In her short story “The Fullness of Life,” Edith Wharton wrote that a woman’s life is like “a great house full of rooms,” most of which remain unseen: “and in the innermost room, the holy of holies, the soul sits alone and waits for a footstep that never comes.” In spite of the many books written about Wharton and her work, it is Hermione Lee’s determination to provide an unprecedented tour of all the rooms in Edith Wharton’s mansion.
This is a daunting undertaking: Edith Wharton was formidable, multifaceted, guarded and phenomenally busy. Between 1897 and 1937, the year of her death, she published at least one book a year. Altogether she wrote 48. Her posthumous reputation has suffered somewhat in comparison with that of her friend Henry James (as Lee points out, “to this day it is still rare for a book or an essay or a talk on Wharton not to mention James,” though “this has not worked the other way”), but Wharton is a literary master — or mistress — in her own right. While only a handful of her books are still widely read, her finest fictions — including “The House of Mirth,” “The Custom of the Country,” “Ethan Frome” and “The Age of Innocence” — remain as affecting and engrossing today as when they first appeared (when many of them were best sellers), unsentimental illuminations of America in a time of social transition and rich explorations of the unspoken human heart. Moreover, as Lee’s biography makes clear, Wharton was also significant as a designer, decorator, gardener, traveler and philanthropist, making her prolific literary production but a part of her life’s work.