looking for a point of entry. Wharton wrote about this dance of mutual inspection from the perspective of insiders looking out and outsiders looking in. All her life she felt a deep distaste for the invaders, but there wasa part of her that welcomed them fordestroying, by adopting for themselves, her natal world.
Early in Lee's biography, she writes of young Edith that she was "held in her world and a watchful stranger to it." And though careful not to identify her in some simplistic way with the financially fallen Lily Bart in The House of Mirth, who cannot bring herself to act ruthlessly enough to secure her place in New York society, Lee says of Lily something that may be justly said of Wharton: she experienced "movements of spontaneous revulsion from what wraps her round." This simultaneous feeling of coziness and constraint in the familiar is the keynote of both Lee's biography and Wharton's fiction -- the impulse to savor what we know because it is a part of who we are, while at the same time feeling closed off from the possibilities of life because of the suffocating effect of the normal and the known.
In telling the story of how Wharton lived with and wrote about this problem, Lee sometimes gives too much, at some cost to the flow of the narrative. But mostly she spares us the dross and treats us to the gold. She quotes, for instance, a delicious fragment from 1913, the year of Wharton's divorce from Teddy, who, when he was not violent and scenic, was, according to James, "pleading, suffering, clinging, helpless." It is a note for a story that Wharton never got around to writing:
"Did you know that John and Susan committed suicide together on Tuesday?"
"What? No? -- How?"
"They got married."
The author of this bitter three-liner was known among family and friends by the hazardous (today, anyway) nickname Puss or Pussy, and a few pages later Lee gives us a letter that Teddy wrote to a friend in which the poor fellow confirms what everyone knew: "I am no good on Puss's high plain [sic] of thought." Evidently, on the evidence of the sexual failure of their marriage, he was no good on the low plane either -- at least not from Puss's point of view.
In this respect, Lee complicates the story told by previous biographers. In his life of Wharton, published in 1975, R.W.B. Lewis presented her as a sexually starved woman who expressed her sensual nature exclusively in her writing, until -- as Lewis was the first scholar to discover -- she began at the age of forty-six a passionate affair with the bisexually promiscuous Morton Fullerton. Lee agrees with Lewis that Wharton's marriage to Teddy had been, as their "nosy" (Lee's word) friend the architect Ogden Codman described it, a mariage blanc, and that Fullerton, whom Lee calls "thoroughly Frenchified," was the man who awakened her to sexual pleasure. But Lee also cites a diary, missing for decades until it turned up in a French library in 1991, in which Edith gives a happy picture of a Mediterranean cruise with her husband early in their marriage.
This book, in other words, has the courage to be tentative. It does not follow other recent biographies -- the best-known case is Stephen Greenblatt's recent life of Shakespeare -- whose authors take license from the demise of the old positivism in order to make up more and document less. In the absence of evidence, Lee does not invent. Greenblatt's book is filled with subjunctive constructions like "may have," "could have," and even "must have," as he speculates without much warrant about Shakespeare doing this, going there, feeling that. Lee allows herself such formulations only now and then, and only on minor matters -- as when she surmises that, after James's death, Wharton "must have felt the loss very acutely" since her old friend could no longer praise her for her promotion from chevalier to officier of the Legion of Honor. In this case, the guess seems a good bet.
Writing with imaginative latitude but within the limits of the evidence, Lee is able to convey a sense of intimacy with Wharton's inner life. She declines to read backward from a telegram sent when they were both in their sixties to Wharton by Walter Berry, an American lawyer and diplomat whom she had known since their twenties and who later became her neighbor in Paris. "I've never wondered' about anyone else," he wrote to her, "and there wouldn't be much of me if you were cut out of it." Other biographers have assumed that Berry preceded Fullerton as Edith's lover, but Lee turns biographical restraint into biographical opportunity:
The lost dream; the missed chance, and the "long run" of disappointment and compromise that follows it; the by-passing of the one true intimacy; the stifled lifelong longing: these are Wharton's subjects, and Walter may have inspired them. But we cannot assume from this one tender (if self-preserving) note from an old friend in his mid-sixties, or from her fiction, that Edith Wharton spent the years of her marriage, and the rest of her life, wishing she had been married to Walter Berry. What she felt about him changed over the years. And much of what she felt is hidden from us.
The effect of this finely poised prose is to suspend Wharton and Berry between plausible alternatives and, despite our not knowing exactly what they said or felt or meant, to make them vividly present.
