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Edith Wharton

January 24 is the birthday of novelist Edith Wharton, born Edith Newbold Jones in New York City in1862.  She belonged to an aristocratic ship-owning and real-estate family, well connected to New York's high society.  She was educated privately by European governesses, and she spent most of her time reading books. 

Young Mistress Wharton wrote her first novel when she was 11 years old.  "It was on a bright day of midwinter, in New York," she wrote.  "The little girl who eventually became me, but as yet was neither me nor anybody else in particular, but merely a soft anonymous morsel of humanity—this little girl, who bore my name, was going for a walk with her the birth of her identity from that day...It was always an event in the little girl's life to take a walk with her father, and more particularly so today, because she had on her new winter bonnet...The little girl and her father walked up Fifth Avenue...On Sundays after church the fashionable of various denominations paraded there on foot, in gathered satin bonnets and tall hats."

Wharton was not close to her mother, who taught her that lying was a sin, at the same time punishing her for telling the truth.  The contradiction puzzled Wharton for most of her life.  The characters about whom she wrote often could not reveal the truth about themselves because of societal strictures and mores. 

In 1885, Edith Jones married Edward Wharton, a Boston banker, who was twelve years her senior.  It was a marriage of convenience, lacking any passion.  Wharton's melding her role as a wife with social responsibilities and a writer eventually led to a nervous breakdown.  Her husband, too, suffered from mental illness, and it is rumored that Wharton loved another man, Walter Berry, whose large photo she kept on her mantelpiece next to that of her husband.

Wharton's first published book, The Decoration of Houses, appeared in 1897.  By then, her husband had begun spending money on younger women as his mental instability grew.  In 1906, Edith Wharton began a three-year affair with American journalist Morton Fullerton, whom she called the great love of her life.  But even this led to frustration.  In her letters to Fullerton, published in The Letters of Edith Wharton (1988), she confessed to having her feelings hurt whenever Fullerton toyed with her emotions.  "...didn't you see how my heart broke with the thought that, if I had been younger & prettier, everything might have been different.''

The Whartons began spending time in Europe around 1906.  Although Wharton maintained a residence in the U.S. after her divorce in 1913, she continued to live in France, where she spent the rest of her life.  She became a literary hostess to young writers at her Paris apartment, as well as at her garden home in the south of France.  She numbered among her friends Henry James, Walter Berry, and Bernard Berenson, with whom she traveled through Germany in 1913.  Berenson later told his wife, Mary, that when he had dinner with Edith in a hotel, she "eyed a young man at a neighboring table and said: 'When I see such a type my first thought is how to put him into my next novel.'"

During World War I, Wharton wrote reports for American newspapers.  She assisted in organizing the American Hostel for Refugees, as well as the Children of Flanders Rescue Committee, taking charge of 600 Belgian children who had to leave their orphanage at the time of the German advance. 

She was also active in fund-raising activities, participating in the production of an illustrated anthology of war writings by prominent authors and artists of the period.  Wharton's novella, The Marne (1918), criticized America's slowness in coming to France's war-time aid.  Her last visit to the States was in 1923.  Although centered in France, Wharton gave most of her novels American settings.

The works she is most remembered for are not surprisingly about frustrated love—Ethan Frome (1911) and The Age of Innocence (1920), for which she became the first woman ever to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1921.  The story describes the frustrated love of a New York lawyer, Newland Archer, for an unconventional artist, Ellen Olenska, the separated wife of a dissolute Polish count.  Wharton contrasts the manners of the New World with those of Old Europe.  In time, Archer marries his calculating fiancée, May, who represents 19th-century domestic virtues.  Archer's decision belies the novel's theme that individual happiness is secondary to the continuation of the prevailing culture.  The book was made into a 1993 film by director Martin Scorsese.

Wharton enjoyed patronizing the arts nearly as much as she did famous artists.  In a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald, she wrote, "To your generation, I must represent the literary equivalent of tufted furniture and gas chandeliers."  She invited Fitzgerald to a tea party in Paris soon after The Great Gatsby (1925) was published.  The meeting has become legendary.  In one version of the story, Fitzgerald arrived drunk, and after a few minutes of sipping tea, stood up and told a tale about an American couple who mistakenly stayed at a Paris bordello, thinking it was a hotel.  Fitzgerald stopped in the middle of the story to see if his hostess was shocked.  Wharton casually refilled his teacup, commenting, "But, Mr. Fitzgerald, you haven't told us what they did in the bordello."

Edith Wharton died in France, St.-Brice-sous-Forêt, on August 11, 1937.

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