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Edith Wharton: An Extraordinary Life - an Illustrated Biography

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This text portrays Wharton the writer, traveller, socialite, gardener, architect, interior designer, art scholar, expatriate, war worker and connoissuer of life. A wealth of photographs provide a visual survey of the life and times of this multifaceted woman.


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This text portrays Wharton the writer, traveller, socialite, gardener, architect, interior designer, art scholar, expatriate, war worker and connoissuer of life. A wealth of photographs provide a visual survey of the life and times of this multifaceted woman.

30 review for Edith Wharton: An Extraordinary Life - an Illustrated Biography

  1. 5 out of 5

    Michael Canoeist

    I’ve never read of a life like this one. Edith Wharton filled her life with so much, in so many areas, that any biography will make for good reading. I’ve just read two. This is the one I am a little surprised that I would recommend the more -- Eleanor Dwight’s Edith Wharton, An Extraordinary Life, published in 1994 by Harry N. Abrams, Inc. This is not the Pulitzer and Bancroft prizes winner by R.W.B. Lewis that came out in the 1970s; nor is it the reportedly exhausting Hermione Lee academic treat I’ve never read of a life like this one. Edith Wharton filled her life with so much, in so many areas, that any biography will make for good reading. I’ve just read two. This is the one I am a little surprised that I would recommend the more -- Eleanor Dwight’s Edith Wharton, An Extraordinary Life, published in 1994 by Harry N. Abrams, Inc. This is not the Pulitzer and Bancroft prizes winner by R.W.B. Lewis that came out in the 1970s; nor is it the reportedly exhausting Hermione Lee academic treatment of 2007. None of them is perfect, of course. Edith Wharton’s life began in the Civil War, flowered in the Gilded Age and then in France’s Belle Epoque, veered sharply into the horrors of World War I (calling out some of Edith’s finest qualities in aid activity), and ended quietly 75 years after it began, just as Hitler was opening the Buchenwald concentration camp and Amelia Earhart’s plane crashed in 1937. That’s about as remarkable a set of social changes as one life will see, and then the biographer must confront Mrs. Wharton’s own remarkable range of achievements, activities, and interests. [There is a lot to say here, so the "TLDR" summary: this is the Wharton biography to read.] Mrs. Dwight’s is the shortest of the books, at 282 pages of text made even brisker by the photos on nearly every page. Though it cannot offer as much depth of detail as the others, Mrs. Dwight’s reading of sources is thorough and her judgment of detail superb. She has a great feeling for Edith the lively grande dame but also the shy woman; further, she brings a feeling for houses and gardens and travel that appreciates the non-writerly side of Edith Wharton more than Lewis, certainly, and probably Lee as well (I’m guessing), could boast. No small feat and no little virtue for this subject, who built one big house from scratch (the well-known Mount, in Lenox, Mass.) and hugely renovated two older houses in France. Having just read the two biographies, a later Wharton novel (The Glimpses of the Moon) and reread Summer, I think Mrs. Dwight comes the closest to capturing Mrs. Wharton the woman. That belief is furthered by Wharton aficionado Louis Auchincloss’s back-cover blurb extolling it as “the best book on Edith Wharton.” Perhaps his problem with the better-known Lewis prize-winning bio was like mine -- one starts to wonder, in the latter stages, if Lewis has lost his patience with his subject, whose energetic personality was sufficiently demanding that even her great friend Henry James called her “the Angel of Devastation,” upending everyone else in her dramatic whirl. Edith Newbold Jones was born to two of old New York’s foremost families, the Joneses and the Rhinelanders. These were among the 1% of their day, and while their society intrigued, intimidated, challenged, disappointed and disturbed Edith, she kept the assurance of her background and amplified it through her own achievements and success into prima donna status. That Edith both loved and hated this world is made clear especially in her Pulitzer Prize winner, The Age of Innocence, my own favorite among her novels. For all the critiques of the status-seeking and backbiting, the exclusivity and superficiality of its denizens, many of them her relatives -- the good side of that world nonetheless reinforced in Edith a powerful sense of morality that affected her own life significantly, and especially invigorates her writing with a strong framework for her characterizations. She was a gifted storyteller who put her characters into situations of conflict and, working within that moral superstructure, she followed their decisions, good and bad, through to logical outcomes, sometimes surprising, sometimes relentlessly fated. These are classical attributes that often seem to me missing from a lot of post-World War II literature. As a result, the fields of action on which Mrs. Wharton’s characters live and die are more recognizable