Edith Wharton (January 24, 1862 – August 11, 1937) was an American novelist, short story writer, and designer.
Born Edith Newbold Jones, to a wealthy New York family often associated with the phrase Keeping up with the Joneses, Edith combined her insights into the privileged classes with her natural wit to write novels and short fiction which are notable for their humor and incisiveness.
Read Edith Wharton's classic novel Ethan Fromme, free from Project Gutenberg
Hear Edith Wharton's short story "The Diletante," an "audiobook" available free from Librivox
In 1885, at 23 years of age, she married Edward (Teddy) Robbins Wharton, who was twelve years her senior. They were divorced in 1913 on the grounds of Teddy's repeated, public infidelities and declining mental and physical health. For several years at the end of her tumultuous, unhappy marriage, she had an affair with William Morton Fullerton (1865 – 1952), an American-born bisexual man-about-town who worked as a journalist for The Times and juggled romances with Lord Ronald Gower, the Ranee of Sarawak.
Critical acclaim and World War I
Between 1900 and 1937, Wharton wrote many novels. Critics now consider her first major novel to be 1905's The House of Mirth, a story that attacked the aristocratic society of which she was a most prominent member. An admirer of European culture and architecture, Edith Wharton crossed the Atlantic 66 times. From 1907 on, Wharton made her primary residence in France - first Paris, and, after 1919, at her villas, Pavilion Colombe in nearby Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt and former convent Sainte-Claire le Château in the southern village Hyères.
She was living on the very fashionable Rue de Varenne in Paris, France when World War I began, and, using her many high level connections within the French government, she was allowed to travel extensively by motorcar to the front lines. Wharton described these trips in a series of articles later published as Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort.
In Paris, she worked for the Red Cross and with refugees, for which she was awarded the French Légion d'honneur (Legion of Honor).
Her relief activities are notable for their scope; Wharton operated work rooms for unemployed Frenchwomen, held concerts to provide work for musicians, supported tuberculosis hospitals, and founded the American Hostels for the relief of Belgian refugees. In 1916, Wharton edited a volume entitled The Book of the Homeless, featuring writings, art, and musical scores from many of the biggest names in the artistic fields of the day. Following the war, she returned to the United States for one last visit.
Although most were poor and not part of her refined world, she was fascinated and encouraged by the gathering of the artistic community in Montmartre and Montparnasse at the turn of the century.
Her best known work The Age of Innocence (1920) won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize. She spoke flawless French and many of her books were published in both French and English.
Wharton was friend and confidant of many gifted intellectuals of her time: Henry James, F Scott Fitzgerald, Jean Cocteau and Ernest Hemingway were all guests of hers at one time or another. She was also good friends with Theodore Roosevelt.
Edith Wharton was also highly regarded as a landscape architect and a taste-maker of her time. She wrote several influential books including The Decoration of Houses and Italian Villas. The Mount, her estate in Lenox, Massachusetts, was designed by her and exemplifies her design principles. The house and gardens are currently being restored and are open to the public from June through October.
Wharton continued writing until her death on August 11, 1937, in Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt, Val-d'Oise, Île-de-France, France. She is buried in the Cimetière des Gonards in Versailles, France.
Wharton's last novel, The Buccaneers, was unfinished at the time of her death. Marion Mainwaring finished the story after carefully studying the notes and synopsis Wharton had previously written. The novel was published in 1938 (unfinished version) and 1993 (Mainwaring's completion).
Characteristics of her writing
One characteristic of many Wharton novels is the frequent use of irony. Having grown up in upperclass pre-World War I society, Wharton became one of its most astute critics. When she depicted it in such works as The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence she made fun of the narrow-minded and ignorant upper class through a deft use of irony.
She often used tribal diction to describe the ritualistic practices of upper class New York as well as precise diction to poke fun at how very particular the people were.