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Edith Wharton, A Writing Life: Childhood
This coming fall, perhaps in September, I will be giving a library talk called "Edith Wharton: A Writing Life." In preparation, I have been immersing myself in Wharton's novels and stories. Although the fiction is often set in a New York as remote from us as an ancient city, among a wealthy and exclusive class many generations removed from today's social elite, what strikes me most powerfully is how modern it all seems. Her characters have passions, needs, joys, and frustrations which are as piercing and poignant as our own. They breathe the same air as we do.
Edith Wharton has a secure position among the greatest writers America has ever produced. Even today, when the lustre of books has faded, and reading seems more and more a quaint throwback to an earlier time, people read Edith Wharton. You can still walk into most bookstores and find the novels that are generally thought of as her masterpieces, novels that are as powerful today as when they first appeared: The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country, and the Pulitzer-Prize winning The Age of Innocence. That devastating tale of frustrated desire, Ethan Frome, is required reading in many schools.
If you know any or all of these works and think that's all she wrote, it might surprise you that in her lifetime Edith Wharton published a total of forty-eight volumes, at least one and sometimes more per year: novels, collections of stories, and nonfiction works on interior design, gardening, and travel. Most of her books sold well in her own lifetime, and some phenomenally well. She never wanted for readers. The earlier books were recognized from the start as masterpieces; the later works, while not quite so well received by critics, still sold many copies among her loyal followers and can be read with pleasure or at least interest today. Of how many best-selling authors of earlier generations can this be said?
The question to be posed is where did Edith Wharton, the great American novelist, come from? How was she formed? What was the source of her creative fire, and how was it ignited? Among the leisured class of old New York, a young woman's intellectual activity was never encouraged and often had to be actively reined in, while the literary life would have been frowned on for anyone, regardless of gender. Still, a boy would have had a proper tutor and eventually gone off to school to seek his place. A girl's education would have been at best makeshift, since her function was to be ornamental, make a good marriage, and devote herself to homemaking, child rearing, and keeping up with the hectic rounds of social life that a position in society demanded.
She was born Edith Newbold Jones in a handsome Manhattan townhouse on January 24,1862. Her parents belonged to the aristocratic element of old New York society—in fact, the expression "keeping up with the Joneses" is said to have originated with reference to two of her great-aunts. In the societal hierarchy, the Joneses were not nearly as wealthy as the Astors, the Vanderbilts, or the Morgans. But, while money was certainly an important part of their world, it wasn't the central part. To dwell on personal wealth would had have been considered vulgar. Far more important was the complex web of blood ties that knit the family together and the rigid scheme of manners that kept everyone else out. Manners were everything. In her memoir, A Backward Glance, Wharton wrote, "One was polite, considerate of others, careful of the accepted formula, because such were the principles of the well-bred... 'bad manners' were the worst offence."
Photographs are curious things. You can try this exercise at home. Look in that shoebox full of old family photos that you keep in the closet and dig out a snapshot of yourself at about the age of five. Stare carefully... if you dare. Can you find clues as to the person you might one day become, or not become; the things you might achieve, or fail to achieve; the life you once sought out, or the very different one that was thrust on you?
With those questions in mind, I invite you to look into the face of little Edith Jones to see what it might reveal...
She was a lonely and an awkward child. "As I was the least good-looking of the family," she would later write, " the consciousness of my physical short-comings was heightened by the beauty of the persons about me." Since she hoped to please in the conventional, accepted ways for girls, appearance preoccupied her. Asked by an aunt what she wanted to be when she grew up, she promptly replied, "The best-dressed woman in New York." But her two older brothers teased her mercilessly about her red hair and her big hands and feet. And, while she constantly sought her mother's approval and love, it was rare that she received either. From the start, the relationship with her mother was a troubled one. Lucretia Rhinelander Stevens was an intensely snobbish woman and deeply concerned with doing things the "proper" way. When her daughter was born, she was thirty-seven and had been married for eighteen years. She had two sons—Frederic, aged sixteen, and Henry, aged eleven—and it would not be going too far to guess that a daughter, at this late date, was not a welcome surprise. "[U]nder this perpetual cross-fire of criticism," Wharton wrote, "I became a painfully shy self-conscious child."
