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The Emergence of Edith Wharton

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Edith Wharton is one of America’s finest novelists; during her lifetime she was highly respected, well known, and successful. But since her death 40 years ago her work has been largely neglected: only a few of her books remain in print. Few writers of quality have suffered such an eclipse. There have been intermittent efforts, by critics like Edmund Wilson and Irving Howe, to resuscitate her reputation, and indeed there has been increasing interest in Wharton’s work recently. But some of the very people who have attempted to revive such interest are responsible for impeding that process, by writing essays tainted with undisguised patronization for this “lady writer,” and by approaching her work negatively. That is, critics frequently direct more attention to what Wharton did not do than to what she did do. They have skirted the task of focusing and elucidation which is surely the first business of criticism. 

But part of the reason for our long neglect of Edith Wharton may also be that, without a change in certain attitudes, it was difficult to recognize her central concerns. One of her more perceptive critics, Blake Nevius, writing in 1953, accused Wharton of a “lurking feminism.” Feminist concerns do appear in her work, although she did not associate herself with the feminist movement of her time. She wrote frequently of the way in which women were educated to become ornaments, mindless and self-regarding, not people but products. The double sexual standard chafes some of her female characters. And one of her major themes—constriction—appears most powerfully when it is linked with the rules governing the lives of women. Whether she writes about lives lived narrowly inside social constrictions, or in isolation outside of them, Wharton is subtle, delicate, and precise. The seeming innocence of male critics about the difference between a woman’s life and a man’s, about the profound effects of learning to adapt the self to a small anteroom in life, has led to an impercipience about Wharton’s work. She does not shout: therefore she is not heard. (Had she shouted, she would not have been published.)

She was born Edith Newbold Jones, in 1862, to an old New York family that was part of the “elite,” the aristocracy almost, of this young country. This class, modeled on the British gentry, had essentially bourgeois standards although gentlemen did not work, except for a few who interested themselves in law, banking, or government. Ladies spoke softly and took care to be ornamental. Gentlemen sat at table after dinner drinking port or madeira while the ladies withdrew to (with-)drawing rooms which (as Edith’s mother once said, criticizing one of her early literary efforts) were always tidy. 

At root, the greatest sin was feeling. One did not express feeling; one did not even discuss it. People whose work was the expression of feeling—artists, writers, actors—were as déclassé as tradesmen. Strenuous exertion was acceptable only in amateur sports. Utterly secure economically, permitted to marry only within the group—thus tight and cohesive socially and sexually—this class owned its world. Any sign of need, whether it be a shabby gown or a passion for painting, was a betrayal of class. To care about anything too much was to admit that this small, isolated, independently wealthy group of people was not in fact independent, invulnerable, sufficient to itself on all occasions, superior to and untainted by the concerns and cravings of ordinary humanity. 

This society was not without its virtues. It adhered to a high standard of probity in financial affairs; it had a clear code of manners, respect for good taste, and it was unpretentious, wearing its opulence quietly. It maintained, for good or ill, a rigid code of sexual mores and a double standard. Above all, its stability and narrowness granted its members the pleasures of security and continuity. It also offered the pain of suffocation. In the years when Edith Wharton was weaning herself from its values, she was frequently ill: a major symptom was the inability to breathe, a sense of stifling. 

The young Edith Jones was passionate, willful, and fascinated by literature—by her own “making-up” of tales and by the books in her father’s library. She was born late (her brothers were 12 and 16) in the life of a woman who had grown up feeling inferior, shy, and deprived, and who seems to have surrounded her daughter with a climate of cold disapproval. Her father was warmer, but still remote; a gentle dilettante, he suffered from ill health as Edith grew up and he died when she was 19. He provided part of her knowledge of constriction and waste: in her memoir, A Backward Glance, she wrote, “I have wondered since this death what stifled cravings had once germinated in him, and what manner of man he was really meant to be. That he was a lonely one, haunted by something always unexpressed and unattained, I am sure.” 

Education in Wharton’s class was desultory. Young men received formal training, and sometimes even read law, but were expected to have a smattering of knowledge about many things without strong interest in any one thing. Young women were taught the social arts and perhaps a foreign language. The Jones family was fastidious about spoken and written English, but Edith was not formally educated. The family’s theory was that education should not fatigue the brain: concentration was as frowned upon as emotion. But the young girl read widely in the books available to her (and continued to do so, ranging into many disciplines, throughout her life), and, during long periods of travel abroad with her parents, she learned several foreign languages. 

