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Edith Wharton

Born January 24, 1862(1862-01-24)
New York City, New York
Died August 11, 1937 (aged 75)
Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt, France
Occupation Novelist, short story writer, designer

Edith Wharton (January 24, 1862 – August 11, 1937) was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist, short story writer and designer.[1]


Early life

Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones to parents George Frederic Jones and Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander. She had two brothers, Frederic Rhinelander and Henry Edward. The saying "Keeping up with the Joneses" is said to refer to the family of her father.[2] She combined her insider's view of America's privileged classes with a brilliant, natural wit to write humorous, incisive novels and short stories of social and psychological insight. She was well-acquainted with many of her era's other literary and public figures, including Henry James and Theodore Roosevelt.

In 1885, at 23 years of age, she married Edward (Teddy) Robbins Wharton, who was 12 years her senior. From a well-established Boston family, he was a sportsman and a gentleman of her social class and shared her love of travel, although they had little in common intellectually. He began spending money on younger women and this began to take a toll on Wharton's mental health. Escaping to Paris, in 1908 she began an affair with Morton Fullerton, a London Times journalist and a friend of author and American anglophile Henry James. Wharton's personal diary, which would remain unknown to the general public until 1968, betrayed her romantic and intellectual involvement with Fullerton, both of which had been missing in her marriage. [3] Wharton and her husband divorced in 1913, after she suffered a nervous breakdown and was confined to a hospital. She then moved to Europe permanently. While Edith and Edward Wharton were married for 28 years, she later called the marriage her "greatest mistake".

In addition to her famous novels, Wharton wrote at least 85 short stories. She was also a highly-regarded landscape architect, interior designer and taste-maker of her time. She wrote several influential books including her first published work, The Decoration of Houses, co-authored by Ogden Codman, and Italian Villas and Their Gardens.[4]

Literary success

The Mount, 2006

In 1902 she built The Mount, her estate in Lenox, Massachusetts, which survives today as an example of her design principles. The house and its gardens have been extensively restored and are open to the public from May through October. (As of the end of March 2008, the house museum is threatened with foreclosure).[5] There, Edith Wharton wrote several of her novels, including The House of Mirth (1905), the first of many chronicles of the nature of old New York, and entertained the cream of American literary society, including her close friend, the novelist Henry James.

Although she spent many months traveling in Europe nearly every year, The Mount was her primary residence until 1911. When she was there, as well as traveling abroad, Wharton was usually driven to her appointments by her longtime chauffeur and friend Charles Cook, a native of nearby South Lee, Massachusetts.[6][7] When her marriage deteriorated, however, she decided to move permanently to France, living initially at 58 Rue de Varenne, Paris, in an apartment that belonged to George Washington Vanderbilt II.

Helped by her influential connections to the French government, primarily Walter Berry (then president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Paris), she was one of the few foreigners in France who was allowed travel to the front lines. Wharton described those trips in the series of articles Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort.

Throughout the war she worked tirelessly in charitable efforts for refugees and, in 1916 was named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in recognition of her commitment to the displaced. The scope of her relief work included setting up work rooms for unemployed Frenchwomen, organizing concerts to provide work for musicians, opening tuberculosis hospitals and founding the American Hostels for Belgian refugees. In 1916 Wharton edited The Book of the Homeless, composed of writings, art, erotica and musical scores by almost every major contemporary European artist. When World War I ended in 1918 she abandoned the fashionable urban address for the delights of the country at the Pavillon Colombe in nearby Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt.

Wharton was a committed supporter of French imperialism, describing herself as a "rabid imperialist", and the war solidified her political conservatism.[8] After World War I, she travelled to Morocco as the guest of the resident general, Gen. Hubert Lyautey and wrote a book In Morocco, about her experiences. Wharton's writing on her Moroccan travels is full of praise for the French administration and for Lyautey and his wife in particular.

After the war she divided her time between Paris and Hyères, Provence, where she finished The Age of Innocence in 1920.

In 1927 she purchased a villa, Castel Sainte-Claire, on the site of a 17th-century convent, in the hills above the city of Hyères in Provence, where she lived during the winters and springs. She called the villa "Sainte-Claire du Chateau" and filled the garden with cacti and subtropical plants. She returned to the U.S. only once after the war, to receive an honorary doctorate degree from Yale University in 1923.

