Edith Wharton: The Beckoning Quarry

PrintPrintEmailEmailWith the publication in August of R. W. B. Lewis’ Edith Wharton: A Biography (Harper & Row), our image of the woman who is America’s most famous, Victorian novelist has been severely jolted, if not irrevocably changed. The decorous, gently satirical bluestocking who appeared to live comfortably within the aristocratic world she wrote about in such books as The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country , and her Puhtzer Prize-winning The Age of Innocence proves to be a far less conventional person than her earlier biographers have led us to believe. In fact, eight years of patient digging have convinced Mr. Lewis that Mrs. Wharton was passionate, sensual, and erotic to a degree thai would have appalled most of her contemporaries. Mr. Lewis, who is a professor of English and American Studies at Yale University, has written for AMERICAN HERITAGE an account of his search for the elusive facts of Edith Wharton’s life, and of his struggle to overcome his own incredulity at what he found.

--The Editors

Literary figures are normally the most reluctant of subjects for the biographer. Leon Edel has described Henry James’s wily strategies for outmaneuvering and outwitting in advance the huntsmen he foresaw coming after him, seizing the occasion to snatch back letters he had written this person or that and otherwise covering his traces. Emily Dickinson, Richard Sewall has told us recently, was uncannily successful in “keeping her private life private ,” adroitly lending off personal inquiries even from her contemporaries. Others, like Willa Gather, left such cautionary instructions about access to their papers that large areas of their lives may be permanently consigned to the shadows.

The phenomenon must be at least partly due to the fact that the literary figure leaves behind him, perforce, a heap of nondestructible documents: his writings; the stories or poems or essays in which he gave a kind of shape and meaning to elements—some of them perhaps deeply buried—of the private life. Where letters and diaries can be added to these, the literary artist is peculiarly vulnerable to being known to the core of his personality. In defense, the artist may try to minimize the disclosures by doing away with everything else he can lay hands on. Hawthorne even tried to obliterate his first published novel, Fanshawe .

When I began work on a life of Edith Wharton eight or nine years ago, one of the first documents I hit upon was a letter of 1927 describing how she had retrieved all the letters she had written over thirty-five years to Walter V. R. Berry (who had just died) and had burned the lot of them. Here, I assumed, was another tantalizingly evasive subject for the biographer.

As the author of such fine but muted writings as Ethan Frame, The Age of Innocence , and The House of Mirth , Edith Wharton had always struck me as a furtive, self-concealing kind of writer. Her memoirs of 1934, A Backward Glance , had all the air of elegant discretion: not a word, for example, about a broken engagement in her youth, though I had heard vaguely of that poignant episode; very little about her marriage to Edward Robbins Wharton and nothing about her divorce from him in 1913. I also knew that as Edith Jones she had been the product of the severelydecorous society of old New York (she was born in 1862), where by her own testimony many things were not fit to be mentioned in public, and no few even in private. And if she did begin to expatriate herself to Paris in 1907, it was to the Faubourg St. Germain, a still more aristocratic environment, presided over by dowdy matrons with long sloping noses who saw to it that the unconventional gesture, the unseemly emotion, was suppressed or ignored.

In fact, however, Edith Wharton turned out to be a fascinatingly ambiguous subject for the biographer. She did destroy some documents, though the ritual burning of 1927 was the only significant episode of its kind. At other times she destroyed items—a nakedly revealing long poem to her lover in 1909, as an example—apparently undisturbed that copies of them would not be hard to come by for any investigator with a modicum of energy and patience. And much more tellingly, she preserved a wide variety of documents—diaries, unpublished poems and fragments of autobiography, unfinished stories—that contain some of her most private experiences, among them her earliest erotic stirrings, the sexual disaster of her marriage in 1885, and the entire course of an extraordinarily uninhibited love affair in Paris during the years 1907–10.

It was not much of a feat to discover most of these things. The difficult was much rather to believe them. Eixed in my mind was the image—chiefly established by Percy Lubbock’s Portrait of Edith Wharton in 1947 but dutifully perpetuated in other books and reminiscences—of Mrs. Wharton as a Victorian bluestocking, repressed and puritanical, whose only relationship with a man that held a seed of the romantic, never mind the erotic, was with the dry-souled patrician American lawyer Walter Berry. I eventually came to see that this image was composed of legend, distortion, and misrepresentation; but it took me the better part of eight years to work free of that legendary envelope, and I may not be fully liberated yet.