Edith Wharton: 1862-1937

This month, instead of reading one major work, I’m focusing on an author. And I’m so excited I can hardly stand it. I mean, I enjoyed Bleak House. I did. Honest. I’m glad I read it, it will prove useful in the future as I can speak intelligently about the various complexities of Dickens’ creation of female characters, one of my life-goals is to read all of Dickens, so there’s that… but still, at times I was driven more by the knowledge that I still had 300 pages to go than by an unflagging interest in the story.

I don’t think that is going to be the case this month. I dipped into The House of Mirth on Sunday, didn’t come up for air until long after bedtime, finished it Monday and started The Age of Innocence, and now I’m trying to decide between Ethan Frome, The Buccaneers, and The Custom of the Country. I’ll talk about all of that in future posts, but for now, a little of what I’ve gleaned about Edith Wharton.

Edith Wharton is able to write so compellingly and knowledgably about the customs and culture of old New York because she saw it firsthand. Both her maternal and paternal families, Rhinelander and Jones, respectively, were well established in the Anglo-Dutch upper crust society of nineteenth-century New York, and she was raised with the restrictions and expectations of that very conservative climate. Although her father gave her the run of his extensive library, her mother disapproved of the “domestic and erotic subject matter of fiction” and so vetted all reading materials (Benstock 4). According to her biography, A Backward Glance, she didn’t read a novel without first getting permission until after she was married.

She married Edward Wharton, the son of an upper class Boston family, when she was 23. A few years after their marriage, he began suffering from/started exhibiting signs of mental disease—in 1909 he withdrew fifty thousand dollars from Edith’s trust (of which he was a trustee) to set up an establishment in Boston for his mistress. This event, which he confessed openly and attributed to his diagnosis, coupled with his mood swings and verbal abuse of Edith led to their divorce in 1912. After her divorce she moved to Paris, where she lived until her death in 1937.

She was one of the few non-French reporters allowed to traveled the French front lines in the Great War. She wrote about what she saw in a series of articles entitled Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belport. (Find them on Project Gutenburg here.) Although she wrote non-fiction, poetry and short stories Edith Wharton is remembered primarily for her novels. She was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize, which she received in 1920 for The Age of Innocence. Also highly acclaimed are The Custom of the Country, The House of Mirth, and Ethan Frome.

Excellent film adaptations have been made of several of Wharton’s works: this month I’ll be watching (and blogging about) The Age of Innocence (1993), Ethan Frome (1993), The House of Mirth (2000), and The Buccaneers (1995).

As to the reading—I didn’t expect to find Wharton so un-put-downable—at this rate I’ll finish her entire canon this month (which is definitely not my goal.) Still on the agenda are Ethan Frome, The Custom of the Country, The Buccaneers, and The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton; I’ve requested Sheri Benstock’s Wharton bio No Gifts from Chance from the library, and I just downloaded Lev Raphael’s Rosedale in Love, which tells the story of The House of Mirth from the perspective of Lily’s Jewish suitor, Rosedale. (Sounds fascinating, doesn’t it? Purports to be a reimagining from the marginalized perspective—right up my alley.) I’ve also got the entire Wharton canon available on my trusty Kindle, so if I make it through all of that, I’ll just see what else strikes my fancy. Regardless, it’s going to be fun!


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