Lee has an exquisite ear for nuance. When Henry James describes the Mount as "a delicate French château mirrored in a Massachusetts pond," she allows opposing possibilities to co-exist: he was either praising Wharton for importing a work of European refinement into the American context or mocking her for her provincialism -- or more likely, being James, he was doing both. When Wharton's friend Teddy Roosevelt suffered a carriage accident, Lee reports that some witnesses heard him call out, with manly fortitude, "I am not hurt," while others recalled his exclaiming, with petulance and profanity, "This is a damnable outrage." Which was it? Who knows? When Wharton wrote to Fullerton, "You hurt me -- you disillusioned me -- & when you left me I was more deeply yours," what exactly had he done or said to hurt her? Was it, Lee wonders, "a too obvious sexual approach? a cynical remark?" And when, in the aftermath of whatever it was, Wharton writes to James, who writes back with unusual bluntness, "I move in darkness; I rack my brain," what, Lee asks, had she written him to elicit such a response? The answer went up with her letter in the smoke of the bonfire.
Sometimes the gaps in the record can be maddening. We will never know if Edith was within earshot when her friend Robert Norton, strolling with Berenson in Wharton's garden in the south of France, recited a popular postwar English verse: "Here's to the French/The noblest of races/Who talk with their hands/And fuck with their faces." Alas, some things are irretrievable.
For nearly half a century, Edith Wharton kept a servant who wrote, after his employer's death, that "for forty-nine years it was my privilege to save her and protect her from household cares, [so] that she could carry on her work in peace." Lee's book is as much about the work as it is about the life that made the work possible. In this respect she departs from Lewis, who put his own critical talent on hold in his biography, confining himself mostly to summaries of Wharton's writing and sometimes even seeming a little bored with it.
Lee, by contrast, gives substantial readings of every major novel and most of the minor ones. From Wharton's first book, The Decoration of Houses (1897), co-authored with Codman, to her posthumously published memoir, A Backward Glance, and her unfinished novel, The Buccaneers, virtually everything is discussed. Lee pays sustained attention to Wharton's undervalued short stories, and cites also her seldom-read poetry. She makes a valiant effort to recoup Wharton's wartime writings -- not only those directly connected to World War I, such as her novels The Marne (1920) and A Son at the Front (1923), but also such apparently disconnected works as the travel book In Morocco (1919) and the novella Summer (1917), which takes place back in New England, far from the killing fields. Written during the years when Wharton threw herself into relief work on behalf of the orphans, widows, and wounded of France, these books may seem "deviations," but they "carried her wartime concerns" and are "shadowed by violence and death."
With great dexterity, Lee moves back and forth between life and work. She identifies a "sharp in-joke for Fullerton" in The Reef, when two lovers carry on their affair in the Hotel Terminus -- a coded reference to Wharton's "bold, agitatedly sexy" poem "Terminus" about sex in a hotel, which she wrote in the aftermath of a secret night with her lover. In "The Last Asset," the oafish American with restaurant French -- "Gassong! L'addition, silver play" -- seems a nasty portrait of Teddy. As the novels and the stories scroll by, many such correlations come into view between fictional and factual events or between invented characters and actual persons.
But in tying Wharton's writings to her life, Lee is careful not to construe them as merely memoir or confession. Thus, although Wharton "poured her feelings about Fullerton" into The Reef (1912), the novel is revealed in Lee's discussion as an intricately crafted piece of literary architecture in which "right and wrong are equivocally handled." And sometimes Lee deliberately blurs the distinction between experience and writing, as in her brilliant account of how Wharton conducted the affair with Fullerton as if she were experimentally living a story, watching with a writer's eye the ebb and flow of passion even as she experienced it.
Any literary biography is inevitably an act of advocacy, although in some cases -- perhaps the best known is Lawrance Thompson's life of Robert Frost -- the book can metamorphose from hagiography to demonology as it moves along. That does not happen here. And any literary biographer runs the risk of construing every utterance -- a letter, a diary entry, a reported conversation, or a literary work itself -- as a datum of equal value for reconstructing the subject's life. If this happens too often, a certain leveling effect can set in and undermine the biographer's critical judgment.
