Studied Luxury

Margaret Anne Doody

  • No Gifts from Chance: A Biography of Edith Wharton by Shari Benstock
    Hamish Hamilton, 546 pp, £20.00, October 1994, ISBN 0 241 13298 3
  • Edith Wharton: An Extraordinary Life by Eleanor Dwight
    Harry Adams, 335 pp, $39.95, May 1994, ISBN 0 8109 3971 1

The title of Benstock’s biography of Edith Wharton is somewhat mal à propos. Edith Wharton, other reviewers have pointed out, had plenty of gifts from chance. She was born, in 1862, into wealth and leisure, she had a sufficiency of good looks (in an era when that mattered even more than now). As a writer she was highly successful, both critically and commercially. Benstock takes her title from a snatch of Matthew Arnold’s ‘Resignation’ copied by Wharton into her Commonplace Book in 1908: ‘They believe me, who await/No gifts from chance have conquered fate’. What Arnold is celebrating is that markedly Victorian duty to bustle and hustle. Certainly Edith Wharton was no Mr Micawber, waiting for something to turn up. In taking up writing seriously, she broke out of the mould into which she was being set, as women were set, like large bland puddings, turning away as she did so from the pleasant, vacuous life of a society matron of means. But Edith Newshold Jones did have to become the society matron first. And her marriage to Teddy Wharton might be thought of as dictated by chance. As Benstock makes clear, she had reached the point when she had to marry somebody when she got engaged in 1885: ‘At 23, her 1879 debut six years in the past, Edith was running out of time.’

Wharton did not acquire money by marrying this vacuous and not-so-young man (he was 34, and did not come into his inheritance until he was 60). They lived on the proceeds of Edith’s trust fund, until she was able to add to their funds to an extent not anticipated. The great, perhaps the sole, advantage of Teddy as a mate for Edith was that he was little inclined to interfere as long as he had the leisured and pleasant life to which he was accustomed. An ambitious or more socially aggressive man might have curtailed her publishing – as Edith’s mother, Lucretia Jones, had earlier been inclined to do. Getting married was the only way to acquire any independence of movement. Independence of means was to follow, with the delightful chance of an inheritance of $ 120,000 from her father’s elderly second cousin in 1888. Edith had already spent a good deal of money on a kind of Grand Tour, including North Africa, Egypt, the Aegean and the Holy Land. But in Edith’s life, one has to note, things did tend to turn up, and her financial life was a series of glittering happy chances.

It was ‘chance’ that forced Edith to get married – the chance of the mores of her time and place. Was it ‘chance’ that the man she chose to marry, who was so ready (at first) to fall in with her inclinations for travel or amusement, or else to let her alone, was uninterested in her – and uninteresting to her – sexually? Speculation as to whether this marriage was ever consummated remains unresolved. Perhaps Teddy’s sexual unsuitability as a partner was a result of Edith’s own wish; she never wanted to be subjugated to anyone; and at first they didn’t seem unhappy as a married couple.

Her own most private writings, however, record a frustration with her enclosed emotional life. Her sense of the pain of living as an âme close, like a light in a tomb, can be found in many documents quoted by her biographers. Eventually, in her forties, she was to have what seems to have been her first and only love affair, with that ambiguous creature Morton Fullerton. Fullerton’s life is complex enough to be confusing to any reader of Benstock’s biography, or even of the clearer and more detailed biography of R.W.B. Lewis. Fullerton was the lover of several women (and some men). He constantly complained about being blackmailed by one of his ladies, Henrietta de Mirecourt, without being able to pay her off, close her mouth, or break from her. The blackmail story, which Fullerton related pathetically to Henry James as well as to Edith Wharton, his new mistress (or one of them), might, one thinks, have been all an interesting fiction to put a polite face on Fullerton’s lack of interest in committing himself elsewhere. Sherlock Holmes, following Arsène Lupin, would have stolen the purloined letters for him – Fullerton might have done as much for himself.

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