Edith Wharton was born on January 24, 1862 in New York City
, New York. A famous novelist
and social critic
, she was the third child
and only daughter of George Frederic Jones
and Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander
. Born Edith Newbold Jones, her family
was comprised largely of wealthy
s who were instrumental in the early establishment of New York City social circles. From this early prestige
gained by the family, George Jones was able to acquire property in Manhattan
and lived off of those real estate
When Edith was born, her mother Lucretia was almost thirty-seven years old. The pregnancy was a surprise and possibly unwanted. Lucretia was at the time a prominent society matron, having raised two sons to the ages of sixteen and twelve. Early in life, Edith was cared for by an Irish nurse, but later was educated by tutors led by a German governess, Anna Bahlmann, who would later become her secretary. Due to the large age gap between her and her older brothers, Edith was raised in a similar fashion to many only children; she was indulged constantly by her wealthy parents, who maintained a large amount of influence over her in this and later periods of her life. Due to this overprotection, she retreated into the world of her imagination, feeling often times alienated and lonely.
"All the people I have known who have cared for 'les choses de l'esprit' [things of the mind] have found some degree of sympathy & companionship either in their families or among their youthful friends. But I never exchanged a word with a really intelligent human being until I was over twenty." 1
In this early part of her life, Edith developed her unusual intelligence by imagining a rich world of highly critical and observational stories about her surrounding society, her parents and their friends becoming the central characters. Her literary interests were not supported by members of her mother's social circles, and Lucretia expressed her dissaproval of what she saw as an impractical use of Edith's time. Edith quickly learned to conceal her writing efforts from those around her, working in secret while performing her social duties in the open.
Edith's father, however, was very supportive of her work. When she was six, George taught her how to read, giving her access to his private library in order to allow her to read more. George was not a lover of novels, and his library contained volumes on art, archaeology, history and poetry. Edith immersed herself in them. Lucretia, who only read novels and works on horticulture, censored Edith's reading material, asking that any book that Edith desired to read had to be approved first.
Despite these early restrictions placed on the girl, Edith continued to develop her keen observational abilities and talents in writing. In 1873, when she was eleven, she began to compose a work of social criticism, which would later become her strength as a writer. In 1878, when Edith was sixteen, George had a small volume of Edith's poetry printed called Verses. Encouraged by this publication, Edith had more of her works printed in the New York World and in William Dean Howell's The Atlantic Monthly. Most of these were printed under pseudonyms, probably because of possible disapproval at such literary efforts, since this was also the year of Edith's coming-out into New York society in 1879.
In secret, Edith also wrote her first major work: a thirty thousand word novella called Fast and Loose. Oddly enough, she had never read a novel before writing one due to her mother's censorship. It was a story filled with dramatic questions of love, the sort of work that her mother would have sharply disapproved of. Again written under a pseudonym, Edith showed it to her friend Emelyn Washburn. Upon reading it, Emelyn exposed her to more literature, such as the work of Dante and many of the Anglo-Saxon poets.
In 1882, Edith's father died. Lucretia retreated from her stressful social life and clung fiercely to Edith in the wake of his death. Several years later, Edith's brother Frederic was divorced in a controversial lawsuit that threatened the family's social position. Lucretia left New York City with Frederic and lived in Paris with him until she died in 1901 after a three-year long sickness.
Previous to the death of her parents, Edith began to expand her social connections, her sister-in-law Mary Cadwalader Janes introducing her to Henry Leyden Stevens. Rumors began to circulate about a possible engagement between the two. They weren't engaged, although Henry stayed with the family through Edith's father's illness and death and upon their return to New York City, Henry's mother officially announced the engagement of the couple. The "engagement" was broken soon after, and though the reasons behind the whole affair remain ambiguous for it, Edith was made to bear the responsibility for it. This was due mostly to the supposed impropriety in her writing. After the scandal broke, Lucretia brought Edith back to Europe with her. Upon Edith's return, she grudgingly returned to the social circles in which she was so harshly ridiculed. Because of this, her confidence in her writing began to falter.
The summer after her return, she went to visit her brother's family in Bar Harbor. It was then that she would meet her future husband, Edward Robbins Wharton of Boston. He was friendly towards Edith, and she quickly grew comfortable around him. Also vying for her attentions was the Columbia Law School student, Walter Van Rensselaer Berry, whom she would later regret as the love of her life. She maintained a close friendship with him, yet it was she who shunned his attempts to court her. Edward Wharton was hearily approved of by Edith's mother, and their two year courtship ended in their marriage in April of 1885. They moved into Pencraig Cottage, a small place on Lucretia's estate in Newport.
Though her relations with her mother were still strained, being compounded by their close proximity after Edith's marriage, her confidence in her writing began to grow once again. During these years, Edith's most influential mentors were Edward L. Burlingame and William Crary Brownell, her editors at Scribner's Magazine, Walter Berry, by then an attorney in Washington D.C., and Charles Eliot Norton, a retired professor of fine art at Harvard University. With this support, Edith began to work harder at her writing. In 1893, she met the French writer Paul Bourget, who helped her translate her work and gain a greater international audience for The House of Mirth, which was published in France as Les Heureux du monde in 1907. Also during this time, Edith became acquainted with the novelist Henry James, who helped her revise her work The Valley of Decision and discussed many aspects of her writing style with her in subsequent years. Her writing is still often compared with his today.
In 1909, Edith's husband stole 50,000 dollars from his wife's trust fund in order to purchase a house in Boston where he put up his mistress. This, along with severe mood swings (he was manic depressive) which resulted in verbal abuse of Edith led her to divorce him after twenty-eight years of marriage. Despite this personal setback, Edith's royalties from The House of Mirth allowed her to create a new life abroad, and allowed her a new existence of economic and personal freedom which was uncommon to many women of the time. Edith flourished, becoming even more intellectually independent, a woman who was reasonable and who had deep insight into the moral aspects of her life and those of the people around her.
For years after her divorce, Edith continued to publish actively. She addressed many controversial subjects in her later writing. This period of her life bordered on overwork, and her fierce dependence on the publishing market proved to be her downfall: the 1929 stock market crash was devastating for her. In the spring following it, she suffered her first of several strokes. The real estate market in New York crumbled as well, and her health deteriorated along with her economic stability. Attempting to keep up with her losses, she still wrote, and created some successful works despite what she was suffering through. As she kept losing control of her estate, however, she eventually handed over the tremendous burdens of her financial responsibilities to her longtime friends. Soon after, she died of a stroke on August 11, 1937.
Best Known Works:
Edith Wharton's work is best remembered for it's sharply critical analysis of the empty traditions and facades of her surrounding society. She was especially concerned with the restrictive roles reserved for women that led to an excessive superficial attitude and a loss of genuine personality. She believed that the family unit was the central unit of society, and all conventions rested on the relations within that unit. This is a reoccuring theme throughout most of her work, and many of her heroines suffer through unhappy marriages or unpleasant family circumstances.
"What is one's personality, detached from that of friends with whom fate happens to have linked one? I can not think of myself a part from the influence of two or three of the greatest friendships in my life, and any account of my own growth must be that of their stimulating and enlightening influence."
- Edith Wharton
1 Edith Wharton. "Life and I." pp. 1082-83, 1089
http://www.empirezine.com/spotlight/wharton/wharton1.htm (end quotation)
http://www.geocities.com/EnchantedForest/6741/listofworks.html (list of works)
"Biographical and Historical Contexts." The House of Mirth. Edith Wharton. Ed. Shari Benstock.