Ruth Bernard Yeazell
Edith Wharton’s ‘background’ – the word is her own – has always seemed improbable for a future novelist. Persistent rumours that she was not the daughter of George Frederic Jones but the illegitimate offspring of a Scottish peer or an English tutor clearly attest to a sense that there was something otherwise inexplicable about this ambitious daughter of Old New York. Her autobiography, A Backward Glance (1934), says nothing about these rumours, but it is easy to see how her own accounts of the past would have fuelled them. Despite the fact that she recalled ‘making up’ stories from her first conscious moment, both her memoirs and her fiction represent the world of her childhood as pretty much impervious to the imagination. ‘In the well-regulated well-fed Summers world,’ her heroine recalls in The Reef (1912), ‘the unusual was regarded as either immoral or ill-bred, and people with emotions were not visited.’ Anna Leath’s memory of Old New York is scarcely distinguishable from her creator’s. ‘In a community composed entirely of people like her parents and her parents’ friends she did not see how the magnificent things one read about could ever have happened.’
Asked what she wished to be when she grew up, Lucretia Jones’s small daughter dutifully replied (as she later recorded it): ‘The best-dressed woman in New York.’ This is not the sort of ambition James Wood had in mind when he recently suggested in the LRB (4 January) that we owe half of English literature to the aspirant mother. Of course, those sensitive and ambitious women are usually the mothers of lower-class males; and in Wharton’s case, as in that of other 19th-century women writers, identifying with a father might have been more to the point. But while she speaks more fondly of her father than of her ‘beautifully dressed mother’, the most she can manage for his literary influence is a wistful fantasy of a ‘rather rudimentary love of verse’ – predictably stifled, as she imagines it, by his wife’s ‘matter-of-factness’ – and an immense debt of gratitude for his ‘gentleman’s library’.
That library is the scene of the child’s most formative experiences and the occasion for her warmest recollections of the past. Even her mother’s prohibition of novel-reading proves ironically fruitful, as it prevents her ‘wasting … time over ephemeral rubbish’ and throws her back instead to ‘the great classics’. Both the impressive range of Wharton’s later reading and her lifelong habits of self-education evidently had their origins here. Characteristically, the arrangement of domestic architecture doubles in her telling as an architecture of the self: ‘there was in me a secret retreat where I wished no one to intrude.’
Books offered a way out of Old New York; and by the time she published her autobiography, Wharton’s own library contained some four thousand of them, divided between her two houses in France. Yet in Wharton’s retrospective account of herself, the small child’s imaginative resistance to her environment precedes even the ability to decipher print. Edith had not yet learned to read when she first engaged in that ecstatic and solitary ritual she called ‘making up’: though she always required a book as a prop, the very unintelligibility of the pages with which she gestured permitted her to evoke whatever her fancy chose. Even before she was a reader, in other words, she was a storyteller; and the stories she was busy telling were of alternative worlds and alternative selves.
If there is some myth-making in this portrait of the artist, that myth is itself one of her many creations. Though the mature novelist would express great scorn for the American belief in perpetual self-improvement, the construction of Edith Wharton, as Hermione Lee’s biography demonstrates, was a lifelong activity. The absence of Wharton’s important women friends from A Backward Glance, Lee suggests, intensifies the impression that the achievement was the author’s alone. With formidable energy, she turned herself into an interior decorator, a writer, a charitable organiser, a war correspondent, an honorary Frenchwoman, a gardener; and at the height of her earning power, the proceeds from her books far exceeded the income she had inherited. Despite the substantial comfort into which she was born – or because of it – there is considerable truth in a friend’s joke that both Teddy Roosevelt and Edith Wharton were ‘self-made men’.