She failed the standards of her world from the beginning. Her powerful intelligence and nature seem to have appalled her mother. That Lucretia Jones did not believe Edith was entitled to independent existence is suggested by several biographical details, most significantly by the fact that, in her announcement of her daughter’s wedding, she omitted Edith’s name. 

The child’s awareness that she was different (which always, for a child, is equivalent to feeling wrong), her mother’s disapprobation, and her father’s distance and ineffectuality combined to induce in the young girl a strong need to conform, to adhere to the standards of her society. She suffered severely from phobias. She tried hard to resist the temptation to what she called the “ecstasy” of “making up”: “The call came regularly and imperiously and I ... would struggle against it conscientiously.” She learned to defer to her mother, and to hide or repress her interests, sexuality, emotions, and will. 

When Edith was 23, she married Edward (“Teddy”) Wharton, an amiable 33-year-old from a suitable family. She spent the early years of their marriage acting as a woman of her class was supposed to act. She dressed well, decorated a series of houses, paid visits, entertained, and traveled in Europe with her husband. In her youth she had written poetry, squirreling away sheets of brown wrapping paper to write on because the family did not provide her with paper. But when she married, she stopped writing. 

Gradually, she distanced herself from her mother, emotionally and physically. She took a Newport residence at a distance from Lucretia’s; she bought a New York townhouse as far from her mother’s as was respectable. Eventually, she entirely deserted Newport, the social center for summer activities, and built a mansion in Lenox, Massachusetts. Here, she threw her formidable energies into designing and decorating the house, The Mount, and its gardens. Not until 1889, when she was 27, did she begin to write again. Her poems were immediately accepted by Scribner’s magazine. A year later, she wrote some short stories, which were also published by Scribner’s. She was tremendously excited by her success in these ventures, though she later wrote, “I continued to live my old life, for my husband was as fond of society as ever, and I knew of no other existence.” 

She continued to write, but fitfully. She was often ill (she could not breathe) and would lapse into long silences, in 1893, Edward Burlingame of Scribner’s suggested publishing a volume of her short stories. She was overwhelmed by the idea, and when he rejected some of her choices, she fell into a depressed silence. Again, she was ill. After a few years, she felt able to write again, but what she wrote (with co-author Ogden Codman) was The Decoration of Houses (1897)—an appropriate subject for a “lady.” The following year she had a severe nervous breakdown. This was treated with bed rest, massage, large meals, and separation from Teddy. She recovered, and in 1899 her first volume of short stories, The Greater Inclination, was finally published. 

She wrote of this event that it “broke the chains which had held me so long in a kind of torpor. For nearly 12 years I had tried to adjust myself to the life I had led since my marriage; but now I was overmastered by the longing to meet people who shared my interests.” She filled her home with guests of intellect and sensibility. During her travels in Europe, she had gradually created a network of friends who were her equals; she now added to this group people with whom she could discuss art, literature, science, music. She gained confidence in herself, a sense that she could—was able to, was allowed to—write. Her first novel, The Valley of Decision, was published in 1902. She was 40. 

Up to this point, Edith Wharton’s life sadly repeats a pattern found in the lives of many women writers. An inadequate education made up for privately, even secretly; a painfully slow development into physical womanhood, hedged with guilt and a sense of being different; attempts to fit into social roles resulting in illness, physical and/or emotional; attempts to break out of societal constrictions, resulting in illness, physical and/or emotional. Above all she (and many other women writers) suffered from a deep, drenching sense of illegitimacy. Intellect and talent made them feel inadequate as women; womanhood made them feel inadequate as writers. Society offered no way out for such women: each of them had to break the internalized mold herself, often in the face of opposition from the world around her; or let the mold break her. Critics who discuss Edith Wharton usually describe her struggle as being against the conventions of her class, but those conventions were far stricter for women than for men; her problem was one of gender as much as one of class. 

Once she began to take her life in her hands, however, she was prodigious. She picked it up and shaped it to her desire. She moved to Paris; she wrote daily. She had her first love affair when she was in her mid-40s, tapping at last her stified, passionate nature. She created a splendid life, crowded and rich; she had her work, a huge circle of friends, brilliant discussion and argument, beautiful living quarters and clothes, devoted servants, beloved pets, a motorcar. The car was important, for Wharton lived in a flurry, impetuously gathering together some friends and motoring through the Berkshires, or down to Italy, or to the south of France. 