to us, 100 and more years after the writings, than the more stylized, randomized worlds that contemporary writing frequently favors. The characters still register so immediately with us because they are accurately observed, and human nature does not seem to change no matter how our circumstances vary. One small note that Mrs. Dwight writes of is how much John Ruskin’s writings had meant, early on, to Wharton, who was educated almost entirely through her reading of her father’s personal library. Lewis also mentions the Ruskin connection. At 18, traveling with her understanding father through southern France and Italy, Edith has the Joneses follow Ruskin’s footsteps directly and precisely from his own travel-cum-art-appreciation books. One of the messages of this little fact is how devoted Edith was, not just to travel and touring, but to art, history, and culture. Her curiosity and enthusiasms were for the highest creative endeavors we humans attempt. This remained so throughout her life, and it helped draw to her talented people in every setting. Touching the vein of truth that runs in one form or another through every era was one of her devotions; perhaps we could call it her religion. She aspired to be a part of that current of truth, and her legacy includes 15 novels, seven novellas, dozens of stories, and other works on home decorating and on the craft of writing fiction. The image of Edith Wharton is in some ways stuck with the society she depicted so clearly in books like Innocence, The Custom of the Country, andThe House of Mirth. Her own life as an expatriate was quite different. Nonetheless, any biography will hit some of the elements of her subjects: life in old New York, in Newport, and in Paris. It comes across as a beautiful life, now that a hundred and more years of history have blurred the worst aspects from our impressions of it. A formative event was a months-long cruise through the Aegean Sea that she and her brand-new husband Teddy Wharton took with one of the Van Alens. It was also so expensive and extravagant that it caused the Jones family to move her trust fund further out of her reach. We also see not only her building a house in Lenox, Mass., still showing as The Mount, but the special fascination gardens and garden design held for her. In addition to The Mount, her gardens in her renovated estate above the sea in Hyeres, southern France, are also still shown, and her other house then in the Paris suburbs may be, too. Both biographies talk of her shyness, which sometimes seemed frosty and superior to those on the receiving end of it. It came across to this reader as a classic symptom of the introvert. She was a devoted friend, most prominently with Henry James and art critic Bernard Berenson, but to varying degrees with an amazing cast of characters that included so many other famous writers and artists it is impossible to make a good list of them -- they ranged from Teddy Roosevelt to Jean Cocteau -- so that the mere recording of her friendships over the course of her socializing provides a kind of history of its own. She was there at the legendary premiere of The Rite of Spring, in Paris, and that seems emblematic of her vigorous participation in the culture of the time. She had a fairly luxurious income from the trust fund, which derived from early investments in New York City real estate, but her writing earned her even greater sums. Years of $50,000 to $100,000 in income from royalties, movie sales, and countless short stories and magazine articles are eye-catching, especially when we multiply those figures by a factor of 10 to translate them into today’s much cheaper dollars. Such a full life it is impossible even to summarize it easily. Yet, centrally, one big hole -- love and sex. Edith Newbold Jones was so unprepared for marriage when she made hers at 23 that it was not to be consummated for several weeks. Soon after it finally was, she eliminated the sexual component entirely. Yet she and Teddy Wharton were married for 28 years. At the very end, she had a love affair with journalist and romancer Morton Fullerton, a frustrating and unusual character. Teddy also had at least one affair as the marriage was ending; perhaps there had been others, as he was a sociable man. She developed in young adulthood into a grande dame as her mother had been before her; and her success only made her grander. She inspired both dislike and devotion, often from the very same people. She compared herself and Fullerton to the beguiling Paolo-and-Francesca pair of lovers in The Inferno (second circle), who put down the book and read no more that day. She was much later to say that she had loved two men, and had not been able to marry either. Fullerton, not the marrying kind; and the man who as a youth had been expected to propose to her, but did not -- another not-marrying kind, Walter Berry, forgotten today but a big presence in Paris on behalf of American interests in the first part of the 20th century, given a spectacular funeral by the grateful French after his death. They felt he had been a big part of the eventually successful push to get America to take sides and fight in World War I. Mrs. Dwight does not have the little detail Lewis offers, after Edith’s original fiance (or