‘Atrophy,’ Lee notes, was one of Wharton’s key words; and ‘paralysis in America … what she most feared’. Though the spare New England setting of Ethan Frome (1911) is far removed from the well-stuffed interiors of Wharton’s childhood, the relentless plot of that novel, in which dreams of suicidal escape end in literal paralysis and the protagonist’s hated wife is nightmarishly doubled by his immobilised lover, grimly dramatises its author’s terror. Closer to home, and to the immobility against which the young Edith chafed, is the ‘static force’ of Lily Bart’s aunt in The House of Mirth (1905): ‘To attempt to bring her into active relation with life was like tugging at a piece of furniture which has been screwed to the floor.’ Long after Wharton herself had escaped first into writing and then to Europe, her narratives enter the cul-de-sac in which Lily passively colludes in her own destruction. But tugging at that furniture also gave her energy – so much so that she gleefully screwed it to the floor again and again. The satirical vehemence with which Wharton represents her parents’ world can make it easy to forget that the obdurate environment of Old New York is at least partly her creation too.
Furniture was more than a metaphor for Wharton. ‘You don’t know her till you have seen her as builder and restorer, designer, decorator, gardener,’ Henry James wrote to another impassioned interior decorator, their mutual friend Mary Hunter, in 1913. At the time, Wharton was contemplating the purchase of a substantial estate near where Hunter lived in Essex; but while this came to nothing, the novelist’s relations with domestic property loom almost as large in her history as her relations with books. An often repeated anecdote in A Backward Glance tells of her first attempt at novel-writing being summarily quashed by her literal-minded mother, who responded to the 11-year-old’s opening lines – ‘“Oh, how do you do, Mrs Brown?” said Mrs Tompkins. “If only I had known you were going to call I should have tidied up the drawing-room”’ – by icily observing: ‘Drawing-rooms are always tidy.’ That put a stop to fiction for a time. But Lucretia Jones’s capacity to freeze up her daughter’s energies should not obscure the premonitory significance of the exchange. From Wharton’s first published book, The Decoration of Houses, written with Ogden Codman in 1897, to the extravagant gardens at her French property in Hyères whose design she oversaw in her sixties, her imagination was deeply invested in the arrangement of domestic space. Though Mrs Edward (Teddy) Wharton began her married life in a ‘cottage’ on her mother’s Newport estate, a substantial legacy from a millionaire cousin in the late 1880s assured that none of her future drawing-rooms would belong to her mother. Codman worked with Wharton on houses for the couple in Newport and New York: Land’s End, an $80,000 mansion overlooking the Atlantic that she later described as ‘incurably’ ugly, and ‘a little shanty in Park Avenue’ that she and Teddy called the smallest house in New York. These were followed by her most famous residence in the US – the 35-room mansion known as The Mount in Lenox, Massachusetts – and eventually by apartments in Paris, an 18th-century villa near Fontainebleau, and the Provençal house that she named Ste-Claire-le-Château, built on the site of a 17th-century convent in the old part of Hyères. Only The Mount was constructed from scratch, but all bore the unmistakeable imprint of Wharton’s design.
A sophisticated gardener as well as interior decorator, whose Italian Villas and Their Gardens (1904) is still cited by writers on garden history, Wharton threw herself into the arrangement of plants and flowers with the same passion and eye for detail that she devoted to her books. Reconstructing gardens in print is not easy, but Lee makes a convincing case for the theatrical flair and colour of Wharton’s. Towards the end of her life, Wharton herself told a friend that she thought her gardens were ‘better than her books’. However that may be, they were clearly more ephemeral: one of the most poignant episodes in Lee’s biography concerns Wharton’s devastation when a catastrophic frost in the winter of 1928-29 wiped out virtually everything she had planted at Hyères. ‘How dangerous to care too much,’ she noted in her diary, ‘even for a garden!’
Wharton’s zeal for home-making had little to do with her feelings for her husband. Long before she divorced him in 1913, her publicly acknowledged affections attached themselves more to place than to family. ‘I feel as if I were going to get married – to the right man at last,’ she joked to a friend in anticipation of the move to Hyères in 1922. Though her marriage endured for 28 years, she and Teddy seem to have had scarcely anything in common apart from a zest for travel, a love of motor cars and a fondness for little dogs; and the increasing evidence of his mental illness – what we would now call bipolar disorder or manic depression – meant that most observers seem to have sympathised with the wife. ‘A divorce is always a good thing to have: you never can tell when you may want it,’ a friend advises the superbly vulgar heroine of The Custom of the Country (1913), the fierce satire of contemporary American mores that was appearing in serial form even as Wharton filed for divorce in a Paris court. Lee contends that previous biographers have unduly emphasised the ladylike reluctance with which Wharton took that step: once it had become clear that Teddy was impossible to live with, she argues, Wharton proceeded to free herself with grim determination. The heroine of The Custom of the Country is emphatically not her author; but neither the appetite nor the ambition of Undine Spragg (‘US’, in short) was altogether alien to her. Attacking the very ease with which the thrice-divorced Undine sheds inconvenient partners would have helped to drive home the difference.
