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An American Original
A comprehensive life of Edith Wharton, the sharp-eyed chronicler of high society

Sunday, April 29, 2007

EDITH WHARTON

By Hermione Lee

Knopf. 869 pp. $35

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 Légion 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 bestseller and gave her money, a profession and intellectual confidence. Another novel, Pulitzer Prize-winning 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. ยท

Diane Johnson is a critic and novelist. Her most recent books are "Into a Paris Quartier" and "L'Affaire."

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