From Hermione Lee, the internationally acclaimed, award-winning biographer of Virginia Woolf and Willa Cather, comes a superb reexamination of one of the most famous American women of letters.
Delving into heretofore untapped sources, Lee does away with the image of the snobbish bluestocking and gives us a new Edith Wharton-tough, startlingly modern, as brilliant and complex as her fiction. Born into a wealthy family, Wharton left America as an adult and eventually chose to create a life in France. Her renowned novels and stories have become classics of American literature, but as Lee shows, Wharton's own life, filled with success and scandal, was as intriguing as those of her heroines. Bridging two centuries and two very different sensibilities, Wharton here comes to life in the skillful hands of one of the great literary biographers of our time.
- National Book Critics Circle Awards
One might think that R.W.B. Lewis's excellent 1975 biography had precluded the need for another book about Edith Wharton. Not so. Reading Lee's superb new biography is akin to comparing a fine watercolor sketch to a vivid masterpiece. Access to previously unrevealed letters, and the same meticulous research for which her Virginia Woolf biography was praised, allow Lee to illuminate many dark corners of Wharton's life and to reinterpret previously accepted opinions. Most important, Lee exhibits an intuitive empathy with her subject (never glossing over her less admirable characteristics) and thus animates Wharton as a fully dimensional figure of complex and contradictory values and impulses--a woman of fierce ambition and lingering self-doubt, of generous friendships and ignoble snobbery and prejudices, with a zest for travel and adventure despite frequent, debilitating ill health. Lee challenges several traditional stereotypes about Wharton, including her literary relationship with Henry James--more peer than acolyte, Lee shows--and with Walter Berry and Bernard Berenson. (Although she provides many instances of Wharton's violent anti-Semitism, Lee does not note the paradox of Wharton's close relationship with Berenson.) In no other biography is there a more perceptive analysis of how Wharton's life was reflected in her work. Her nightmarish marriage and midlife passionate affair with Morton Fullerton, the straitjacket social code that she violated by seeking a divorce were transmogrified in the novels, stories and poetry (some of it erotic). Lee's portrait of Wharton as a strong-willed woman determined to surmount the background she drew on for inspiration, a woman obsessed with "double lives, repression, sexual hypocrisy, hidden longings," is a major achievement. 24 pages of photos. 75,000 first printing. (Apr. 30)
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April 06, 2008
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Excerpt from Edith Wharton by Hermione Lee
Chapter One: An American in Paris In Paris, in February 1848, a young American couple on their Grand Tour of Europe found themselves, to their surprise, in the middle of a French revolution. Up to then, the travels of George Frederic Jones and his wife of three years, Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander Jones, with their one-year-old son, Frederic, had been undramatic. They had a lengthy European itinerary, the usual thing for Americans of their class, backed by the substantial funds of the Jones family, one of the leading, old-established New York clans. Starting in England and Paris in April 1847, they had "done" Brussels, Amsterdam, Hanover, Berlin and Dresden, Prague, Linz, Salzburg and Munich, Frankfurt, Cologne, Coblenz, Friburg, Geneva, Lake Como and the major Italian cities. George Frederic, at twenty-seven an experienced traveller (his father had taken him on his first European tour when he was seventeen), was able to indulge all his appetites for architecture, scenery, paintings, collectable objects, shopping, theatre, entertainment and seeing life. "Lu," though more limited by looking after little Frederic and by her frequent illnesses and "her tremendous headaches," was very definite about what she liked and did not like on her first trip abroad: "Lu rather disgusted with the Catholic ceremonies."  George Frederic voiced his own prejudices confidently all over Europe. "More disgusted than ever with London . . . London prices are fearful . . . Decidedly disgusted with Milan." In Amsterdam, "the smell from the canal in most parts of the city fearful . . . Drove to the Jewish synagoage [sic] . . . but as soon as the carriage stopped, we were surrounded by such an infernal-looking set of scoundrels that we gave it up in disgust." (But he enjoyed the Breughels.) In a Berlin restaurant, "the company mostly men, all hard eating, hard drinking, loud talking and very little refinement anywhere." In the Dresden picture gallery, he was "much pleased" with the card players of Caravaggio, and a head of Christ by Guido. (Just the sort of thing that the "simpler majority" of nineteenth-century American tourists always liked and bought copies of, Edith Wharton would remark.) In the Prague Cabinet of Antiquities, "the cameos were particularly beautiful, one, the apotheosis of Augustus, is said to have cost 12,000 ducats." In Venice he was very pleased with the Palace of the Doges [the Palazzo Ducale]. In Florence he rated the Pitti Palace "a much finer gallery than the other." But his heart belonged to Paris. When they first landed at Boulogne at the start of the trip, he wrote: "Glad to be again in France." Once they settled into their rooms on the Champs-Élysées, everything interested him: the Palais Royal, the Louvre, the riding at Franconi's, the flower market, a new ballet at the Académie Royale ("some pretty grouping but on the whole rather tedious"), the Hôtel des Invalides where they were building a chapel to contain the remains of Napoleon. Meanwhile, Lu, as her daughter would note, was buying clothes, among them "a white satin bonnet trimmed with white marabout and crystal drops . . . and a 'capeline' ofgorge de pigeontaffetas with a wreath of flowers in shiny brown kid, which was one of the triumphs of her Paris shopping." After the long tour, back in Paris early in 1848, they were all set to resume their busy schedule of pleasurable activities. But on 22 February 1848, walking down from their hotel, the Windsor in the Rue de Rivoli, to the Place de la Concorde at 11 a.m. to see the results of the Reform Banquet, George Frederic found it had been put a stop to, and that an immense and very excited crowd had gathered. (Opposition parties, prevented from calling large-scale political meetings, had se