The interesting life of a classic American novelist
In his Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives, John Sutherland calls Edith Wharton’s life ‘fascinating’. It certainly is. The novelist best-known for The Age of Innocence led an interesting life, and in this very short biography we aim to cover the most curious aspects of Edith Wharton’s life and work.
Edith Wharton was born Edith Jones in 1862, into the ‘leisure class’ of New York. As Karen Farrington observes in her compelling book of short biographies Great Lives: As heard on Radio 4, Wharton ‘wasn’t so much born with a silver spoon in her mouth as the entire cutlery set.’ She didn’t write to survive; money was never going to be an issue. She spent much of her childhood outside of the United States, travelling around Europe. She was tutored at home and then continued her education herself, with the help of libraries.
She had become a published writer by the tender age of 16, when a book of her poems appeared, its publication funded by her mother. Yet she would not publish her first novel until she was 40, in 1902. (A non-fiction work on interior design, The Decoration of Houses, had been published in 1897, co-authored with an architect.)
The breakthrough came in 1905 with The House of Mirth; Ethan Frome followed in 1911 and The Age of Innocence, her most famous novel, in 1920. It won her the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The awards continued: in 1923, she became the first woman ever to be awarded an honorary doctorate from Yale, and in 1930, the first woman to be honoured with a gold medal from the American Institute for Arts and Letters. Wharton’s fiction, which exposes the emptiness and cruelty at the heart of American society among the rich and comfortable, is sometimes associated with modernism, and certainly she has been likened to Henry James (whom she knew), whose work is also linked with American modernist fiction.
Edith Wharton’s life was marked by unhappy relationships: her unrequited lifelong love for Walter Berry, a lawyer; her unhappy marriage to Edward Robbins ‘Teddy’ Wharton, who would later go mad; and her extramarital affair with an American journalist, Morton Fullerton. Her marriage to Teddy fell apart when it emerged that he had embezzled his wife’s money to fund a love nest for his mistress. Writing novels, it seems, was Edith Wharton’s way of coming to terms with the disappointments of her life.
During the First World War, Wharton’s relief work in France earned her the Légion d’Honneur. After the Armistice in 1918, Wharton spent much of the remaining two decades of her life in France, returning to the US only once more before her death in 1937. She thought the key to life was striving to be ‘happy in small ways’. She has certainly made many readers happy.
We hope you found this very short biography of Edith Wharton helpful; if you’d like to discover more about her life, we recommend Dame Hermione Lee’s extensive biography, Edith Wharton.
Image: Picture of Edith Wharton, by Francis W. Halsey (1851-1919), copyright 1919, The Literary History of the World War, Volume III. Via Wikimedia Commons.