At the age of 20, Edith Jones had been briefly engaged to a wealthy young man called Harry Stevens; but according to Town Topics, the sort of gossip rag she would send up in The House of Mirth, ‘an alleged preponderance of intellectuality on the part of the intended bride’ caused the engagement to be broken off. She first became acquainted with the lawyer and future diplomat Walter Berry in the aftermath of that engagement; in later years, many who knew them assumed that she and Berry were lovers. But the truth about this long-lived intimacy, as about much of Wharton’s private life, is elusive. Though she could make high comedy out of her mother’s habits of censorship, her own powers of concealment rivaled Lucretia’s. Berry’s death in 1927 may have left Wharton ‘utterly rudderless’, as she wrote to Bernard Berenson; but she still managed to get into his Paris apartment and to burn almost all the letters she had ever written to him. ‘No words can say, because such things are unsayable, how the influence of his thought, his character, his deepest personality, were interwoven with mine,’ she declared in A Backward Glance; but this is far from the only aspect of her history, as Lee makes clear, that is treated as ‘unsayable’. In that book Teddy himself puts in only the most minimal appearance, while he disappears entirely from the published records of their travels in Italy and France. Wharton’s mother once instructed her to ‘look out of the other window’ when the notorious mistress of a New York banker was passing in her carriage; and A Backward Glance sedulously looks elsewhere when it comes to the passionate affair the still-married author herself conducted with the journalist Morton Fullerton in her forties.
She would have thought it a bitter irony that Fullerton’s own casualness with his papers has made this one of her most extensively documented relationships. Wharton’s complete letters have yet to be published, but only Berenson appears more frequently as a correspondent in the selection edited by R.W.B. and Nancy Lewis in 1988. ‘I beg instant cremation for this,’ she was writing to Fullerton almost from the start; but the fact that the erotically adventurous Fullerton had already been the victim of one blackmail attempt does not seem to have made him wary about the survival of evidence. Yet Wharton’s instinct for privacy contended against her needs as a writer; and even before some three hundred of her letters to Fullerton mysteriously surfaced in 1985, R.W.B. Lewis was able to reconstruct the story of their affair from a secret diary that she had preserved and named, after a poem by Pierre Ronsard, ‘The Life Apart: L’Ame Close’. When Lewis’s biography first appeared in 1975, his detailed account of the affair, together with the reprinting of ‘Beatrice Palmato’, a hitherto unknown fragment of soft porn about father-daughter incest, appeared to overturn the established image of Wharton as a strait-laced grande dame – ‘puritanically repressed within’, in Lewis’s phrase, as well as formidable without. The passage of time, however, as well as considerable scholarship on Victorian sexuality, has made the erotic intensity of all that strait-lacing seem less surprising than inevitable. Without minimising the reality of the affair, Lee also makes clear how much of Wharton’s creative powers were invested in the experience. Kept concurrently with her appointments diary, ‘The Life Apart’ both records and invents the author’s belated awakening to love.