Later life

Edith Wharton c. 1919

The Age of Innocence (1920) won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for literature,[9] making her the first woman to win the award. She spoke flawless French as well as several other languages and many of her books were published in both French and English.

Wharton was friend and confidante to many gifted intellectuals of her time: Henry James, Sinclair Lewis, Jean Cocteau and André Gide were all guests of hers at one time or another. Bernard Berenson and Kenneth Clark were valued friends as well; she was the godmother of Clark's second son, Colin (1932–2002), who wrote the book The Prince, the Showgirl and Me about his work as third assistant director of the film The Prince and the Showgirl. Her meeting with F. Scott Fitzgerald is described by the editors of her letters as "one of the better-known failed encounters in the American literary annals". She was also good friends with Theodore Roosevelt.

In 1934 Wharton's autobiography A Backward Glance was published. In the view of Judith E. Funston, in the entry she wrote for American National Biography about Wharton, "What is most notable about A Backward Glance, however, is what it does not tell: her criticism of Lucretia Jones [her mother], her difficulties with Teddy, and her affair with Morton Fullerton, which did not come to light until her papers, deposited in Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book Room and Manuscript Library, were opened in 1968."[10]


She died in 1937 at the domaine Le Pavillon Colombe, her 18th-century house on Rue de Montmorency in Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt, in the then existing département of Seine-et-Oise (78), but now in Val d'Oise (95). The street is today called Rue Edith Wharton. [1][11] She is buried in the American Cemetery in Versailles, France.

Wharton continued writing until her death, lying in bed and dropping each finished page to the floor to be collected when she finished. Wharton's last novel, The Buccaneers, was unfinished at the time of her death. Marion Mainwaring finished the story after studying the notes and synopsis Wharton had previously written. The unfinished novel was published in 1938 and Mainwaring's completion in 1993.

Writing style

Many of Wharton's novels are characterized by a subtle use of dramatic irony. Having grown up in upper-class pre-World War I society, Wharton became one of its most astute critics. In such works as The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence she employed both humor and profound empathy to describe the lives of New York's upper-class and the vanishing of their world in the early years of the 20th century. In contrast, she used a harsher tone in her novel Ethan Frome to convey the atmosphere of lower-class rural Massachusetts.

In addition to writing several respected novels, Wharton produced a wealth of short stories and is particularly well regarded for her ghost stories.

In popular culture

  • Edith Wharton is mentioned in the HBO television series "Entourage" in the third season's 13th episode: Vince is handed a screenplay for Wharton's The Glimpses of the Moon by Amanda, his new agent, for a film to be directed by Sam Mendes. In the same episode, period films of Wharton's work are lampooned by agent Ari Gold, who says that all her stories are "about a guy who likes a girl, but he can't have sex with her for five years, because those were the times!" Carla Gugino, who plays Amanda, was the protagonist of the BBC-PBS adaptation of The Buccaneers (1995), one of her early jobs.
  • A musical version of The Glimpses of the Moon was presented in New York City in the Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room in early 2008.
  • "Edith Wharton's Journey" is a radio adaptation, for the NPR series Radio Tales, of the short story "A Journey" from Edith Wharton's collection The Greater Inclination.
  • In 2009, Edith Wharton's home, The Mount, was investigated for paranormal activity in the hit Sci Fi Channel reality series Ghost Hunters.

Film adaptations

At least three novels were recently adapted on big screen:



Short story collections

  • The Greater Inclination, 1899
  • Crucial Instances, 1901
  • The Descent of Man and Other Stories, 1903
  • The Other Two, 1904
  • The Hermit and the Wild Woman and Other Stories, 1908
  • Tales of Men and Ghosts, 1910
  • Xingu and Other Stories, 1916
  • Here and Beyond, 1926
  • Certain People, 1930
  • Human Nature, 1933
  • The World Over, 1936
  • Ghosts, 1937


  • Verses, 1878
  • Artemis to Actaeon and Other Verse, 1909
  • Twelve Poems, 1926


