I’ve been working my way through Hermione Lee’s Edith Wharton since the end of December 2009 and finally I have finished it. Don’t let how long it took me to read it make you think the book isn’t very good, far from it, this book is most excellent. My drawn out reading had everything to do with me and nothing to do with the book. Well, expect that the book is huge–762 pages in my hardcover edition.
Lee is a thorough biographer and a good writer. She must have ate, slept and breathed nothing but Wharton while she was researching and writing this book. The book is full to bursting with the facts of Wharton’s life but Lee turns them into a finely detailed portrait rather than a recitation of dates and a list of acquaintances. Lee has also read everything Wharton ever wrote and interweaves the creation of the books and stories with a fine literary analysis. While it is tempting to find the writer’s life in her fiction, Lee is very cautious about such an approach. She recognizes the influences from Wharton’s life that appear in the fiction but she does not speculate or read into plots and characters anything beyond the story itself.
Wharton had a long and fascinating life. She was a strong woman with definite opinions. She struggled to get out of “old New York” and its customs that oppressed women but ironically she disliked feminism and feminists. I have always thought of Wharton as a very rich woman, and she was wealthy, no doubt about it, but a large portion of her wealth was created by her success as a writer.
While she didn’t have to write for a living she did have to write in order to sustain her lifestyle. Thus she always struggled to find a balance between writing for the art and writing for the money. She did believe that she should be able to write for the art and be well paid and frequently grew frustrated by publishers and magazines that said her work was too intellectual and asked her to change her stories to better suit a more popular audience.
Aside from writing Wharton was quite the decorator and gardener. She loved to travel especially by car. And of course she read. A lot. By her late sixties she had about four thousand books divided between her two houses in France. Her book collection was not for looks. Her books were read and reread and marked up. She insisted books were meant to be used. Of course her library contained plenty of fiction and it had an international range. There was a large number of French fiction, English, Greek and Latin in translation, Italian and German (Goethe was a favorite). In addition to fiction she read poetry (she loved Walt Whitman), philosophy, essays, history, lives of saints and histories of religion. She had books on evolution, astronomy, popular science, gardening, and her battered Baedekers and Blue Guides.
Wharton comes across as a woman who lived life to the fullest. She was writing and making plans almost right up to the end when she had several strokes and her heart finally gave out. I am pretty sure I would have been terrified to be in the same room as Wharton, she could be rather imperious at times, but she was also shy in company she didn’t know well.
I am very glad to have read this biography. After the length of time it took me, I would have thought I’d want to be done with all things Wharton for a very long time. On the contrary, I have a very large desire to delve into Wharton’s work, especially her short stories and her lesser known novels. And Ethan Frome I really want to read that one. I have only seen the movie with Liam Neeson in it and I liked it very much. Now I just have to figure out a way to fit Wharton into my reading schedule.