James was among a number of people, of both sexes, who were evidently attracted to Fullerton, though he was quick to warn Wharton that her new friend was not to be counted on: he’s ‘so incalculable’ – not like ‘your plain unvarnished & devoted Henry James’. Particularly during a two-week visit to France in the spring of 1908, James found himself, as Lee observes, in a very Jamesian situation: at once a third wheel and a discreet chaperone, he appears to have accompanied the lovers on romantic outings, even as he tactfully absented himself at crucial moments. That it is not clear how much was ever explicit in these arrangements only intensifies their Jamesian effect. Lee compares James on one such occasion to Lambert Strether in The Ambassadors (mistakenly identified here as The Wings of the Dove). But while Wharton later professed herself baffled by The Golden Bowl, her own letters of assignation sound as if she were channelling Charlotte Stant: ‘There’s a train for Amiens at 12, one for Chartres at 12:50 – All I can see or feel about it is the divine possibility of being with you, away & alone, for one long golden day, at last.’ Insofar as successful adultery requires managerial efficiency as well as passion, Wharton was made for the part.
The original multitasker, Wharton seems never to have known a moment when she was not engaged on several fronts at once. Even while she was juggling a lover, a disturbed husband and plans to sell off The Mount – not to mention a break with her publishers – she was writing both The Reef and The Custom of the Country, as well as a number of short stories and poems, some of which she collected for volumes that appeared in 1909 and 1910. The two novels were subsequently laid aside for work on Ethan Frome, which she had begun in French as a self-assigned exercise. In the aftermath of the First World War, the perpetual juggling act became yet more elaborate: in part because her publishers were reluctant to publish a second war novel – her first, The Marne, had appeared to disappointing sales in 1918 – and in part because she was increasingly in need of cash to maintain her expensive properties, Wharton took up and abandoned at least three full-length works (one of which had been intermittently underway for more than five years), before dashing off The Age of Innocence in a little more than six months in 1919-20. Something of the tempo is captured in a letter to Berenson of 1924:
As for me, I’m trying, as usual to finish – finish my novel, finish 3 articles for Scribner, & another (on Proust) for the Yale Rev.; finish thanking people for the books they keep sending me; finish my garden here; finish my ditto at Hyères; finish answering urgent letters; finish arranging my books; finish looking up motor-roads for my trip to England; finish settling business matters with publishers, trustees & what not; finish the book I’m actually reading (Fraser’s Old Testament Folklore – great fun) & this letter – & so on. And so it will be till the great Finis stamps itself at the end of my page. And it’s a jolly sight better than stagnation.
Though she didn’t always finish, she did a pretty good job: of the three novels she set aside for The Age of Innocence, only the one called ‘Literature’ never appeared, and it eventually turned into Hudson River Bracketed (1929). At the same time, Lee reports, Wharton’s archives are thick with abandoned projects; and even a fragment like ‘Beatrice Palmato’ is heavily corrected. No wonder that Berenson chose to address her as ‘O Vigorosa!’
All this activity may have done more for Wharton’s balance sheet than her reputation: especially in the postwar years, her output finally seems more impressive for sheer magnitude than consistent quality. Lee shows in greater detail than ever before just how deeply engaged Wharton was in the modern business of authorship; but while she often commanded huge sums – in 1928 she earned more than $95,000 from Book of the Month Club sales, serial and film rights for The Children alone – the very conditions that she learned to exploit also constrained her. It may have been good for sales when The Age of Innocence beat Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street to the Pulitzer Prize in 1921; but being rewarded for the work that ‘best presents the wholesome atmosphere of American life’ proved a distinctly mixed blessing. (Pulitzer’s original reference to ‘the whole atmosphere of American life’ had been temporarily altered to ‘wholesome’ by the reactionary president of Columbia University, Nicholas Murray Butler.) Publishers who were ready to pay for both book and serial rights also expected a certain kind of product; and even as they sought to market Wharton as a ‘classic’, they worried that she was too grim or out of touch for their readers. Though Lee finds much of interest and relevance in Wharton’s later work, she never pretends that The Glimpses of the Moon (1922), Twilight Sleep (1927), or even Hudson River Bracketed – whose hero, Vance Weston, has nothing but scorn for the commercialisation of publishing – deserves to be significantly re-evaluated. Yet despite Weston’s conviction that business and creativity are wholly antithetical, Lee’s reconstruction of Wharton’s own career is more complicated. While the novelist herself suggested that she wrote The Age of Innocence out of a need to escape from recent history, it was also, by Lee’s account, ‘a strategic professional move’: a deliberate effort to produce another bestseller like The House of Mirth that would help pay for those expensive French properties. That Wharton was partly marketing Old New York as well as reimagining it did not prevent her from creating in The Age of Innocence one of her finest books.
