Thursday, January 24, 2013

Happy birthday, Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton
It is the birthday of writer Edith Wharton (1862), who won the Pulitzer Prize for her 12th novel, The Age of Innocence (1920), in which she questions the values of the Old New York society to which she was born. She was the first woman to receive a Pulitzer. Her earlier novel, The House of Mirth (1905) was a much bolder criticism of upper crust New Yorkers than Innocence, in her opinion. In fact, she considered the later book a sort of apology for the earlier one.

At age 23, she married a Boston aristocrat, Edward Wharton, who was 35. They both loved to travel but had little else in common. For several years, he suffered acute depression and eventually was diagnosed with an incurable mental disorder. They divorced after 28 years of marriage.

Wharton lived at The Mount, an estate she designed and built in Lenox, Massachusetts. She was an avid interior designer and garden designer, and set the standard for tasteful designs of her era. She wrote (with Ogden Codman) The Decoration of Houses (1897) and Italian Villas and Their Gardens (1904). At The Mount, she delighted in  entertaining such literary friends as Sinclair Lewis, Jean Cocteau, and Andre Gide. F. Scott Fitzgerald was another matter. Famously, she invited Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda to tea. Zelda refused to come, so Fitzgerald went with a Wharton family friend, Teddy Chanler. Afterward Wharton wrote in her diary: "To tea, Teddy Chanler and Scott Fitzgerald, the novelist — awful."

She traveled in Europe extensively, at first with her husband, until his mental condition no longer permitted it, then with her close friend, novelist Henry James. In Paris in 1906, James introduced her to Morton Fullerton, a foreign correspondent for The Times of London. They began a three-year affair. It was a closely guarded secret, though some people close to her suspected. Fullerton helped Wharton get her novel The House of Mirth (1905) published in French. After the affair ended, Wharton wrote to Fullerton asking him to destroy her letters. She didn't want a scandal. Fullerton kept the letters, though, and they were published in a book The Letters of Edith Wharton (1988).

Wharton also wrote Ethan Frome (1911), The Reef (1912), The Custom of the Country (1913), Summer (1917), The Marne (1918), Old New York (1924), The Buccaneers (1938). Her first novel, Fast and Loose, which was finished in 1877, was finally published in 1938. Wharton also wrote poetry, non-fiction articles and books and short stories.

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