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Edith Wharton - Biography & Selected Products

Selected products from Edith Wharton

    

The extraordinary American writer Edith Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones on January 24th, 1862 to George Frederic Jones and Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander at their brownstone at 14 West Twenty-third Street in New York City.  Her parents already had two older sons, Frederic Rhinelander, and Henry Edward.

Edith was baptized April 20, 1862, Easter Sunday, at Grace Church. To her friends and family she was apparently known as "Pussy Jones".

The 1860’s were a time of Civil War in America but by the time Edith was three the war was over and a more normal life among Americans could resume.

From 1866 to 1872, the Jones family visited France, Italy, Germany, and Spain and Edith became fluent in French, German, and Italian.  She was taught by a succession of tutors and governesses. Her thirst for learning was apparent at this early age. So too was a streak of rebelliousness as she pushed back at society’s  standards of fashion and etiquette that were needed to help these young women marry well and to be displayed at balls and parties. She thought this superficial and oppressive.

Although he mother forbade her to read novels until she married (Edith it seems complied with that instruction) she read from her father’s library and that of friends.

Edith first step to becoming a writer was inventing stories when she was around six. She would walk around the living room holding a book and reciting her story.

In 1872 at age ten, Edith was taken ill with typhoid fever while the family was at a spa in the Black Forest. The family returned to the United States that same year to begin a cycle of winters in New York and their summers in Newport, Rhode Island.

The following year, 1873, Edith wrote a short story and gave it to her mother to read. It was heavily criticised and Edith retreated to writing only poetry. Despite a child’s need for a mother's approval and love, it was rare that she received either.  That core relationship was indeed a troubled one.

By the time Edith was 15 she had translated a German poem "Was die Steine Erzählen" ("What the Stones Tell") by Heinrich Karl Brugsch, for which she was paid $50.

However her family did not wish to see her name in print (upper class women of the time only appeared in print to announce birth, marriage, and death). Consequently, the poem was published under the name of a friend's father, E. A. Washburn, a cousin of Ralph Waldo Emerson and a supporter of women's education and a great encourager of Edith’s talents.

That same year, 1877, Edith had also secretly written a 30,000 word novella "Fast and Loose". Her central themes came from her experiences with her parents. She was very critical of her own work and would write public reviews criticizing it. The following year, 1878, her father arranged for a collection of two dozen original poems and five translations, Verses, to be privately published.

In 1880 she had five poems published anonymously in the Atlantic Monthly, a revered literary magazine. Despite these early successes, she was not encouraged to publish by others but did continue to write.

Edith was courted by Henry Stevens from 1880 and after two years they became engaged. A month before their marriage the engagement abruptly ended.

In 1885, at age 23, she married Edward (Teddy) Robbins Wharton, who was 12 years her senior. He was from a well-established Boston family, a sportsman and a gentleman of the same social class and shared her love of travel.

However this desirable match was blighted. From the late 1880s until 1902, he suffered acute depression. At that latter time his depression manifested as a more serious disorder, after which they lived almost exclusively at their estate The Mount.

In October 1889 her poem "The Last Giustiniani", was published in Scribner's Magazine.

At age 29 Edith finally had her first short story published. "Mrs. Manstey's View." It had very little success, and another year was to elap until she published again. 

She completed "The Fullness of Life" following her annual European trip with Teddy. Burlingame was critical of this story but Wharton did not want to make edits to it. This story, along with many others, speaks about her marriage. She sent Bunner Sisters to Scribner’s in 1892. Burlingame wrote back that it was too long for Scribner’s to publish. This story is believed to be based on an experience she had as a child. It did not see publication until 1916.

After a visit with her friend, Paul Bourget, she wrote “The Good May Come” and “The Lamp of Psyche”. “The Lamp of Psyche” was a comical story with verbal wit and sorrow. After “Something Exquisite” was rejected by Burlingame, she lost confidence in herself.

By 1894 she had decided to write about her travels.  This allied with her other interests of garden and interior design came to a publishing point in 1897 with a co-authorship on The Decoration of Houses, the first of several design books.

Her thirst for travel and to explore eventually meant some sixty trips across the Atlantic to travel across Europe and even Morocco.

Her husband, Edward, shared this love of travel and for years they would spend four, or more, month abroad until his illness deteriorated their quality of life to remaining in America.

In 1888, the Wharton’s and their friend James Van Alen took a cruise through the Aegean islands. Wharton was 26. The trip cost a substantial amount: $10,000 and lasted four months. Edith kept a travel journal during this trip that was later published as The Cruise of the Vanadis, her earliest known travel writing.]

