1.) Living Large
This huge biography suits a huge life that was constantly busy and energetic. Edith Wharton seems to have thrown herself heart and soul into everything she turned her attention to, which was a lot. She not only wrote novels and scores of short stories, she was a brilliant designer and gardener who made everyone of her homes a work of art, a tireless worker for the French war effort, an extraordinary traveler who went everywhere, and a writer of limitless curiosity and energy who seemed to write enthusiastically and brilliantly almost up to her very last days, until she could literally write nothing else. Lee's biography weighs in at 762 pages of text, and all but a very few are worthy. There are times she seems a little protective, but she doesn’t avoid anything troubling or try to defend the indefensible. She aims for total completion and total fairness and succeeds admirably.
This is a noble effort at not just tidying up Wharton's grave, but seeing her life’s work in perspective.
Beyond either, I found both Wharton and Lee inspirational, if only because both of them worked so hard and so well, and I found myself greatly admiring the achievement of either. I had a similar feeling when I finished Brian Boyd's work on Nabokov and Richard Ellmann's on Joyce.
2.) Henry James
Henry James was the sun of Wharton's literary society, as he was to many others. He is surrounded by many admiring young men, some homosexual, some not, a lot of them writers who either try to ape his style or have found he exerts enormous influence over their fiction. One, Percy Lubbock, wrote a 1925 novel, The Region Cloud, about a great artist "as a powerful vampire, who needed young admirers to feed his incredible egotism."
With Wharton the artistic relationship is mutual and complicated. Both had a lot in common, as both were cosmopolitan virtually from birth, and traveled together most of their adult lives. He writes about her in "The Velvet Glove," she writes about him in "The Legend." Lee also points out that The Age of Innocence, which James wasn't alive to read, bears an outright homage to James in the name of the character Newland Archer, which conflates both Christopher Newland (The American) and Isabel Archer (Portrait of a Lady). (Never thought of it before, but that just can't be unintentional, can it?)
Lee suggests heavily that just as no account of Wharton is complete without comparing her to her friend Henry James, it is likewise possible that she influenced him, that her Italian Backgrounds may well have influenced his Italian Hours.
3.) Regarding Henry
I have Henry James to thank for my own love of the novels of Edith Wharton.
Last summer, I undertook one of those crazy reading plans no one ever completes: I decided I would go through all of Henry James, thereby filling in one of the great black holes in my reading life, and I would start at the beginning. I didn't get very far: James is a very fusty companion unless you're one of the truly committed, and at any rate not the kind of writer I found I could consume in huge doses, even before he entered the modernist master phase which so many people (Wharton included, as well as Woolf) take such delight in hating or ridiculing.
The five novels I read were all from his early years, and they often seemed to me overly-restrained and cautious and in some cases dull (like Roderick Hudson -- an endless wrangle on art vs. life that never seemed to me all that illuminating.) Two of the novels, The American and The Europeans, were fairly lively cross-cultural match-ups.
Somewhere during Confidence -- which I liked more than I expected -- I decided to take a break from Henry but stay in the same general era. Edith Wharton, whose four presumably best novels had recently arrived in the mail from Library of America, seemed a safe bet, since she wrote largely about the same class of people.
The difference was immediate and dramatic. The word that comes to mind is "engaging." Where James' novels were sterile and self-conscious, Wharton's bolted off the page. Where James' characters spent an awful lot of time in their own heads, Wharton's people were more involved with each other, and their struggles were both lively and sad. All of them had a sense of place that I can only describe as Proustian, which makes sense, because Wharton not only admired Proust but she something of an American counterpart, at least on a social level. Both wrote about people trapped in high society -- Charles Swann would not have been out of place in Wharton's world -- and both have a unique sense of place, with clothing, furniture, drapes, portraits, dinner parties, gardens and opera-houses all rendered with a vivid sense of detail. Both capture a certain style of living, not only in things, but in the pace of life. They know what it looks like to be rich, and what it feels like.
4.) Morton Fullerton
Among other things, Lee's book is about how Wharton's art and life were shaped by relationships with men. Women, too, but mostly men, not only Henry James but her husband Teddy -- a bore, a boor, a dullard, a spendthrift, and mentally ill -- and men like Bernard Berenson, who may have been her lover, Andre Gide, who most certainly wasn't, the businessman Walter Berry, who was her best friend, through and through, and people with names like Ogden Codman and Egerton Winthrop that sound like they could have come from her books.
There's also the journalist Morton Fullerton, with whom Wharton engaged in an affair at the ripe old age of 46. He's the fullest supporting character in the book and one of those great minor figures -- like Leigh Hunt with the Romantics -- who is remembered more for the famous people he knew, inspired, slept with or pestered.
Fullerton is a real piece of work. He had many women and maybe some men; even James apparently loved him, although James' private life has always been rather inscrutable.
(James and Wharton were both great burners of private correspondence -- although he was more successful at it than she was, evidently, as the quotes below attest. At some level, Lee's biography is also about the letters that escaped Wharton's flame -- Fullerton, despite many requests, never returned Wharton's old letters to him -- and what's hidden beneath the public image she wished to present. Wharton burned his letters to her, so all we have is her voice -- a one-sided conversation that nonetheless yields fascinating clues about her own sense of desperation and need.)
