|Born:||January 24, 1862 |
|Died:||August 11, 1937 |
|Occupation(s):||Novelist, short story writer, designer|
Edith Wharton (January 24, 1862 – August 11, 1937) was an American novelist, short story writer, and designer.
Born Edith Newbold Jones, to a wealthy New York family often associated with the phrase "Keeping up with the Joneses," Edith combined her insights into the privileged classes with her natural wit to write novels and short fiction that are notable for their humor, incisiveness, and uneventfullness. Wharton was a good friend and contemporary of Corinne Robinson, a sister of Theodore Roosevelt.
In 1885, at 23 years of age, she married Edward (Teddy) Robbins Wharton, who was 12 years her senior. They were divorced in 1913 on the grounds of Teddy's repeated public infidelities and declining mental and physical health. For several years at the end of her tumultuous unhappy marriage, she had an affair with William Morton Fullerton (1865 - 1952), an American-born bisexual man-about-town who worked as a journalist for The Times and juggled romances with Lord Ronald Gower, and the Ranee of Sarawak.
Between 1900 and 1937, Wharton wrote many novels; the first to be published was her 1905 masterpiece The House of Mirth, which constitutes the first of many large-scale efforts to expose the oppressive nature and intolerance of her old New York. An admirer of European culture and architecture, Wharton crossed the Atlantic 66 times. From 1907 on, she made her primary residence in France. First, she resided at 58 Rue de Varenne, Paris, in an apartment that belonged to George Washington Vanderbilt II. Then, in 1918, once the chaos of the Great War had subsided, she abandoned her fashionable apartment for the more tranquil Pavillon Colombe, whose erotic history intrigued her immensely, in nearby Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt. And finally, she acquired Sainte-Claire le Château, formerly a convent, in the southern village of Hyères, to which she retreated during the winters and springs.
With the help of her influential connections in the French government (primarily her relationship with Walter Berry—who was, at the time, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Paris), she was among the few foreigners in France who had any access to their funds during the war and was also allowed to travel extensively by motorcar to the dangerous front lines of the action. Wharton described these trips in a series of articles later published as Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort.
In Paris, she labored tirelessly in charitable efforts for refugees, and for her indispensable aid, she was named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 1916. The scope of her relief activities is astounding: Wharton operated work rooms for unemployed Frenchwomen, held concerts to provide work for musicians, supported tuberculosis hospitals, and founded the American Hostels for the relief of Belgian refugees. In 1916, Wharton edited a volume entitled The Book of the Homeless, featuring writings, art, and musical scores from many of the biggest names in the artistic fields of the day. After the war, she returned to the United States only once more—to receive her honorary doctorate from Yale University in 1923.
Despite their poverty and great distance from her own refined world, she was fascinated and encouraged by the gathering of the artistic community in Montmartre and Montparnasse at the turn of the century.
Her best known work, The Age of Innocence (1920), won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize. She spoke flawless French and many of her books were published in both French and English.
Wharton was friend and confidante to many gifted intellectuals of her time: Henry James, Sinclair Lewis, Jean Cocteau, and Ernest Hemingway were all guests of hers at one time or another. Bernard Berenson and Kenneth Clark were valued friends from 1909 and 1930 respectively. She was the godmother of Clark's second son, Colin (1932 - 2002), who wrote the book The Prince, the Showgirl and Me about his work as third assistant director of the film The Prince and the Showgirl. Her meeting with F. Scott Fitzgerald is described by the editors of her letters as "one of the better-known failed encounters in the American literary annals". She was also good friends with Theodore Roosevelt.
Edith Wharton was also highly regarded as a landscape architect and a taste-maker of her time. She wrote several influential books including The Decoration of Houses and Italian Villas. The Mount, her estate in Lenox, Massachusetts, was designed by her and exemplifies her design principles. The house and gardens are currently being restored and are open to the public from June through October.
Wharton continued writing until her death on August 11, 1937, aged 75, in Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt, (former département of Seine-et-Oise, in the part that is now) Val-d'Oise, Île-de-France, France. She is buried in the Cimetière des Gonards in Versailles, France.
Wharton's last novel, The Buccaneers, was unfinished at the time of her death. Marion Mainwaring finished the story after carefully studying the notes and synopsis Wharton had previously written. The novel was published in 1938 (unfinished version) and 1993 (Mainwaring's completion).
One characteristic of many Wharton novels is the frequent use of irony. Having grown up in upper-class pre-World War I society, Wharton became one of its most astute critics. When she depicted it in such works as The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence she made fun of the narrow-minded and ignorant upper class through a deft use of irony.
She often used tribal diction to describe the ritualistic practices of upper-class New York as well as precise diction to poke fun at how very particular the people were. In her book Ethan Frome, the title character, who has felt trapped his entire life, decides to end it by sledding into a tree. However, the "accident" does not kill him but leaves him maimed and more trapped than before, an ending of great dramatic and symbolic power.
Edith Wharton (played by actress Clare Higgins) travels across North Africa with Indiana Jones in The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (Chapter 16, which is entitled Tales of Innocence).