In 1901, Wharton wrote a two act play called “Man of Genius”. This play was about an English man who was having an affair with his secretary. The play was rehearsed, but was never produced.

One of her earliest literary endeavors (1902) was the translation of the play, "Es Lebe das Leben" ("The Joy of Living"), by Hermann Sudermann. “The Joy of Living” was a short lived Broadway production but was, however, a successful book.

She collaborated with Marie Tempest to write another play, but the two only completed four acts before Marie decided she was no longer interested in costume plays.

In 1902, Wharton designed The Mount, her estate in Lenox, Massachusetts. Edith wrote several of her novels there, including The House of Mirth (1905), the first of many chronicles of life in old New York. At The Mount, she entertained the cream of American literary society, including her close friend, novelist Henry James, who described the estate as "a delicate French chateau mirrored in a Massachusetts pond".

Although she spent many months traveling The Mount was her primary residence until 1911.

With her marriage falling apart due mainly to Edward’s illness, she decided to move to Paris, living first at 53 Rue de Varenne, Paris, in an apartment that belonged to George Washington Vanderbilt II.

In 1908 her husband's mental state was determined to be incurable. In the same year, she began an affair with Morton Fullerton, a journalist for The Times, in whom she also found an intellectual partner.

She divorced Edward Wharton in 1913 after 28 years of marriage.

In 1914 Edith was preparing for her summer vacation when World War I broke out. Many fled Paris, but she moved back to her Paris apartment on the Rue de Varenne and for the next four years was a tireless, ardent supporter of the French war effort.

In August 1914 at the onset of War she opened a workroom for unemployed women; here they were fed and paid one franc a day. Thirty women started and this soon doubled to sixty, and their sewing business began to thrive. When the Germans invaded Belgium in the fall of 1914 and Paris was flooded with Belgian refugees, she helped to set up the American Hostels for Refugees, which gave shelter, meals, clothes and then an agency to help them find work. She raised and collected more than $100,000 on their behalf.

In early 1915 she organized the Children of Flanders Rescue Committee, which gave shelter to almost 900 Belgian refugees whose homes had been bombed by the Germans.

Aided by her influential connections in the French government, she and her long-time friend Walter Berry (then president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Paris), were among the few foreigners in France allowed to travel to the front lines. She and Berry made a total of five journeys between February and August 1915, which Edith described in a series of articles that were first published in Scribner's Magazine and later as Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort, which became a bestseller. Travelling by car, they drove through the war zone; one decimated French village after another. She visited the trenches that were within earshot of artillery fire. She wrote, "We woke to a noise of guns closer and more incessant...and when we went out into the streets it seemed as if, overnight, a new army had sprung out of the ground".

During the war years Edith worked tirelessly in charitable efforts for refugees, the injured, the unemployed, and the displaced. 

On 18 April 1916, the President of France appointed her Chevalier of the Legion of Honour, the country's highest award, in recognition of her dedication to the war effort.

Edith also kept up her own work during the war, which was now a prodigious output of novels, short stories, and poems, as well as reporting for the New York Times and keeping up her enormous correspondence. She urged Americans to support the war effort and to enter the war with its enormous resources of industry and men. She wrote the popular romantic novel Summer in 1916, the war novella, The Marne, in 1918, and A Son at the Front in 1919, (though not published until 1923).

When the war ended, she watched the Victory Parade from the Champs Elysees' balcony of a friend's apartment. After four years of intense effort, she decided to leave Paris in favor of the peace and quiet of the countryside. She settled a few miles north of Paris in Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt, buying an eighteenth-century house on seven acres of land which she called Pavillon Colombe. Edith would live there in summer and autumn for the rest of her life. She spent winters and springs on the French Riviera at Sainte Claire du Vieux Chateau in Hyeres.

Edith was a committed supporter of French imperialism, describing herself as a "rabid imperialist", and the war solidified her political views. After the war she travelled to Morocco as the guest of Resident General 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.

During the post war years she divided her time between Hyères and Provence, where she finished The Age of Innocence in 1920 which won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for literature, making Wharton the first woman to win the award.

Edith returned to the United States only once after the war, receiving an honorary doctorate degree from Yale University in 1923.

Edith included in her intellectual circle many of the great artists of her day; Henry James, Sinclair Lewis, Jean Cocteau and André Gide were her guests at one time. Theodore Roosevelt, Bernard Berenson, and Kenneth Clark were also friends. Of particular note was her meeting with F. Scott Fitzgerald, described as "one of the better known failed encounters in the American literary annals".