Its delicate balance between satire and nostalgia marks something of a shift for Wharton, who was now looking back at her native city from the distance of almost half a century. When the novel’s restive hero, Newland Archer, falls in love with Ellen Olenska, a glamorous arrival from Europe who is also his fiancée’s unhappily married cousin, the guardians of the social order quietly arrange to send her packing. The farewell dinner for Madame Olenska, which is seen through Archer’s eyes as ‘the tribal rally around a kinswoman about to be eliminated from the tribe’, is among the great set pieces of Wharton’s social imagination. (Like his creator, Archer is a dedicated reader of anthropology.) Yet what appears for most of the novel as the oppressive narrowness of tribal rituals begins to look, towards its end, like civilised restraint: the necessary discipline of a culture that places continuity and dignity above the mere satisfaction of individual appetite. ‘After all, there was good in the old ways,’ Archer thinks in the final chapter. ‘He honoured his own past, and mourned for it.’ When he turns away from Olenska’s Parisian apartment and walks back ‘alone’ to his hotel in the last line of the novel, he is 57 – the same age, Lee notes, as Wharton herself. With characteristic sensitivity to the artist’s transformation of personal fact, she reads The Age of Innocence as a disguised autobiography, in which this persistent loneliness, too, speaks for the author.
The Age of Innocence is perhaps the most Jamesian of Wharton’s novels: not only in its use of the international theme or the echoes of Christopher Newman and Isabel Archer in the naming of its protagonist, but in the implicit argument that the imagination of fulfilment may be superior to the experience itself. ‘It’s more real to me here than if I went up,’ Archer thinks as he pictures the scene in Ellen’s apartment in the closing paragraphs of the novel; and by arranging for him to turn away without testing that proposition, the novelist ensures that her readers must also content themselves with imagining the alternative. Percy Lubbock’s edition of James’s letters, many of them written to Wharton, also appeared in 1920; and James was very much on her mind, Lee suggests, during the composition of The Age of Innocence.
Even so, Wharton had long chafed at being read as ‘an echo of Mr James’, and Lee is particularly determined to free her from the imputation of discipleship. Noting that The House of Mirth had already been started when James famously urged its author to ‘DO NEW YORK,’ she tacitly challenges Lewis’s verdict that this was ‘the most important and the wisest literary advice Edith Wharton ever received’. Critics have been quick to register signs of James’s influence, but rarely look the other way: Wharton’s Italian Backgrounds (1905) might have contributed to James’s Italian Hours (1909), for example, and her views on George Sand might have affected his essay on Sand in Notes on Novelists (1914). Wharton earned her first cheque for a poem whose source James would also adapt for the disastrous Guy Domville six years later, but any influence in this case was clearly not a happy one. In the long run she would prove no more successful as a poet than he did as a playwright, but she was far cannier at bridging the divide between high and popular culture. Lee’s preference for The Custom of the Country – she calls it Wharton’s ‘greatest book’ – may be partly explained by a desire to identify her subject’s most distinctive voice, one less inflected by association with the Master.
The acerbic tone of the earlier novel also helps to dispel the aura of genteel retrospection that still tends to obscure Wharton’s image. Against the nostalgic chronicler of Gilded Age leisure, this biography poses the tough-minded author of The Fruit of the Tree (1907), Ethan Frome and Summer (1917): a grim realist who knows more than we have sometimes realised about the stunting effects of harsh conditions. Lee is particularly eloquent on the comparatively little known ‘Bunner Sisters’, whose unsparing representation of thwarted lives reminds us that Dreiser, too, was Wharton’s contemporary. Long enough to be printed as a separate novella, ‘Bunner Sisters’ was written in the early 1890s but published only in a collection of 1916. Had Edward Burlingame, the editor of Scribner’s Magazine, not twice rejected the tale when the author first submitted it, Lee implies, literary history might have been less quick to identify Wharton with the drawing-rooms she immortalised in The House of Mirth. The Bunner sisters live in a very different New York.