From all reports, Teddy Wharton had been a sunny-natured man, a lover of society, of dogs and the outdoors, happiest when he was fishing or hunting. That the couple had no sex life did not (nor was it supposed to) disturb their mutual good manners. He does not seem at any early time actively to have impeded his strong-willed wife. Once she took control of her life, however, Teddy began to feel out of place. She had stifled in his world; now he was stifling in hers. He had odd breakdowns, as odd as hers had been. He would return to America while she was in Paris, and the couple would live apart for long periods. They had always lived mainly on her money—inherited and earned—and Teddy embezzled some of it and proceeded to live a scandalous life in Boston—scandalous, that is, for those times, in that it was openly sexual. Edith Wharton had a horror of divorce and tried for some years to keep up at least a social front but eventually the couple did split up. She continued to live in France, surrounded by friends and her special friend, Walter Berry (it is unclear whether they were ever lovers), for the rest of her life. 

When World War I broke out, Wharton threw herself into it with all her energy. She founded an atelier to help Frenchwomen thrown out of work by war-related events, and eventually employed 100 of them. She established hostels for the Belgian refugees pouring into Paris, and helped 9,000 of them in the first year alone. She visited the front lines many times. She organized a committee to rescue children orphaned or lost because of the war; her group bathed, clothed, fed, and solaced the young victims. She opened a home for children stricken with tuberculosis. She wrote articles, arranged benefit concerts, rummage sales, art exhibitions, and pounded the doors of the rich to raise money for these undertakings. She gave so generously of her own fortune that she would have anxieties about money when the war was over. It was an extraordinary effort, performed without pretension, superiority, or sniffing martyrdom: she was simply a woman doing something that had to be done. When the war was over, she was awarded the Legion of Honor by the French government. 

Afterward, she returned to her old life. She created two homes for herself, one north of Paris, one in the south of France. The postwar years were, however, tinged with sadness which increased as she aged. Beloved friends, beloved servants died. Customs and manners changed, and she began to feel out of place in the new world. Maintaining a set of dependents and her two estates with her diminished fortune was difficult, and to pay for them she wrote more magazine stories of lesser quality. But her late novels show that she continued to grow, to encompass some of the changes she saw around her. 

And her accomplishment is formidable. She wrote over 40 books, as well as articles, reviews, and poems. Such an output is bound to be uneven, but many of her novels, books on houses and gardens, and travel books remain of lasting interest, and some are of the first rank. Whatever sorrow descended upon her, she had the serenity of knowing she had accomplished much in her life. She died of a stroke in France, in 1937, at the age of 75. 

Edith Wharton created her own life—late, but many people never accomplish such a thing. She had some advantages in doing so; inherited wealth to begin with, and thus some education (something women of poorer classes could not obtain); amazingly swift and lasting success in the publishing world from the time of her first efforts; access to the literati in America and abroad by virtue of her elite ancestry and class; and childlessness. She stretched some of the constrictions of her background, but not all; who can? To the end of her life, she wrote almost secretly in bed in the mornings, and spoke little about her work to her friends. She even referred to her writing as her “secret garden,” after The Secret Garden, a children’s book popular in her youth—one I loved too. It had become legitimate for her to write, but not to speak seriously about her work or even to appear to take it seriously. In A Backward Glance, she included a chapter on her writing only because the memoir would be the merest profile without it, but she insisted, “Any attempt to analyze work of one’s own doing seems to imply that one regards it as likely to be of lasting interest, and I wish at once to repudiate such an assumption.” 

There are signs that she may not have been free from certain prejudices. She has been accused of anti-Semitism, but the portrait of Sim Rosedale in The House of Mirth, which begins with the curt contempt that Lily, and the New York society of which she is part, has toward this social climber, ends by granting him a fuller humanity and larger stature than any other man in the book. There seem to be traces or prejudice against blacks in her personal correspondence. She never really understood the labor movement and blamed it on the failure of the upper classes to exercise benevolent paternalism. She abhorred anything bordering on socialism. She believed in the prerogatives of wealth and class, in the necessity for a leisure class, in the idea of legitimacy. That she did, impeded her own development. It also impeded her in her thinking about women. She went as far as she could. And in her going, she created some wonderful things.

