Who was Edith Wharton? Only the author of over 40 books and the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. In this lesson, we'll explore her life and major novels.
Of Sleds and Lovers
If she never wrote another word, Edith Wharton would be immortalized for giving the world Ethan Frome, a dark novel that's difficult to forget. It's the story of a man, Ethan, in a miserable marriage with a sickly wife, Zeena. It takes place in winter in Starkfield, Massachusetts. Massachusetts, winter, a town called Starkfield - everything about the novel is gloomy. Then the man falls for his wife's cousin, Mattie, who helps take care of Zeena. You know nothing good will happen, and it doesn't.
It ends with about the only thing worse than a dual suicide via a sledding accident - a failed dual suicide via a sledding accident. My first point is that this is a novel worth reading, if only to make you want to avoid winters in Massachusetts (of which I've spent more than a few and don't care to do again). My second, more pertinent point is that this novel alone makes Edith Wharton a great author. Yet it's not her only work, not by a long stretch. Plus, it's really not like most of her other work at all in terms of tone and subject matter. Let's learn more.
Edith Wharton was born in New York City in 1862. Her family descended from colonists and, well, they were old money. How old? Her maiden name was Jones and one story goes that the phrase 'keeping up with the Joneses' refers to her father's family. Growing up, she lived in New York City, New England and Europe. Her New York Times obituary described her childhood thusly: 'As a child she lived within the inner circle of New York society that always thought of itself as spelled with a capital S.'
Rather than consort with the commoners in a school, she was taught by private tutors. Wharton developed a love of literature at an early age, and she began writing stories and poems while very young. She was also very strong in art and architecture.
In 1885, she married Edward Robbins Wharton. This wasn't a happy marriage. While they shared a love of travel in their early years, he descended into a deep depression and his unstable mental state led them to stay at the Mount.
The Mount is an estate that Edith Wharton designed in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts. It's a beautiful place that exhibits Wharton's gift for interior design, garden design and style. It's been mostly restored to its original condition and you can visit it, though note that it's apparently haunted. It inspired several of Wharton's ghost stories.
You can find many of the ideas for the Mount in Wharton's first published work, 'The Decoration of Houses,' which debuted in 1897. Granted, if you're not into late 19th century interior design, you might want to skip this one.
Early Literary Success
As the 20th century began, Wharton continued to write. She published a multitude of short stories and a few novels. In 1905, while at the Mount, she wrote her breakthrough work: The House of Mirth. As much as Wharton was a part of high society, she was also its sharp critic. The House of Mirth exemplifies this. A major theme of the novel is how money both frees us and enslaves us. Wharton seems to suggest that the upper class life is hollow and cruel.
In 1907, Wharton published The Fruit of the Tree. This one's a bit of a mixed bag. It deals with labor issues, romance and the controversial issue of euthanasia. Those are three things you might not think fit together in a book, and many critics agreed. Shortly thereafter, Wharton met Morton Fullterton, a journalist with whom she'd have an affair.
The aforementioned Ethan Frome was published in 1911. Perhaps Ethan's character, the one stuck in the loveless marriage while he pines for another, paralleled Wharton herself. In 1913, she divorced her husband. This prompted her to move permanently to France, which is nothing like Western Massachusetts in winter.
After arriving in France, The Custom of the Country was published. This one critiques high society, though also focuses on satirizing the institution of marriage. The protagonist, Undine Spragg, is an ambitious young woman from the Midwest who arrives in New York to establish herself in high society. She goes through a series of husbands, which was a bit shocking in an age when divorce was a taboo subject. But for Undine, marriage is just a means to an end, with the end being a higher standing and a more comfortable life.
When World War I broke out, Wharton was very active, helping refugees, opening hospitals and even traveling to the front lines. Of course, even a World War couldn't stop Wharton from writing. In 1917, she published Summer . This one's about a young woman in a New England town named Charity.
The daughter of a prostitute, she's stuck in a boring job and is the ward of Mr. Royall, who wants her to marry him. But then she meets and falls for this visitor to the town, Harney. They have an affair and she gets pregnant. Unfortunately, Harney forgot to mention that he's engaged to a woman named Annabel. That's not cool. So Charity, whose only other option is prostitution, reluctantly marries Mr. Royall.
The Age of Innocence
In 1920, Wharton published her 12th novel, The Age of Innocence. Like The House of Mirth, this novel is about the upper class, though it's less sharply critical. It's about Newland Archer, who is supposed to marry May Welland. This will be one of those socially advantageous marriages among the rich and stuffy.
Then May's cousin, Ellen, enters the picture. She's surrounded by scandal following the dissolution of her marriage. Newland is smitten with Ellen and suddenly starts second-guessing his impending marriage. He ends up still marrying May, being miserable and pining for Ellen. And that's about it.
Wharton brilliantly captures the lives of the upper class and manages to tell a tragic story of heartbreak. The Age of Innocence earned Wharton the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. She was the first woman to ever win this award. Oh, and they made a pretty decent movie of it that was nominated for a bunch of Oscars. It was directed by Martin Scorsese and starred Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder and Michelle Pfeiffer.
Wharton was known for hobnobbing with intellectuals and notable people of her time. These included Henry James, Theodore Roosevelt and Sinclair Lewis. She endured one apparently awful visit with F. Scott Fitzgerald.
In her later years, she continued to write and publish. She also spent time enjoying the gardens of her homes in France, which she designed herself. In 1937, she had a fatal stroke. She was 75 years old.
In summary, Edith Wharton was a woman of many talents. She was an expert in interior decorating, garden design and much more. She wrote novels, short stories, and, again, much more. She grew up in the upper class society of New York, New England and Europe, though she was aware of its ridiculousness, which she mocked in many of her works.
Including her novels, collections of stories and non-fiction works, Wharton published over 40 books. However, she is best known for novels like The House of Mirth, Ethan Frome and The Age of Innocence.
When you have completed this lesson, you should be able to accomplish the following tasks:
- Explain the importance of Edith Wharton's rich background to her art
- Identify her award winning classic novels
- Detail how her growing up in New York's high society shows up in her work