Among the qualities that make Wharton a great writer, Lee says at one point, is her representation of the dense networks in which even the most private of lives are embedded. In the spirit of its subject, this biography is rich with social detail, from the upper-class American circles into which Wharton was born to the overlapping communities, both intellectual and affective, that sustained her during the long years in France. Lee is particularly keen to address the European context of her career. Though Wharton never relinquished her US citizenship, her Paris was more than the American colony epitomised by the apartment on the rue de Varenne that she and Teddy first rented from the Vanderbilts. If she socialised with other expatriates like James and Henry Adams, she also moved in worlds familiar to Proust, the successive volumes of whose masterwork she read almost as soon as they appeared.
The two never met – Wharton later implied, rather implausibly, that she deliberately avoided the encounter on the grounds that Proust was too much of a snob – but they had a number of friends in common, including Robert d’Humières, the model for Robert de Saint-Loup in A la recherche du temps perdu. D’Humières was working on the French translation of The Custom of the Country when he was killed in action in 1916, and there was some talk of Proust’s finishing the task; but nothing came of it. (André Gide, who knew both writers, had offered to act as intermediary.) Nor did Wharton later take up an invitation to complete the English version of Le Temps retrouvé after the death of Scott-Moncrieff. Though her admiration for Proust seems to have reached its limit at Sodome et Gomorrhe – ‘Alas! Alas!’ was her final comment – some of her other verdicts were less predictable. Like Proust, she was a Dreyfusard, for example; and her taste extended to Yeats and Stravinsky as well as Isadora Duncan and Aldous Huxley.
The jacket copy for this biography proclaims Wharton ‘a fiercely modern author’, yet the very thoroughness with which Lee attends to cultural context keeps vividly before us how much of her time and place she managed to resist. Old New York may have given way to Paris in the 1920s, but chronological and geographical proximity no more connect Wharton to Picasso and Gertrude Stein than to Cole Porter, George Gershwin or Josephine Baker. ‘I do not write “jazz-books”,’ Wharton announced defensively in 1923; and all that jazz, as Lee makes clear, took in a lot of territory. ‘If Wharton had gone to visit the Eluards, just down the road,’ she observes,
she might have encountered Tristan Tzara, Louis Aragon, Man Ray, Duchamp, André Breton, or Max Ernst, with whom Gala [Eluard’s wife] was having a passionate affair. But Wharton confined her social life to her old friends from America, Paris and England, rather than making a life in the town. She was the lady of the manor, keeping her eye on the convalescent homes at Groslay, giving a donation to the curé of St-Brice and paying out sums to local schools and charities.
Though Lee alerts us to these hypothetical conjunctions, there is something dispiriting about the lists of opportunities lost and encounters not made, from the evening with May Sinclair that Wharton turned down in order to meet the Duchess of Sutherland – this from the writer who complained of Proust that ‘the only people who really interested him were Dukes and Duchesses’ – to the avant-garde circles she studiously avoided at her Provençal retreat. She was no more sympathetic to Bloomsbury, which she associated with a catalogue of ills that included lesbianism, bad manners, artistic innovation and ‘Bolshevism’. When a reviewer disparaged The Mother’s Recompense (1925) by comparison with Mrs Dalloway, she predictably responded by disclaiming any interest in formal or social experiment: ‘I was not trying to follow the new methods … & my heroine belongs to the day when scruples existed.’
In Wharton herself, such ‘scruples’ managed to coexist with a familiar set of ethnic and racial prejudices, whose occasional virulence Lee documents with sober honesty. While she is surely right that many of Wharton’s attitudes were routine for her time and class, the casual racism recorded here can nonetheless make for painful reading. Jews and blacks are the most obvious targets, though Wharton is perfectly capable of offending a modern ear in more than one register at a time: ‘I’m not much interested in travelling scholarships for women – or in fact in scholarships, tout court! – they’d much better stay at home and mind the baby. Still less am I interested in scholarships for female Yids, and young ladies who address a total stranger as “Chère Madame” and sign “meilleurs sentiments”.’ Like many writers, as Lee notes, Wharton was much cruder in her private correspondence than in her imaginative work; her portrait of Simon Rosedale in The House of Mirth, for example, doesn’t seem any less complicated after we have read this evidence. But while the Jewish Rosedale grows more attractive over the course of the narrative, the same cannot be said of Wharton.
