Edith Wharton by Hermione Lee. Knopf. 880 pages. $35.00
In her greatest novels, Edith Wharton sees American capitalism at its most Darwinian and brutal, and she sees it from the inside.
An old money heiress from way back, Wharton knew the allure of the high life from without and its suffocation from within, from the doomed social-climber Lily Bart in The House of Mirth, who yearns for the “empyrean of security” that comes from marrying well, to Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence, whose life could not be more secure, or more vapid. She essayed New York at a time when everyone was at the trough -- fortunate heirs with jobs they don't need, poor boys who make a killing in Wall Street and crash the best parties, aristocratic dinosaurs who find nouveau riche predators moving in next door, middle class families who spend themselves broke trying to keep up -- and it never stopped surprising her or feeding her imagination.
Wharton didn’t just write what she knew, that shopworn advice beloved of creative writing classes everywhere; she wrote what interested her, and as Hermione Lee demonstrates in this extraordinary new biography, she mastered her interests to the nth degree. Well before and after she became a first-class novelist, she wrote extensively about interior design, gardening, and travel -- all of which would figure in her brilliantly-detailed novels -- and she was never content to be an amateur. It wasn't enough to just write her impressions of a place; she had to master the language, history and culture. To write intelligently meant seeing intelligently.
As a writer, her ideas were strictly formalist. Just as a building "must have a reason for being as it is and must be as it is for that reason," novels were the same way, rigidly built along the basis of selected events. In her own fiction, that meant both obscuring the truth of her own life, in many instances, and also subtly revealing it, such as in novels like The Reef, Custom of the Country and Ethan Frome, where Lee finds considerable evidence of both Wharton's own disastrous marriage, and her tumultuous affair with the journalist Morton Fullerton.
If Wharton was a traitor to her class, she was always a member of it, as well as a bit of a caricature who would have easily fit into one of her own books. Virginia Woolf said that a woman writer needed a “room of one’s own”; Wharton had many, in great houses all over the world, all of which she immaculately furnished. She wrote lying in bed, tossing each completed page to the floor, which a servant would gather up for a secretary to type. There was a “sense of entitlement” to Wharton, according to Lee, who compares her to the stuffy society dame played by Margaret Dumont in the Marx Brothers movies. She was haughty, demanding, autocratic, dismissive, anti-Semitic, anti-feminist (despite herself), anti-Socialist, and fiercely anti-modern. You can take the girl out of the caste system, apparently, but you can't take the caste system out of the girl.
Wharton was above all a writer of meticulous prose; in Lee, she has a biographer to match. Her work, like Wharton's novels, is smart and shrewd, sympathetic yet objective. Foregoing the strictly sequential route of most biographies, Lee arranges chapters thematically; facts and events overlap, but it's never repetitious, incoherent and only rarely -- such as in a few instances when the book gets overwhelmed by names, places visited, and wine lists -- less than compelling. She’s also a fantastic critic, who always delivers rich, original and enticing interpretations. She finds The House of Mirth to be a novel about reading: life inside a closed American society where no one reads books, but everyone constantly "reads" the character of Lily Bart. The Age of Innocence, similarly, is “all about being watched. It describes a society of spies and observers, and attempts at secrecy and concealment.”
Lee feeds off Wharton's energy, finding the drama not just in her life but in her mind and in her art. She reads her perfectly.