Edith Wharton: a magnificent and subtle writer

From The Telegraph:

Edith Wharton (January 24, 1862- August 11, 1937) won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence. She was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature three times. In this article, originally published in 2007, Caroline Moore reviews Edith Wharton by Hermione Lee.

Edithwharton-large_trans++eo_i_u9APj8RuoebjoAHt0k9u7HhRJvuo-ZLenGRumA“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money”; a woman who does so is doubly open to ridicule. As Hermione Lee shows in this excellent biography, the reputation of the novelist Edith Wharton – a magnificently subtle, passionate and constantly surprising writer – has suffered unfairly, merely because she was born near the top of what she called the 'small, slippery pyramid' of society. She was born in 1862: her father, George, was a Jones. This may not sound distinguished; but, as Edith caustically remarked, in New York the Jones family had “for generations, in a most distinguished way… done nothing whatever remarkable”. Her relations gave rise to the phrase 'keeping up with the Joneses'; but that did nothing to help the aspirations of an un-pretty, unfashionably red-headed little girl who was born to be remarkable. Almost symbolically, Edith's red hair remained defiantly unfaded until her dying day. Her mother, Lucretia, was cold, disapproving and, according to her daughter, distrusted writers with”the sort of diffidence which, thank heaven, no psychoanalyst had yet arisen to call a complex”.

Edith, in accordance with the customs of her class, was forbidden to read any novels, until 'the day of my marriage'. Yet, as a child, she was a natural, even compulsive writer, 'making up' incessantly – a solitary, ritualistic, obsessive activity. Her first literary efforts were quelled. Aged 11, she showed her mother a story which began, ' “Oh, how do you, Mrs Brown?” said Mrs Tompkins. “If only I had known you were going to call I should have tidied up the drawing room”.' 'Never shall I forget', Edith wrote bitterly, 'the sudden drop of my creative frenzy when she returned it with the icy comment: “Drawing rooms are always tidy.” '

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