more probably his mother) breaks off their engagement in 1882, when Edith is 20. Her mother takes her to Paris after that, but there is the inevitable first dance after her return, when her escort reported feeling Edith begin trembling on his arm, shaking with anxiety as they walked into the major event, a Patriarchs’ Ball at Delmonico’s, facing society again for her first time after her rejection. Society lived in a fishbowl and must have enjoyed it that way. Still, it was startling to see that, reporting on the ending of the engagement, the Newport Daily News added this: “The only reason assigned for the breaking of the engagement.... is an alleged preponderance of intellectuality on the part of the intended bride. Miss Jones is an ambitious authoress, and it is said that, in the eyes of Mr. Stevens, ambition is a grievous fault.” One thing Mrs. Dwight’s book is missing, obviously by choice, is the possibility that Edith, though greatly loved by her father, may have been the daughter of the family’s youngish English tutor and Mrs. Jones. This was a fairly well-known supposition at the time, some of her friends say, and one which she addressed a couple times in her fiction (the story “His Father's Son” is pointed and amusing) and perhaps to her friends. Where Lewis dissects, Dwight understands and sympathizes. Lewis even hired a researcher to chase down the amazing details involved in Morton Fullerton’s life, which is fun to read. The bottom line, though, is that Dwight's book makes you like Mrs. Wharton more. Dwight gives this entry from Edith’s journal from 1907, when she was 45, which I believe Edith also gave to Fullerton to share during their relationship: “I have drunk of the wine of life at last, I have known the thing best worth knowing, I have been warmed through & through, never to grow quite cold again till the end.... “Oh, Life, Life how I give thanks to you for this! How right I was to trust you, to know that my day would come, & to be too proud, & too confident of my fate, to take for a moment any lesser gift, any smaller happiness than this that fate had in store for me. “How often I used to say to myself: ‘No one can love life as I do, love the beauty & the splendour & the ardour, & find words for them as I can, without having a share in them some day:-- I mean that dear intimate share that one guessed at, always, beyond & behind their universal thrill!--And the day came--the day has been--and I have poured into it all my stored-up joy of living, all my sense of the beauty & mystery of the world, every impression of joy & loveliness, in sight or sound, or touch, that I once figured to myself in all the lonely days when I used to weave such sensations into a veil of color to hide, the great blank behind..... “ The affair ended, as all Fullerton’s many such episodes did, and he moved on. He was supposed to marry his sister, as he liked to tell people – she was devoted to him and understood that they were engaged, and she eventually wrote of how it never happened. (She wasn’t his sister, though raised as that; she was a cousin of some degree, in reality, which is another story but one that Lewis goes into with justifiable fascination.) Dwight does not have that, but another great inclusion in her book is this letter from Walter Berry, a document Lewis only summarizes. Berry was Edith’s second suitor, a potential proposal that she hoped for, and a highly suitable match socially (as his middle name Van Rensselaer conveys), but it did not happen when they were young and first courting. They became great friends and, I assume lovers, much later. In that last stage of their lives, in 1923, he wrote her this: “Dearest – The real dream – mine – was in the canoe and in the night, afterwards, -- for I lay awake wondering and wondering, -- and then, when morning came, wondering how I could have wondered – I, a $less lawyer (not even that, yet) with just about enough cash for the canoe and for Rodick’s bill – “And then, later, in the little cottage at Newport I wondered why I hadn’t – for it would all have been good – and the slices of years slid by. “Well, my dear, I’ve never ‘wondered’ about any one else, and there wouldn’t be much of me if you were cut out of it. Forty years of it is yours, dear. W.” As for husband Teddy, I'm afraid it seems that she began ignoring his part in her life cruelly, to judge from the very occasional remark from a friend cited in these biographies. However it came about, Teddy ended up with panic attacks and psychiatric issues and it went downhill from there. As for Wharton’s writing, of which there is a lot, when she was at her best she is unique, evocative, and wonderful. For my money, as good as fiction gets. When she is not at her best, she is still interesting and rewarding even with a flaw or two. There are a few stories that are clunkers, so she did have her failures; but they were few and far between. Her strong moral vision of life gives power to her characters and the plots in which they are ensnared. I wish modern writers were capable of the same. The relativism of the modern world is more convenient for us, but it makes the choices less interesting and less meaningful. Maybe someday that will change.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Smith

