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.)
"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.