She seems, however, to have felt great affection for her father, George Frederic Jones, a sensitive man with a taste for art, history, classical architecture, and travel. She describes him as "tall and handsome" and, in his company, she felt safe and protected. Of formal education there was little for Edith Jones beyond the rote lessons of an uninspired governess. "My childhood and youth," she later wrote, "were an intellectual desert." The only way she could even begin to satisfy her intellectual curiosity was by sequestering herself in her father's extensive library. There she had access to all his books, although none of them were specifically for children. She had to make do with history, philosophy, poetry, and the works of Goethe. Most alarming to her family was her fanciful imagination. In her memoirs, Wharton describes her habit as a small girl of what she called "making up." She would march about the house holding a book (any book) that she pretended to read aloud. She made up the words as she went along, too, and rejoiced in the sheer sound of them. Even before she could read, she was a story-teller; and the ritual brought what she called "the rapture of finding myself in my own rich world of dreams." But this was a worrisome habit. It was not what was expected of her. Her parents, she wrote, "were beginning to regard me with fear, like some pale predestined child who disappears at night to dance with 'the little people.'"
One of the most damning anecdotes in A Backward Glance occurs when young Edith graduated from "making up" and actually began to write down her stories and poems. But, unlike most parents who would encourage their child's creativity, her mother did not provide her with any paper to write on, because it was thought too expensive to waste on a girl's scribbles. She had to collect big sheets of used wrapping paper which she spread out on the floor to do her writing.
She began her first long narrative at the age of eleven, but her mother mocked the effort. Her second attempt, three years later, was a thirty-thousand word novella called Fast and Loose, a story of British country life and social rituals. The opening dialogue reads:
"Oh, how do you do Mrs. Brown?" said Mrs. Tomkins. "If only I had known you were going to call I should have tidied up the drawing room."
When she read those opening sentences, her mother 's icy comment was: "Drawing rooms are always tidy." As she recounted the episode in A Backward Glance, Wharton found her mother's feedback "so crushing to a would-be novelist of manners that it shook me rudely out of my dream of writing fiction, and I took to poetry instead."
Because their fortune was wrapped up in real estate, the finances of the Jones family were variable. When the Civil War ended in 1866, property values in New York started to fall. The social fabric began to fray a bit, and keeping up appearances became more difficult. To cope with the new economic difficulties, George Jones did what any of us might do, if we sensed our independent wealth in jeopardy. He rented out their New York townhouse and the fashionable Newport residence and booked passage for his family to Europe, where the cost of living was cheaper, and resided there for the next six years. He sailed with his wife, two sons, daughter, and Hannah Doyle, who served both as Edith's nurse and Lucretia's personal maid.
It was that early sojourn that formed Edith's life-long love of Europe. Here, she learned to speak Italian, French, and German. The family spent a year in Rome, journeyed across central Spain, settled for two years in an apartment on the Right Bank of Paris, and moved to a spa in Wurttemberg, Germany. But it was there, during a walk to collect wildflowers, that eight-year old Edith Jones collapsed and was diagnosed with typhoid fever. It was a long, difficult siege which she later recalled as the dividing line between what she called her "little childhood" and the next stage of her life. This photograph was taken in Switzerland in 1870, shortly after she had recovered from the illness. It is one of her few natural, unposed early pictures, with her uncombed hair and intense, haunted eyes.
From this abbreviated discussion of Edith Wharton's childhood, you should take away the impression that she was very much an outsider, even in her own family, although an outsider who very much wanted to fit in. She desperately wanted to please her mother and on some level, to be accepted by the society she had been born into.
But her photographs get at a different, inner truth. In these early poses, she is almost palpably tense. Did anyone ever photograph as awkwardly as the teenaged Edith Jones? Did anyone ever look as unhappy?
Later pictures, of course, will show a very different woman: confident, authoritative, comfortable in her surroundings and with herself. But here you can feel the pull of conflicting interests. You can almost read her thoughts. How do I look? What will people think? Is this pose okay? Should I smile or look serious? How am I presenting myself?
In this brief overview of Edith Wharton's younger days, I have set out a few markers, but none seem to be pointing in a particular direction, certainly not towards fame as one of America's greatest novelists. The writing would come much later. She only drifted into fiction in her forties, after years of illness and in the midst of a notably bad marriage. Once they started to appear, however, the novels and stories would continue to appear regularly, dissecting the world she had grown up in with a scalpel. A writer's work should never be mistaken for autobiography, but the life is always the raw material which goes into the making of the fiction. I hope in later posts to continue my exploration of those places where Edith Wharton's life and her writing intersect.