Monday, January 24, 2011

Virago Reading Week: Edith Wharton's Birthday

Today marks the beginning of Virago Reading Week hosted by Rachel and Carolyn.  It is also Edith Wharton's birthday. Do you suppose this is purely coincidence?  I think not, and give full credit to our gracious hostesses.  This article from today's Writer's Almanac seemed the perfect way to start the week.

It's the birthday of the writer who said, "Life is always a tightrope or a feather bed. Give me the tightrope." That's Edith Wharton, (books by this author) born in New York City (1862). She wrote about frustrated love in novels like The House of Mirth (1905), Ethan Frome (1911), and The Age of Innocence (1920), for which she became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize.

She came from a rich and snobbish New York family who lived off the inheritance of their real estate and banking tycoon ancestors, and she spent several years of her early childhood traveling around Europe. When she was 10, her parents re-settled in New York, around 23rd and Park Avenue. She was a teenage bookworm, reading insatiably from her family's expansive library and feeling alienated and adrift in the New York high-society circles her family moved in. At 23, she married a family friend, a classy, good-looking sportsman named Edward "Teddy" Robbins Wharton, who wasn't particularly fond of books. He had a tendency for manic spells, extravagant spending sprees, and infidelity. It was a long and miserable marriage.

She met Henry James in Europe and became good friends with him. He encouraged her to write about the New York City she knew so well and disliked. He said, "Don't pass it by — the immediate, the real, the only, the yours." And it was Henry James who introduced her to his friend Morton Fullerton, a dashing, promiscuous, intellectual American expat journalist who reported for the London Times from Paris. Edith Wharton fell hard for the man, filled her diary with passages about how their romance and conversation made her feel complete, wrote him pleading letters, and about a year into their affair, when she was in her late 40s, moved full-time to Paris, where he resided. The affair ended in 1911, the year she published Ethan Frome. She once wrote to him:

"Do you know what I was thinking last night, when you asked me, &; I couldn't tell you? — Only that the way you've spent your emotional life while I've ... hoarded mine, is what puts the great gulf between us, & sets us not only on opposite shores, but at hopelessly distant points of our respective shores. Do you see what I mean?

"And I'm so afraid that the treasures I long to unpack for you, that have come to me in magic ships from enchanted islands, are only, to you, the old familiar red calico & beads of the clever trader, who has had dealing with every latitude, & knows just what to carry in the hold to please the simple native — I'm so afraid of this, that often & often I stuff my shining treasures back into their box, lest I should see you smiling at them!

"Well! And what if you do? It's your loss, after all! And if you can't come into the room without my feeling all over me a ripple of flame, & if, wherever you touch me, a heart beats under your touch, & if, when you hold me, & I don't speak, it's because all the words in me seem to have become throbbing pulses, & all my thoughts are a great golden blur — why should I be afraid of your smiling at me, when I can turn the beads & calico back into such beauty —?"

He left her in 1911, and she stayed married to Teddy for a couple more years, though the two lived apart from each other during the last part of their 28-year marriage. She loved living in Paris, and there she mingled with people like André Gide, Jean Cocteau, Theodore Roosevelt, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, whom she once told: "To your generation, I must represent the literary equivalent of tufted furniture and gas chandeliers." But she wasn't prim or overly proper, and she famously enjoyed one of Fitzgerald's scandalous stories, about an American couple in a Paris brothel, which he drunkenly related the first time he met her.

Modernist writers were among her contemporaries, but she didn't use modernist techniques like stream-of-consciousness in her own writing, and she wasn't a fan of it in others'. She once said about James Joyce's Ulysses (1922), "Until the raw ingredients of a pudding make a pudding, I shall never believe that the raw material of sensation and thought can make a work of art without the cook's intervening."

She died in Paris at the age of 75. At the time of her death, she was working on a novel called The Buccaneers, about five rich American girls who set out to marry landed British men, so that they can have English feudal titles in their names, like "Duchess." In her last days, she lay in bed and worked on the novel, and each page that she completed she dropped onto the floor so that it could be collected later, when she was through.

Many of her novels have been made into movies. The House of Mirth, The Glimpses of the Moon, and The Age of Innocence were all adapted into silent films around the 1920s. John Madden directed a version of Ethan Frome in 1993, the same year Martin Scorsese directed a film adaptation of The Age of Innocence. In 2000, Gillian Anderson stared in The House of Mirth, directed by Terence Davies.