‘My God, how does one write a Biography?’ In her magnificent study of Virginia Woolf, Lee chose to answer Woolf’s question not so much by writing a sequential narrative from cradle to grave as by offering a series of topical essays, loosely arranged by chronology and artfully composed to highlight the various aspects of her subject’s personal and imaginative history. So Virginia Woolf began with a meditation on ‘Biography’, and later chapters were as likely to address such recurrent themes as ‘Censors’ or ‘Selves’ as more obvious milestones such as ‘Marriage’ or ‘War’. Edith Wharton adopts a roughly similar method: it opens not with Wharton’s birth but with her parents’ unexpectedly witnessing revolution in the Paris of 1848, and its second chapter, ‘Making Up’, is as much a commentary on the evasions of the adult autobiographer as on the young Edith Jones’s love of storytelling. With both novelists, Lee is particularly sensitive to the gap between the life as lived and the writer’s retrospective creation of herself; and unlike many literary biographers, she is at her best when her subject’s own imaginative powers are at their height. Her readings of The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country and The Age of Innocence – not to mention A Backward Glance – help to persuade one that biography is a means of enhancing literature, not reducing it. Whether or not she is right to hear the accents of Hitler in the threatening ‘foreign’ voice on the radio in a late tale called ‘All Souls’’ (1937), that near ghost story is the more haunting for the possibility.
Like Woolf, the fluidity of whose identity was one of the themes of Lee’s book, Wharton played many roles, from interior decorator to war worker and novelist; and the biographer strives to do justice to them all. But despite Wharton’s busyness there are times when one wishes this biography were shorter. The long chapters devoted to the less literary sides of her life – her French real estate for instance, or her war charities – are admirably researched; but the sheer weight of Wharton’s possessions, her money, even her words, can begin to seem oppressive. It is not that she was always a less attractive person than Woolf: both women were snobs, though their snobbery had its basis in very different kinds of hierarchy; and to judge by the loyalty of the retainers described here, one would rather have been a servant for Wharton. But Woolf was, in the end, the far greater writer; and even the unpleasant moments in her letters and diaries are partly redeemed by her sense of style. Lee does not try to conceal Wharton’s limitations, but her understandable efforts at fairness, whether to the reactionary politics or the weaker novels, verge on apology.
‘Think what stupid things the people must have done with their money who say they’re “happier without”!’ Wharton candidly wrote to a friend in 1933, when the combined effects of the Depression and her own plunging royalties compelled her to economise. By the standards of the Morgans and the Vanderbilts, Wharton was never extraordinarily wealthy, though those standards are inadvertently exaggerated here when Vanderbilt’s Newport mansion, The Breakers, is said to have cost $200 million in 1895 – a figure that even in today’s currency Bill Gates and others have yet to match. (The notes give the modern equivalent as $97 billion.)
Perhaps the most extravagant of the many expeditions Lee records was a ten-week cruise on the Mediterranean and the Aegean that Wharton organised for ‘a few chosen friends’ in the summer of 1926 – a voyage that called for silk sleeping-bags ordered from Harrods and 168 bottles of vin rosé, among a long list of comestibles. Writing to Berenson a few months before her death, Wharton recalled a scene from that journey as among the highpoints of her life. They had been picnicking on Crete, ‘beside a stream smothered in blossoming oleander, with snow-covered Ida soaring in the blue above’, and as she looked up at the snow through the pink oleander, she told herself, ‘Old girl, this is one of the pinnacles – ’ It was, she explained, ‘a … feeling of inalienable ownership of beauty!’
Presumably Wharton meant to distinguish between aesthetic experience and possessions of a more material kind. In her case, however, one form of ‘ownership’ seems inseparable from the other. Hermione Lee has faithfully travelled with Wharton on her many voyages, but I can’t help wondering if she was not sometimes tempted to jump ship.