By and large, Lee escapes this risk. Nor does she deny that Wharton was, to many who knew her, singularly unattractive. W. Somerset Maugham (no bargain himself) found her quick to show "frigid displeasure" at anything she deemed beneath her. When Maugham dared to ask if she liked to read thrillers, she behaved, in his words, like "a woman to whom a man has made proposals offensive to her modesty, but which her good breeding tells her it will be more dignified to ignore than to make a scene about." (Is that, perhaps, what happened when Fullerton "hurt" and "disillusioned" her?) Though he wanted her approval, F. Scott Fitzgerald regarded Wharton as a retrograde writer who tried to fight "the good fight with stone-age weapons." As for her own judgment, Wharton regarded Ulysses as "a turgid welter of schoolboy pornography" and dismissed Sons and Lovers as "botched and bungled." She admired Mussolini, if not for making the trains run on time, then for improving postal delivery between Italy and France. Her anti-Semitism, while conventional in her social set, was particularly zesty -- as in the portraits of Baron Schenkelderff in "The Last Asset" or Mr. Fleischauer in The Custom of the Country, or when she remarked of André Maurois that he was "a very bright little Jew...about as well fitted for lecturing on English poetry to the English as one of my Pekes."
So Lee has not written a sanitized biography. Instead she has submitted a brief for Wharton as a writer who transcended her caste even as she represented it. This is convincing, up to a point. Wharton knew the limits of her world. She wrote with indignation at its exhibitionistic wastefulness (she had read Veblen on conspicuous consumption), as when she observes in a story how "a fire sparkled with that effect of luxury which fires produce when the weather is not cold enough to justify them." She had a sense of living among enervated people whose males have declined from strong forebears into vaguely androgynous "lounging golf-stockinged young men," as she calls them in "Autres Temps," and whose females (Lily Bart is a vivid instance) have become as weak and vulnerable as they are decorative and slender. Wharton's writing is poised somewhere between aggrieved solidarity with these people and a certain gleeful schadenfreude as, from her literary perch, she watches them sink.
Lee has made a strong case that Wharton was a writer of exceptional alertness to the suppressed anxieties that flow below the surface of polite society. But Wharton tends to write from a spectatorial distance, and rarely gives the sort of tour of a character's consciousness that her friend Henry James provides -- sometimes at wearying length but often with incandescent insight. Lee wants to correct the traditional view of Wharton as a follower of James (so did Wharton, who grew exasperated with "the continued cry that I am an echo of Mr. James"), but she strains when she proposes that the influence might also have gone the other way -- that "she might have influenced him: that Italian Backgrounds, for instance, had an effect on Italian Hours, or that their exchanges on George Sand fed into his long essay on Sand in Notes on Novelists." Wharton was a writer of uncommon subtlety, but if one compares her account of John Durham in Madame de Treymes trying to pry the woman he loves away from a scheming French family, or of Undine Spragg in The Custom of the Country failing to master the apparatus of Paris society, with, say, James's rendition in The Portrait of a Lady of Isabel Archer awakening through a series of small shocks to the true nature of her husband, or Lambert Strether slowly grasping in The Ambassadors the painful austerity of his own life, the contrast does not work to Wharton's advantage.
Lee opens her biography by calling it "the story of an American citizen in France...a European on a grand scale who left her old home and made new ones for herself...but who could never be done with the subject of America and Americans." But finally, how American was Edith Wharton? Lee shows her responsiveness to other American writers, notably Hawthorne: "Ethan Brand" stands in the background of Ethan Frome (1911), and The House of the Seven Gables feels present in "Bunner Sisters" (written in 1892 but not published until 1916), and Chillingworth in The Scarlet Letter is reprised in the icy lawyer Royall in Summer. But if Wharton was an American writer in lineage and themes, she was also a writer who recoiled from America. She felt a haughty detachment from her country -- much more so than did James, who famously wrote to her, "Profit, be warned, by my awful example of exile and ignorance....Do New York! The first-hand account is precious."
When he returned in 1904 to New York after a long absence, James was caught up despite himself (as described in The American Scene) in the jostling, roiling, sublimely vulgar city. Uncomfortably astonished, he shuddered at "the great swarming" of New York's Jews, likening the immigrant in relation to his new country to "the dog who sniffs round the freshly-acquired bone, giving it a push and a lick, betraying a sense of its possibilities," though not yet ready to pounce. Yet James also found the immigrant tumult an invigorating spectacle full of promise, and he sounded at times almost like Whitman. Excited by the amalgamation of the old America with the new, he wondered if "the accent of the very ultimate future, in the States, may be destined to become the most beautiful on the globe and the very music of humanity."