  • The Decoration of Houses, 1897
  • Italian Villas and Their Gardens, 1904
  • Italian Backgrounds, 1905
  • A Motor-Flight Through France, 1908 (travel)
  • Fighting France, from Dunkerque to Belfort, 1915 (war)
  • French Ways and Their Meaning, 1919
  • In Morocco, 1920 (travel)
  • The Writing of Fiction, 1925 (essays on writing)
  • A Backward Glance, 1934 (autobiography)

As editor

  • The Book of the Homeless, 1916

Additional publications

  • Novels (R. W. B. Lewis, ed.) (The Library of America, 1986) ISBN 978-0-94045031-8. Includes The House of Mirth, The Reef, The Custom of the Country, and The Age of Innocence.
  • The Letters of Edith Wharton (R. W. B. Lewis and Nancy Lewis, eds.) ISBN 0-02-034400-7, particularly the editorial introductions to the chronological sections, especially for 1902–07, 1911–14, 1919–27, and 1928–37, and the editorial footnotes to the letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald (8 June, 1925)
  • Novellas and Other Writings (Cynthia Griffin Wolff, ed.) (The Library of America, 1990) ISBN 978-0-94045053-0, which contains her autobiography, A Backward Glance.
  • Collected Stories 1891-1910 (Maureen Howard, ed.) (The Library of America, 2001) ISBN 978-1-88301193-2
  • Collected Stories 1911-1937 (Maureen Howard, ed.) (The Library of America, 2001) ISBN 978-1-88301194-9
  • Selected Poems (Louis Auchincloss, ed.) (The Library of America, 2005) ISBN 978-1-93108286-0
  • Twilight Sleep (R. F.Godfrey, ed.) ISBN 0-684-83964-4

See also

Further reading

  • Benstock, Shari (1994) No Gifts From Chance: a biography of Edith Wharton
  • Lee, Hermione (2007) Edith Wharton. London: Chatto & Windus ISBN 0701166657; New York: Knopf
  • Lewis, R. W. B. (1975) Edith Wharton: a biography New York: Harper & Row
  • Lowry, Elizabeth (December 2008). "What Edith Knew: Freeing Wharton from the Master's Shadow". Harper's Magazine 317 (1903): 96–100, 102. 
  • Wolff, Cynthia Griffin (1977) A Feast of Words


The Beinecke Library at Yale University houses the Edith Wharton Collection. The collection contains some 50,000 items, consisting of letters, manuscripts, photographs and miscellaneous personal items belonging to Edith Wharton. Currently a portion of this collection is available online.[12]


  1. ^ a b "Edith Wharton, 75, Is Dead in France". New York Times. August 13, 1937. Retrieved 2007-07-21. "Edith Wharton, American novelist, died yesterday afternoon at her villa, Pavilion Colombes [sic], near Saint Brice, Seine-et-Oise." 
  2. ^ Benstock, Shari. No Gifts from Chance: A Biography of Edith Wharton. (New York: Scribner's, 1994), 26.
  3. ^ Edith Wharton's World, Portrait of People and Places, US National Portrait Gallery Web site, accessed 23 Dec 2009
  4. ^ Edith Wharton, Ogden Codman, Pforzheimer Bruce Rogers Collection (Library of Congress) (1897). The Decoration of Houses. Charles Scribner's Sons. 
  5. ^ New York Times, February 23, 2008. Retrieved on 2/26/08, "Landmark Massachusetts Building Where Wharton Wrote Faces Foreclosure".
  6. ^ No Gifts from Chance: A Biography of Edith Wharton, Shari Benstock, University of Texas Press, 2004
  7. ^ Photograph of Edith Wharton, Teddy Wharton, Henry James and Chauffeur Charles Cook, A Historical Guide to Edith Wharton, Carol J. Singley, Oxford University Press, 2003
  8. ^ Wegener, Fredrick "Rabid Imperialist"': Edith Wharton and the Obligations of Empire in Modern American Fiction, American Literature 72: 4
  9. ^ Nelson, Randy F. The Almanac of American Letters. Los Altos, California: William Kaufmann, Inc., 1981: 9. ISBN 086576008X
  10. ^ Entry for Edith Wharton written by Judith E. Funston in American National Biography, New York, Oxford University Press, 1999, Vol 23, pp. 111–112. ISBN 0-19-512802-8.
  11. ^ Domaine du Pavillon Colombe à Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt (95)
  12. ^ Edith Wharton Collection. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. Retrieved on 2009-07-09.

