After reading Edith Wharton’s essay The Vice of Reading back in November I wanted to find out more about her so when she was chosen to make the rounds of the Classic Circuit I thought it would be a good opportunity to finally get around to reading the Hermione Lee biography I’ve had sitting on my shelf. Unfortunately I underestimated the sheer bulk of the book and how long it would take me to read and have not made it even halfway through. Even so, it still feels as though I’ve had a full meal. The book is great and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about Wharton. Just be prepared for immense amounts of information and detail.
One of the things I am enjoying most about the book is that it isn’t your traditional life narrative – she was born, she got married, she published, she became famous, she died. Lee progresses through Wharton’s life to be sure, each chapter is a different stage in her life and career, but within each chapter we go forward and backward in time so the chapter about Wharton’s childhood isn’t just about her childhood. It expands to encompass how different aspects of Wharton’s childhood affected her and played out later in her life.
Wharton, born Edith Newbold Jones and called “Pussy” by family and friends, comes from an old New York family. It is said that the saying “keeping up with the Joneses” refers to her father’s family. She was the third and last child, born so many years after her older brothers that there were rumors she was illegitimate. Wharton spent a large part of her formative years in Europe and when her father moved the family back to New York it was quite a culture shock for her. She may have lived in New York but it never felt like home.
Wharton had curly red hair and was never considered to be very pretty. She never received a formal education, though she was able sometimes to sit in with her brothers’ tutors. She mostly educated herself, reading her way through her father’s “gentleman’s library.” Her mother, Lucretia, was stern and disapproving of her daughter’s reading and desire to be intellectual. She was constantly pushing her into society and attempting to make her conform to what girls and women of money should be.
Even though Wharton began at a young age to write, she published only a few poems, essays and a story or two. She didn’t actually turn to writing as a profession and begin actively working until she was in her late thirties. After that there was no stopping her. She hated the illustrations the publishers made her have in her books, especially the ones in House of Mirth. She surprised her publishers because she was not the submissive, genteel lady, but very vocal in her opinions and demanding – Wharton knew what she wanted and she knew her worth and did not hesitate to tell her publishers that she would go elsewhere if they could not meet her requests.
Wharton wrote fiction, short stories, nonfiction, essays and she even tried her hand at plays. She was also successful as a garden designer.
All this and, as I said, I am not even halfway through the biography. Wharton is turning out to be a fascinating character. Her two autobiographies are, according to Lee, very finely crafted stories. Wharton was very private and careful about what she wrote about herself. She left out large parts of her life and carefully framed what she did write about so as not to reveal too much. But Hermione Lee is very good at cutting through everything to get to who Wharton was beneath her finally crafted exterior.
Do read this book if you get the chance besides learning about Wharton it will also make you want to read more of her books. I am going to keep reading and post updates now and again. Thanks for stopping by on the tour!