By Viola van de Sandt
Edith Wharton’s most famous novels – among them The House of Mirth (1905), Ethan Frome (1911), and The Age of Innocence (1920) – have earned her a steadfast place within the modern-day canon of American literature. Yet some of the most interesting and provocative instances of her writing are also to be found in her letters, notes, and memoirs.
1. Wharton noted down every witty statement that came to her mind in a book of epigrams, some of which eventually found their way into her novels or short stories. Among them are classic quotes such as ‘For always getting what she wants in the long run, commend me to a nasty woman,’ and ‘Mr and Mrs Wetherall’s circle was so large that God was included in their visiting-list.’
2. The House of Mirth caused a huge scandal at the time of its serial publication between January and November 1905. Upper-class New Yorkers saw that its subject matter came very close to home indeed, and that its truthfulness could bring about the exposure of their world. When the book was published in October, the publishing house made matters worse by including a wrapper with each copy that read ‘For the first time the veil has been lifted from New York Society.’ Wharton demanded the wrapper be removed at once, and received a penitent reply from her publishing house, which apologised for the ‘somewhat exotic spirit of enterprise’ that had momentarily overtaken the company.
3. Like Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton was not very enthusiastic about James Joyce’s Ulysses. In a letter of 1923, she calls it ‘a turgid welter of pornography (the rudest schoolboy kind) & unformed & unimportant drivel; & until the raw ingredients of a pudding make a pudding, I shall never believe that the raw material of sensation & thought can make a work of art without the cook’s intervening.’ For more about Woolf’s attitudes to Ulysses, see my previous post on five fascinating facts about Virginia Woolf.
4. In her memoir, Wharton recalls writing her first piece of fiction and reading it to her mother. ‘“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.”’ Her mother’s response, which was was to observe that ladies’ ‘drawing rooms are always tidy,’ temporarily quashed her ambition to write fiction.
5. Although she’d often scorned, criticised and ridiculed ‘Old New York’ society in her novels, at the end of the First World War, while living in France, she seemed also to long for the world in which she had grown up and which had, amidst rapid social change, slowly evaporated. As she wrote to a friend: ‘I am steeping myself in the nineteenth century . . . such a blessed relief from the turmoil and mediocrity of today – like taking a sanctuary in a mighty temple.’
6. Similarly, she did not regard the critics who reviewed her works as particularly intelligent. When they praised her skills in Ethan Frome, she wrote to a friend: ‘They don’t know why it’s good, but they are right: it is.’
7. Henry James, with whom Wharton was good friends, burnt most of her letters to him, while many of his to her survive. ‘This can be painfully tantalising,’ says her biographer Hermione Lee in a lecture on Wharton in 2012, ‘as when his letters to her begin: “Very beautiful and wonderful, very splendid and interesting your letter”, or “The facts you communicate are surpassed in interest only by their dreadfulness.”’
Viola van de Sandt is a postgraduate student in English literature at King’s College, London. She loves writing about women in English and American novels, and does exactly that on her own blog, “Broken Glass”.
Image: Edith Wharton, 1915 via EN-Wikipedia, published by user Jacques Delson, public domain.