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

In spite of illness, in spite even of the archenemy sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways.

Edith Wharton (1862-01-241937-08-11) was an American novelist, short story writer and designer.



  • Set wide the window. Let me drink the day.
    I loved light ever, light in eye and brain —
    No tapers mirrored in long palace floors,
    Nor dedicated depths of silent aisles,
    But just the common dusty wind-blown day
    That roofs earth's millions.
  • There are two ways of spreading light: to be
    The candle or the mirror that reflects it.
    • "Vesalius in Zante (1564)", in North American Review (November 1902), p. 631
  • It was part of her discernment to be aware that life is the only real counselor, that wisdom unfiltered through personal experience does not become a part of the moral tissues.
  • The only way not to think about money is to have a great deal of it.
True originality consists not in a new manner but in a new vision.
  • After all, one knows one's weak points so well, that it's rather bewildering to have the critics overlook them & invent others that (one is fairly sure) don't exist — or exist in a less measure.
  • I wonder, among all the tangles of this mortal coil, which one contains tighter knots to undo, & consequently suggests more tugging, & pain, & diversified elements of misery, than the marriage tie.
    • Letter to John Hugh Smith (1909-02-12), published in The Letters of Edith Wharton (1988)
  • Mrs. Ballinger is one of the ladies who pursue Culture in bands, as though it were dangerous to meet it alone.
    • "Xingu" (1911), from Xingu and Other Stories (1916)
  • How much longer are we going to think it necessary to be "American" before (or in contradistinction to) being cultivated, being enlightened, being humane, & having the same intellectual discipline as other civilized countries?
  • Another unsettling element in modern art is that common symptom of immaturity, the dread of doing what has been done before.
    • The Writing of Fiction (1925), ch. I
  • True originality consists not in a new manner but in a new vision.
    • The Writing of Fiction (1925), ch. I
  • I have never known a novel that was good enough to be good in spite of its being adapted to the author’s political views.
  • When people ask for time, it's always for time to say no. Yes has one more letter in it, but it doesn't take half as long to say.

The Age of Innocence (1920)

  • An unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences.
    • Ch. 1
  • I can't love you unless I give you up.
    • Ch. 18
  • In the rotation of crops there was a recognized season for wild oats; but they were not sown more than once.
    • Ch. 31
  • It was the old New York way of taking life "without effusion of blood": the way of people who dreaded scandal more than disease, who placed decency above courage, and who considered that nothing was more ill-bred than "scenes," except the behaviour of those who gave rise to them.
    • Ch. 33
  • The worst of doing one's duty was that it apparently unfitted one for doing anything else.
    • Ch. 34

A Backward Glance (1934)

  • Habit is necessary; it is the habit of having habits, of turning a trail into a rut, that must be incessantly fought against if one is to remain alive.
    • "A First Word"
  • There's no such thing as old age; there is only sorrow.
    • "A First Word"
  • In spite of illness, in spite even of the archenemy sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways.
    • "A First Word"
  • I was never allowed to read the popular American children's books of my day because, as my mother said, the children spoke bad English without the author's knowing it.
    • Ch. 3
  • To [Henry] James's intimates, however, these elaborate hesitancies, far from being an obstacle, were like a cobweb bridge flung from his mind to theirs, an invisible passage over which one knew that silver-footed ironies, veiled jokes, tiptoe malices, were stealing to explode a huge laugh at one's feet.
    • Ch. 8


  • If we'd stop trying to be happy we could have a pretty good time.
  • Life is always a tightrope or a feather bed. Give me the tightrope.


  • A classic is classic not because it conforms to certain structural rules, or fits certain definitions (of which its author had quite probably never heard). It is classic because of a certain eternal and irrepressible freshness.
  • Old age, calm, expanded, broad with the haughty breadth of the universe,
    Old age flowing free with the delicious near-by freedom of death.

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