    This book was interesting, but I found myself getting bogged down in the details about halfway through and ended up just flipping through the rest. I had hoped for information about and exploration of her publishing career and how she managed to publish under her own name whole contemporaries published under male pen names, but there was none of that. I did appreciate how her life experiences were connected to her novels, but I would have liked a little more of the novels and other writings and This book was interesting, but I found myself getting bogged down in the details about halfway through and ended up just flipping through the rest. I had hoped for information about and exploration of her publishing career and how she managed to publish under her own name whole contemporaries published under male pen names, but there was none of that. I did appreciate how her life experiences were connected to her novels, but I would have liked a little more of the novels and other writings and a little less on the minutia of her life.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Amy

    This illustrated biography of Edith Wharton is not meant to be read quickly. To me, it was more of a travelogue and ode to beautiful architecture and landscapes. While I would not recommend it as the definitive Wharton biography, it was quite pleasurable nonetheless.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Andria Kerkof

    #BookBingoNW2019 "Big Book" square Having read a couple of Edith Wharton's book over the past couple years, i really appreciated learning more about her and her interests. #BookBingoNW2019 "Big Book" square Having read a couple of Edith Wharton's book over the past couple years, i really appreciated learning more about her and her interests.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Laurie Hertz-Kafka

    I had read a good deal of Edith Wharton's fiction in the past and always thought of her primarily as an author. But she was into so many things in great depth: the study of art, architecture, garden design, interior design, and travel as well as fiction. She also contributed significantly to the war efforts during WWI by opening and managing businesses to employ large numbers of women who would have otherwise been destitute. She lived an amazingly active life and knew many people who appeared in I had read a good deal of Edith Wharton's fiction in the past and always thought of her primarily as an author. But she was into so many things in great depth: the study of art, architecture, garden design, interior design, and travel as well as fiction. She also contributed significantly to the war efforts during WWI by opening and managing businesses to employ large numbers of women who would have otherwise been destitute. She lived an amazingly active life and knew many people who appeared in other books I have read on the Gilded Age (several from Sargent's Women: Four Lives Behind the Canvas). She also had a very close friendship with Henry James. Because her life was so active, this book is very uplifting in spite of the personal traumas she faced (loss of her father, with whom she was very close, when she was 20 and the decline of her decades-long marriage as her husband slid into dementia). The book provides an interesting perspective on the way of life at that time of the very wealthy: owning multiple mansions the size of hotels, (a necessity as multiple friends would come to visit for for long periods of time), traveling to stay with friends in their mansions for weeks or months and traveling extensively with them, constant social gatherings, not to mention the wherewithal to own acres of land and develop complex gardens that could take hours to walk through. Edith Wharton had the freedom to do all of this, but she also had to earn her own living to maintain her lifestyle. She did so through her fiction, and that is mainly how we know her. But she was considered to be an expert in her other interests, as well. She also spent a significant portion of her life living in France during the Belle Epoque and hosted salons featuring noted intellectuals of the time. She represented a gracious way of life that came out of Gilded Age wealth and disappeared after WWI, and this way of life is captured in her fiction.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Kay Davis

    Eleanor Dwight's pictorial biography of Edith Wharton summarizes A Backward Glance and the work of previous biographers. Many images published here are in Beinecke's digital image library at Yale. Eleanor Dwight's pictorial biography of Edith Wharton summarizes A Backward Glance and the work of previous biographers. Many images published here are in Beinecke's digital image library at Yale.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Luann Ritsema

    I thought this was a bit dull frankly -- overly ponderous. But it had a lot of pictures which were interesting and that I liked.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Christine

  9. 5 out of 5

    Lee Anne

  10. 4 out of 5

    Jeannie Sloan

  11. 5 out of 5

    Liliana

  12. 5 out of 5

    Patricia Petro

  13. 5 out of 5

    Natha Anderson

  14. 5 out of 5

    Momma Aimee

  15. 4 out of 5

    Lisa

  16. 5 out of 5

    Flaubertian

  17. 5 out of 5

    Jan Muller

  18. 4 out of 5

    Cheryl Powell

  19. 4 out of 5

    Melissa

  20. 5 out of 5

    Melanie Linn

  21. 4 out of 5

    Matthew

  22. 4 out of 5

    Catherine

  23. 4 out of 5

    Nina

  24. 4 out of 5

    Lara

  25. 4 out of 5

    El

  26. 5 out of 5

    Laura

  27. 4 out of 5

    Leto

  28. 4 out of 5

    Lauren

  29. 5 out of 5

    Beth

  30. 5 out of 5

    Elaine

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