Most criticism of Edith Wharton declares her central concern to be the manners and mores of the old New York society as they gave way before the onslaught of the nouveau riche, the Vanderbilts, Astors, and Whitneys—vulgar, flamboyant, and obscenely rich. She is often described as exalting the past and condemning the present. In fact, she never exalted the old ways, although, as she grew older, she came to believe there were some fine things in them. But she was never blinded to the stifling quality of the old life; she never forgot being unable to breathe. In any case, the manners and mores of society never provided more than the backgrounds of her novels. They seem emphasized because she describes them so brilliantly. Wharton had an intense visual awareness, especially of nature—a sensitivity she shares with many of her characters. She had an intense visual awareness of interiors as well. (Edmund Wilson called her—in what spirit is not clear—the “poet of interior decoration.”) She was able to conjure an entire way of life with a few concrete details. And she could do this not only with the muted, proper, good but shabby interiors of the old rich, but with the surroundings of the new rich, the very poor, and with landscape, cultivated or wilderness:

He could see her, as Mrs. Haskett, sitting in a ‘front parlour’ furnished in plush, with a pianola, and a copy of ‘Ben Hur’ on the centre table. 

— Roman Fever and Other Stories 

It was the beginning of a June afternoon. The springlike transparent sky shed a rain of silver sunshine on the roofs of the village, and on the pastures and larchwoods surrounding it. A little wind moved among the round white clouds on the shoulders of the hills, driving their shadows across the fields and down the grassy road. 


Wharton’s visual apprehension included people as well as things. She noted vividly postures, gestures, manners of speech, manners of walk, the tilt of a head, the way someone held a handkerchief. She paid attention to clothes, but also to the way they were worn. She knew that surfaces reveal values, that the depiction of significant details creates the texture of a life, and that the deepest beliefs of a person or a culture are perceptible in that texture.

He gave a little bow, like the bend of a jointed doll, and with infinite precaution let himself down in the chair. 

Roman Fever and Other Stories

She had just time to take her seat before the train started: but having arranged herself in her corner with the instinctive feeling for effect which never forsook her, she glanced about in the hope of seeing some other member of the Trenors’ party. 

The House of Mirth 

In addition to her observant eye for detail, Wharton had deep empathetic currents. Very early in her writing career she wrote a story called “Bunner Sisters.” It was not published until 1916, but it demonstrates that right from the outset she was able to extend her sympathies and imagination beyond her own class. The story concerns a pair of very poor women, shopkeepers, both unmarried when the tale begins. Wharton was able to describe their surface life—what they wore, ate, how they worked or rested—but she was also able to enter their imaginative horizon believably. In Ethan Frome and Summer, she entered fully into the dreams and fears, the sensuous texture and moral underpinnings, of people who were deprived culturally, economically, and socially. In The Children, she created a set of youngsters who are ill matched, ill trained, and thoroughly delightful, without being sentimental idealizations. She wrote a novel set in sèttecènto Italy; she dealt with the war in The Marne and A Son at the Front; she dealt with working conditions in a factory in The Fruit of the Tree. About half her novels and stories are written from the perspective of a male, and of these, at least three are among her finest work—The Age of Innocence, The Children, and Ethan Frome. There are also the strong Ralph Marvell sections of The Custom of the Country, and the George Darrow section of The Reef

The things I have been discussing are talents, abilities. They allow Wharton to provide a brilliant surface for her work, a surface which has sometimes been taken for the theme of that work. It is not. Wharton’s main theme, her deepest concern, was the emotional and moral life, especially in the area of sexuality. 

This large theme is tied to other themes. Female experience is often central in her work. This is true sometimes even when the focus of the story is a male. The Touchstone, for instance, depicts a man suffering from guilt as he gradually shifts his contempt for himself onto his wife because he cannot bear “the necessity of defending himself against the perpetual criticism of his wife’s belief in him.” This early long story (1900) is not one of Wharton’s best works, but it is acute in tracing subtly what men do to women in their minds. Since sexual regulation was a major factor in the lives of young women, many of the tales and novels deal with sexual constriction and the social restrictions that arose from it. 

