The name 'Edith Wharton' conjures up 'Gilded Age' New York, in all its snobbery and ruthlessness - the world of The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth. But this definitive biography by Hermione Lee overturns the stereotype. This Edith Wharton is not the genteel, nostalgic chronicler of a vanished age but a fiercely modern woman, writing of sex and incest, love and war - a woman of passionate conviction and conflicting ambitions and desires. Born in 1862 during the Civil War, Wharton broke away from her wealthy ...
The name 'Edith Wharton' conjures up 'Gilded Age' New York, in all its snobbery and ruthlessness - the world of The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth. But this definitive biography by Hermione Lee overturns the stereotype. This Edith Wharton is not the genteel, nostalgic chronicler of a vanished age but a fiercely modern woman, writing of sex and incest, love and war - a woman of passionate conviction and conflicting ambitions and desires. Born in 1862 during the Civil War, Wharton broke away from her wealthy background. She travelled adventurously in Europe, eventually settling in Paris: during the First World War she committed herself to war-work, and lived in France, her 'second country' until her death in 1937. She created fabulous homes in New England and in France, and her life was filled with remarkable friends, including Henry James, Bernard Berenson, Aldous Huxley and Kenneth Clark. She ran her professional life with fierce energy, but she also had her secrets, including a passionate mid-life love-affair, recorded in a coded diary. She was unhappily married, childless, and divorced, and knew loneliness and anguish. Her brilliant, disturbing fiction shows her deep understanding of the longing and struggle in women's lives. This masterly new biography draws on new material and delves into every aspect of Wharton's extraordinary life-story. It shifts the emphasis towards Europe, placing her in her social context and her history. In particular, it shows in fascinating detail how she worked and what lies at the heart of her magnificent and subtle books.
I was eager to read this new biography of one of my favorite novelists, but, unfortunately, either Wharton's life was simply duller than I anticipated, or Lee has rendered it so. The book flies through Wharton's childhood and early married years with little detail and gets overly caught up in her travels abroad--complete with long (and untranslated) passages in French and Italian from Wharton's journals that are particularly annoying. Lee does attempt to tie events in Wharton's life to characters, settings, and themes in in her novels, but the overall structure of the biography is uneven and the style and content dry.
Jun 3, 2007
An insightful Wharton bigraphy
This weighty volume [880 pages] is one the best Wharton biographies available. Hermione Lee who did an excellent job on her biography of Virginia Woolf, has come up with another comprehensive biography of a novelist Edith Wharton [Custom of the Country, House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence]. Through this biography we learn of the complexities of Ms Wharton's life. She was accomplished in many fields, not just writing, and was a well-travelled person, as wellas a dabbler of other pursuits such as interior decorating. Her personal life, we learn, was quite complex, having married young to a much older man, a union that was dissolved after many years, and we also learn of her liaison with an American journalist. We learn that she preferred the company of men as friends and also that most of her inspiration for writing came from her own personal experiences. This is a well-researched compendium on Wharton and is a valuable addition to the library of any Wharton scholar or fan.
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