Wharton, who described her visit to New York in 1913 as "a soul-destroying experience," had no such receptivity. In books such as The Bostonians and The Princess Casamassima, both published in 1886, James explored reform and radical politics, trying to understand from within the minds of desperate or determined people who craved a new world to be built on some version of democracy. Wharton had no such curiosity. Around the time that James was meditating on the new human landscape of America, she was dismissing it. "The American landscape has no foreground," she wrote in 1906, "and the American mind no background." This had been James's view some thirty years earlier when he went into exile, but by his sixties he was rethinking what he had once thought he knew.
"In recording the present moment," Lee rightly says, Wharton "is always conscious of how quickly it becomes the unrecapturable past." With all her clear-eyed sense of the brutality and the narrowness of the pseudo-aristocratic society into which she was born, Wharton was loath to let it go. "I am steeping myself in the nineteenth century," she wrote to a friend while working on The Age of Innocence, "which is such a blessed refuge from the turmoil and mediocrity of today -- like taking sanctuary in a mighty temple." That temple, as we learn from Lee's book, was a place in which girls from good families were forbidden to read novels until they were married. It was a place in which daughters could not draw down the principal of their trust funds; and, if they "died without issue," the balance reverted to a surviving brother. It was a world populated by people who campaigned to have drinking bowls for their dogs placed at strategic spots in the streets of New York, and for whom successful travel depended on persuading "the deck steward to put your chair in a sheltered position every morning."
What, finally, did Edith Wharton make of these people? Can she be counted a great writer -- a writer, that is, much larger than her accustomed world? Lee first uses the word "great" (she uses such words sparingly) on page 158; some two hundred pages later, writing against the biographical reductionists, she elaborates:
The qualities that make Wharton a great writer -- her mixture of harshly detached, meticulously perceptive, disabused realism, with a language of poignant feeling and deep passion, and her setting of the most confined of private lives in a thick, complex network of social forces -- were the product of years of observation, reading, practice and refinement, not of a love affair.
Yet even here, Lee does not quite rise to the eloquent advocacy that we find in her biography of Virginia Woolf, of whom she wrote that "she seems to us, now, both a contemporary and a historical figure. This peculiar transitional position, at present occupied by the great early-twentieth-century writers of the modernist movement, makes her seem both close and far. She speaks to us of issues and concerns which are vital to us and are not yet resolved." Lee takes a stab now and then at making comparable claims about Wharton, as when she calls The Custom of the Country (which she ranks as Wharton's best novel) "truly a tale for our times." This seems a little forced. The dual terms "contemporary and historical" do not quite fit Wharton, whom Woolf regarded as a writer preoccupied "with English good manners" and "obsessed with surface distinction."
This book is a powerful rebuttal to that view. It builds on the work of previous scholars -- on Lewis's biography, on Blake Nevius's study of Wharton's methods of revision, on Cynthia Griffin Wolff's psychological insights, and many more. And it comes at an interesting moment in the history of Wharton's reputation, which was highest in the 1920s, when she was selling well and winning prizes. By the 1930s, her stock was falling, as the claims of modernism took hold and the Depression made her characters and themes seem precious and indulgent. In 1939, not long after her death, Clifton Fadiman, then the books editor at the New Yorker, could write that those who continued to read her did so for reasons of "class fidelity." In the postwar years, Wharton held her own as a literary worthy -- though often paired with James as a lesser disciple -- but it was really not until the 1970s, with the surge of interest in women's studies, that she became a major writer again. This time she came back as an unexpected "Do Me" feminist. The affair with Fullerton and the discovery of "Beatrice Palmato," a fragment of erotic writing with an incest theme (probably written around 1919), intensified interest in her as a writer about women abused by inattention or exploitation, who are sexual furnaces waiting to be stoked. By the 1990s, helped by Martin Scorsese's fine film of The Age of Innocence -- which, as Scorsese discovered, is about high-society people as merciless as any gangster -- Wharton had become a popular writer of lush period pieces.
With all these versions of Wharton now behind us, the question is whether interest in her work will now be renewed again, and if so, for what reasons. She is a writer who flatters the self-satisfied rich even as she anatomizes them, by granting them their materialist premise: that the acquisition, the display, and the transmission of money are the primary activities of life. Only rarely does an alternative way of living come into view in her work. In our age of twentysomething i-bankers, when fortunes are quickly made and quickly lost, Wharton may well find a new audience -- but will it be more interested in her views of the interior life or of interior decoration? Is she finally a writer who points beyond getting and spending, or a writer nostalgic for the first Gilded Age who shows us, in luscious detail, how it once was done? Hermione Lee has presented the best possible case for the former. The jury in our own gilded age is still out.
Books mentioned in this post