The critic Percy Lubbock claimed that Wharton did not have a philosophy. But she did, insofar as any novelist can be said to have a coherent philosophy. Writing continually of constriction and paralysis, emphasizing the bleakness of lives based upon them, she pointed out another direction, “Alas, I should like to get up on the house-tops and cry to all who come after us: ‘Take your own life, every one of you!’” she wrote to her friend Sara Norton, who sacrificed her life to her aging famous father, Charles Eliot Norton. Wharton meant take hold of, grasp, live in accord with desire and need. Years later, she wrote to another friend, Mary Berenson, that the “real unpardonable sin” was the denial of life. And by life, she meant largely sexual experience, but also an existence created by the self rather than by society. 

Wharton’s strongest and most sympathetically rendered characters are women who risk: Justine Brent (The Fruit of the Tree), Anna Leath (The Reef), Charity Royall (Summer), and Kate Clephane (The Mother’s Recompense). These women have moral courage, something even Wharton’s most sympathetic men lack. They are not passive victims of their lives, although there is no question of their triumphing over circumstances. What they do is live their lives out fully, by feeling and thinking through whatever occurs, by refusing to blind themselves. They risk discovering their own dark sides, their sexuality, their guilt, their jealousy. Wharton’s term for this process in one novel is “facing it out,” confronting and dealing with troublesome emotions—their own and others’—instead of locking them away. Since all these women are confronted with serious, even insoluble difficulties, their behavior makes them large-sized, even heroic. Although all of them end with diminished expectations, with lost dreams, the subtlety, delicacy, strength, and courage of their approaches to life makes them admirable. Their lives are rich not because of what they are able to take from life but because of what they are. Thus, in a sense, all Wharton’s work aims toward a definition of what constitutes full humanity; it is not victory over circumstance, but knowledge of the deepest sort, the full living of life. 

Wharton is usually assumed to be a lesser Henry James, to be attempting to do precisely what James did. It is true that they were personally close and perhaps had similar sensibilities, and that they were looking at the same world. But James, a man, emphasized the individual within society; he had a strong sense of legitimacy that strengthened and colored what he created, Wharton was far more aware of the power of the environment over the individual, of the sapping of energy caused by a sense of illegitimacy, and of the impossibility of getting beyond the bodily and social consequences of sex. James’s genius was linguistic and psychological; Wharton’s was sociological and psychological. Without seeming to diminish James—who cannot be diminished—one must separate the two authors and focus on Wharton’s excellences. She has a wider scope; she is more interested in the particular experience of women; and she had a profounder sense of constriction. 

But this, precisely, is what most dismays some of her critics. Her vision is bleak; for her, life is a prison, they moan. She has been damned as immoral for her vision. Yet the very critics who do not like her insistence on constriction do not hesitate to castigate female characters for whom Wharton has obvious sympathy—or even Wharton herself—for having abandoned a husband, or a child, or for trying to envision fulfilled happy lives for themselves. They thereby prove the accuracy of her vision. Critics also complain that Wharton’s men are either ineffectual—morally or emotionally stunted—or boors. The range of her male characters is far greater than this, and many of them are sympathetic. But there are no knights on white horses in her work, as there are none in life. There are no idealizations, female or male. 

Many readers may prefer novels that concentrate on the individual as author or strong co-author of his or her fate, and that diminish the overwhelming pressure of environment and inheritance. Such an attitude is certainly more pleasant and probably healthier to live with than its opposite. But the reverse is also true, a fact we are aware of at least in certain moments of life. And it is morally healthier to remember that we are small units in a large world we cannot control than to delude ourselves. There is room for both kinds of books. To condemn those which refuse to compromise, which refuse to admit that things are for the best in this best of all possible worlds, is to demand that literature be fairy tale. 

Wharton had a tougher mind. She would have agreed with Aquinas’s statement that “matter is never lacking privation: inasmuch as it is under one form, it is deprived of another.” If Wharton concentrated on the privations attendant on a form, rather than on its fulfillment, perhaps that is because she was a woman and more aware of that side of things. It is not an accident that the most vapid and fantastic literature—romance—is written for women, who use it to escape from lives they cannot change. Henry James wrote of Wharton’s work: “We move in an air purged at a stroke of the old sentimental and romantic values.” Wharton forces her readers to acknowledge the fact that form is imprisonment, that any course has particular consequences, that everything costs something, that actuality is always a diminishment of the ideal, and that the richness of life lies in one’s moral and emotional response to one’s situation. That is not a small accomplishment.