Fullerton was a "double-dealing" and very promiscuous lover who had a great deal more experience with sexual escapades than Wharton ever had or would -- among them a "quasi-incestuous" relationship with his cousin, Katherine, whom he referred to as his "sister," and who was deeply in love with him. Fullerton keeps his dance card full with both Edith and Katherine; the triad is well-represented in a single issue of Scribner's magazine: story by Wharton, article by Fullerton, story by Katherine about a wife who hates her husband so much she plans to have him murdered.
Wharton, I gather from the bio, has a tendency to withhold a bit of her own real life in her art; reminiscent of that comment of Eliot's that art is as much an escape from the self as an expression of it. (I think those are actually more my words than his. Anyway.) Wharton fears giving too much of her heart to Fullerton; she speaks in letters of having felt "the pang...of what heart-broken women feel" -- and she's less-than-successful at keeping it at the pang level. She speaks of "tormented days" "when in your absence I long. I ache for you. I feel that what I want is to be in your arms, to be held fast there -- `like other women!' And then comes the terrible realization of the fugitiveness of it all ..."
It is because she had a heated affair with Fullerton -- and both Fullerton's own later testimony and Wharton's unpublished erotic poem "Terminus" suggest she was a real wildcat in bed -- that her dull, sedate, numbing but heretofore tolerable life with Teddy becomes unbearable: "...the natural solitude I came back to has become terrible."
At the risk of cheap psychoanalysis, there seems to be a kind of power struggle between Wharton and Fullerton; she’s the better, more popular writer, while he is the world-class Casanova who could “make her subservient to him emotionally.” He wasn’t about to make any kind of commitment to Wharton, and when her marriage finally hit the rocks, he made himself scarce (although they somewhat patched things up later)
The affair did seem to have one thing going for it: it gave her fiction something on which to feed. Lee tends to go back and forth on giving Fullerton too much credit in this regard; she's understandably wary of trivializing Wharton. Still, there is The Reef, written in the thick of their affair, in which the widow Anna Heath finds her fiance has had a previous affair with a young woman, Sophie Viner; the book can arguably be read with Wharton in either role, as it explores the joy of feeling young again, like Sophie, and of feeling old, of being left for someone younger. Ethan Frome dates from this period, too, the classic story of a pitiful stoic New England loser, waiting for his wife to die so he can marry Mattie Silver. So does Custom of the Country, Wharton's divorce novel.Hard not to connect the dots, even if you're not inclined to the human interest angle.
3.) Wharton's life was her art
... and the relation between the two is made over and over.
Although Lee never mentions whether Wharton knew her near-contemporary William Morris, she's a lot like him. Both seized on this idea of making your home and yard an expression of yourself; make it a work of art, don't just live in it. Reading about her extensive work on interior decoration and architecture and flower-planting made me, if nothing else, want to clean up my damn yard.
Gardens and flowers and home decoration were to her as butterflies are to Nabokov; her life -- in-between parties, trips, and endless writing -- was a series of extreme makeovers and full-scale landscaping, all of which Lee addresses in minute detail.
“She thought her gardens were better than her books,” says someone. The terraces at her French home Ste-Claire are described as “opulent, theatrical and intense.” Another expert says her garden “displayed all the energy and forthrightness that had made her novels so popular.” Another says the garden is impossible to describe and doubted even Wharton would try: “It would be telling something too intimate, for her garden is somehow an image of her spirit, of her inmost self.”
Lee writes that the "same mighty energies, appetite for planning, eye for detail and cogent vision went into her gardening as into her writing of fiction, and as they had into her war activities and her travels.”
This is, also, surely the only literary biography I’ve ever read where a winter frost is described as “catastrophic.”
4.) Lee's criticism
I love Lee as a critic, and her readings of Wharton are exhilarating if you've read the work in question and enticing if you haven't. In The House of Mirth, "Wharton traps Lily [Bart] inside the novel's metaphors."
In The Age of Innocence, Lee finds evidence of Wharton's own deeply anti-isolationist political stance: “The whole novel has exposed the damaging limitations of a inward-looking, defensive and parochial American history, which Newland’s love for Ellen made him struggle to reach beyond.” The novel “presents an America which defines itself against Europe, but is also in thrall to it.” Lee is also very good at detailing the way Age of Innocence captures rapid social change in very subtle ways. to read it, she writes, is like “being confined in the past with the characters, and watching them from the distant future.”
I don't, however, quite agree with Lee that Custom of the Country is Wharton’s greatest book, and the idea that Undine Spragg stands for the U.S. I find a bit of a reach.
5.) My French Problem
Lee is extremely inconsistent when it comes to quoting French, which she tends to translate at her whim: two-word phrases, yes, long paragraphs, no. Wharton says in "The Verdict" that when it comes to speaking in a foreign language, "one says, half the time, not what one wants to, but what one can." The French quotes in the book will likely be read the same way.