In 1934 Edith’s autobiography A Backward Glance was published. This glossed over much of the problems in her life barely registering the criticism of her mother, her difficulties with Teddy, and her affair with Morton Fullerton.

On June 1, 1937 Wharton was at the French country home of Ogden Codman, working on a revised edition of The Decoration of Houses, when she suffered a heart attack and collapsed.

Edith Wharton died of a stroke some months later on August 11, 1937 at Le Pavillon Colombe, her 18th-century house on Rue de Montmorency in Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt at 5:30 pm. At her bedside was her friend, Mrs. Royal Tyler. The street is today called rue Edith Wharton.

Edith was buried at the Cimetière des Gonards in Versailles, "with all the honors owed a war hero and a chevalier of the Legion of Honor....a group of a hundred friends sang a verse of the hymn "O Paradise"...." She is buried next to her long-time friend, Walter Berry.

Edith Wharton – A Concise Bibliography

 

BOOKS

The Touchstone, 1900 (novella)

The Valley of Decision, 1902

Sanctuary, 1903 (novella)

The House of Mirth, 1905

Madame de Treymes, 1907 (novella)

The Fruit of the Tree, 1907

Ethan Frome, 1911 (novella)

The Reef, 1912

The Custom of the Country, 1913

Bunner Sisters, 1916 (novella)

Summer, 1917

The Marne, 1918

The Age of Innocence, 1920 (Pulitzer Prize winner)

The Glimpses of the Moon, 1922

A Son at the Front, 1923

Old New York: False Dawn, The Old Maid, The Spark, New Year's Day, 1924 (novellas)

The Mother's Recompense, 1925

Twilight Sleep, 1927

The Children, 1928

Hudson River Bracketed, 1929

The Gods Arrive, 1932

The Buccaneers, 1938 (unfinished)

Fast and Loose: A Novelette, 1938 (written in 1876–1877)

POETRY

Verses, 1878

Artemis to Actaeon & Other Verse, 1909

Twelve Poems, 1926

SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS

The Greater Inclination, 1899

Souls Belated, 1899

Crucial Instances, 1901

The Descent of Man & Other Stories, 1903

The Hermit and the Wild Woman & Other Stories, 1908

Tales of Men & Ghosts, 1910

Xingu & Other Stories, 1916

Old New York, 1924

Here and Beyond, 1926

Certain People, 1930

Human Nature, 1933

The World Over, 1936

Ghosts, 1937

NON-FICTION

The Decoration of Houses, 1897

Italian Villas and Their Gardens, 1904

Italian Backgrounds, 1905

A Motor-Flight Through France, 1908

Fighting France, from Dunkerque to Belfort, 1915

French Ways and Their Meaning, 1919

In Morocco, 1920

The Writing of Fiction, 1925

A Backward Glance, 1934

AS EDITOR

The Book of the Homeless, 1916

CINEMA

The House of Mirth (La Maison du Brouillard), a 1918 silent film adaptation (6 reels).

The Glimpses Of The Moon, a 1923 silent film adaptation (7 reels)

The Age of Innocence, a 1924 silent film adaptation (7 reels) (of the 1920 novel)

The Marriage Playground, a 1929 film adaptation (70 minutes) (of the 1928 novel The Children)

 The Age of Innocence, a 1934 film adaptation (9 reels).

Strange Wives, a 1935 film adaptation (8 reels) (of the 1934 short story Bread Upon the Waters)

The Old Maid, a 1939 film adaptation (95 minutes) (of the 1924 short novella)

Ethan Frome (99 minutes) directed by John Madden and released in 1993,

The Age of Innocence (138 minutes) directed by Martin Scorsese and released in 1993,

The Reef (88 minutes) directed by Robert Allan Ackerman and released in 1999.

The House of Mirth (140 minutes) directed by Terence Davies and released in 2000.

TV

Ethan Frome, a 1960 (CBS) TV US adaptation.

Looking Back, a 1981 TV US adaptation of two biographies of Edith Wharton.

The House of Mirth, a 1981 TV US adaptation.

The Buccaneers, a 1995 BBC mini-series, starring Carla Gugino and Greg Wise.

THEATRE

The Man of Genius in 1901

"Es Lebe das Leben" ("The Joy of Living"), by Hermann Sudermann in 1902 - Translator.

The House of Mirth was adapted as a play in 1906.

The Age of Innocence was adapted as a play in 1928.