In her short story "The Fullness of Life" she famously wrote:
"You have hit upon the exact word; I was fond of him, yes, just as I was fond of my grandmother, and the house that I was born in, and my old nurse. Oh, I was fond of him, and we were counted a very happy couple. But I have sometimes thought that a woman's nature is like a great house full of rooms: there is the hall, through which everyone passes in going in and out; the drawing room, where one receives formal visits; the sitting-room, where the members of the family come and go as they list; but beyond that, far beyond, are other rooms, the handles of whose doors perhaps are never turned; no one knows the way to them, no one knows whither they lead; and in the innermost room, the holy of holies, the soul sits alone and waits for a footstep that never comes."
"And your husband," asked the Spirit, after a pause, "never got beyond the family sitting-room?"
"Never," she returned, impatiently; "and the worst of it was that he was quite content to remain there. He thought it perfectly beautiful, and sometimes, when he was admiring its commonplace furniture, insignificant as the chairs and tables of a hotel parlor, I felt like crying out to him: 'Fool, will you never guess that close at hand are rooms full of treasures and wonders, such as the eye of man hath not seen, rooms that no step has crossed, but that might be yours to live in, could you but find the handle of the door?'"

And Edith Wharton said, "There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that receives it."


  1. What a good coincidence! Maybe I'll get out The house of mirth tonight...

  2. Oh that was beautiful! And those letters...

    My reader's heart belongs to English authors but I do admire Wharton's work.

  3. Wow! What a wonderful post. I have yet to read Wharton but was captivated by a recent BBC radio play based on 'The Custom of the Country'.

    Thank you for visiting my blog! I hope you get to read some Elizabeth Taylor. My favourites so far are 'In a Summer Season' and 'A Game of Hide and Seek', the latter of which is available in a gorgeous VMC hardback.

  4. Great post! Wharton is one of my favorites and maybe this will inspire me to read another of her books this week. I also have House of Mirth checked out from the library and I was planning on watching it today, which I find somehow serendipitous.

  5. That quote about women send a shiver down my spine. What a spectacular woman Wharton was. Thank you for posting this, JoAnn, and for mentioning Virago Reading Week. You give us FAR too much credit...I had no idea it was Edith Wharton's birthday, but it's a marvellous coincidence nonetheless! I am hoping to get time to start another Wharton this week but we'll see.

  6. I only recently started reading Edith Wharton. She is wonderful.

    I believe I have a couple of Virago editions on my TBR shelf....

  7. I have never cared much about reading Edith Wharton until now. Now I want to discover the woman who lived such a life as you've described here. Thank you, JoAnn.

    By the way, I am reading a couple of Viragos this week, again, thanks to you.

  8. I didn't know it was Edith Wharton's birthday either, so it's just a lucky coincidence! But thanks for bringing it up, perhaps now I'll read another of her books this week. (or Rosamond Lehmann or Elizabeth Taylor...)

  9. I had no idea it was her birthday, and my post today was on Ethan Frome. Cue Twilight Zone music.

  10. Verity - I hope you do... it's a great book!

    Darlene - Wharton holds a special place in my heart, too... especially since our visit to The Mount a few years ago.

    Rochester Reader - The Custom of the Country is actually my favorite Wharton. I had no idea there was a play. I'll have to look for it. Will read Elizabeth Taylor soon...

    Karenlibrarian - Wharton is one of my favorites, but I have never seen any movie adaptations. Will need to take care of that soon (right after I'm done with the old Julia Child shows).

    Rachel - Take the credit anyway! Will you get a chance to visit The Mount while you are here? I wonder if I could meet you at the train in Albany and drive you there... maybe when my daughter finishes her term in London. I'm sure you two would have a lot to talk about!

    C.B. James - Wharton is one of my favorites. Go look for those Viragos on your shelf!

    Margot - I'm so glad you are reading Viragos this week! I really love Wharton's writing - her short stories may be a good place to start

    Carolyn - Coincidence or not, I'm giving you and Rachel full credit!

    Softdrink - I saw the post in my reader (haven't read it yet), but I'll give you full credit for planning it that way , too!

  11. Edith Wharton is on my list to read this year. Can you believe I call myself a book lover and I've never read her!

  12. I've enjoyed the books that I've read by her!

  13. Christina - Hope you get to read Wharton in 2011.

    Staci - I've enjoyed all the books I've read by her, too. The Custom of the Country is my favorite so far!

  14. This is a great post! Edith Wharton has long been one of my favorite authors. I love her sense of humor and her eye. Shortly after law school and before I started working I read many of her books and enjoyed so many of them. I am hoping this year to reread a few and read some I didn't have a chance to read.

  15. Amy - Wharton is one of my favorites, too. I still haven't read The Age of Innocence though... and that is supposed to be her masterpiece. Last year I read Summer and followed it with a reread of Ethan Frome. The Custom of the Country is my favorite.


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