In a writer's life, nothing is ever wasted. Every wrinkle in the fabric of experience can be transformed into fictional material. Although there is nothing directly autobiographical in the novels and stories of American novelist Edith Wharton (born Edith Jones), they reflect very distinctly both the shape of her life and the movements of her thought. In my previous post about her childhood, I left off with an unresolved question, one which would have been deeply troubling to Lucretia Jones, Edith's mother:
What's to be done with a young woman stricken with a misguided appetite for reading books and an even more unhealthy aspiration to write them?
The answer, of course, is to marry her off as soon as possible.
Edith Jones's overbearing mother, her two older brothers, and, it seemed, the entire social network of old New York conspired to find her a husband. It began with the ritual of her coming out, a year earlier than usual, and imagine the pressures that were brought to bear against the sensitive seventeen year-old debutante. A push in one direction, an unsubtle shove in another, a bit of sarcasm in one ear, a harsh rebuke in the other. She was now a woman in everyone's eyes and expected to follow the prescribed course. This meant, first and foremost, giving up any foolish fantasies of authorship.
Certainly, she tried to comply, to let herself be molded into the acceptable form. How bad could such a life be? Money and creature comforts would be plentiful. There would be frivolous entertainments galore. She was aware that many happy, agreeable, well-dressed women inhabited this world, with no other responsibility than to raise the children and manage the dinner invitations. From the beginning, however—and to some extent throughout her life—Edith Jones felt like an outsider. Even as she was being groomed for one role, who can say what flame of rebellion burned inside her? Although her literary career did not begin until almost twenty years later, when she was in her forties, who can say that the dream of a writing life was not the thing that sustained her?
Her brothers kept bringing their friends home, hoping one of them might strike the necessary romantic spark. And that is how, in 1883, she became engaged to Edward Robbins Wharton, otherwise known as "Teddy." He was twelve years her senior—an amiable, respectable, unassertive fellow who, at the age of 33, still lived with his mother. Like many men of his class, he had no real job but lived on a trust fund. His time was his own, and he filled it with sports, fishing, riding, and camping. He enjoyed travel and shared with his wife a love of dogs, but beyond that he had no intellectual or aesthetic interests whatsoever. It's hard to imagine what he and his wife ever found to talk about. Yes, he was a real husband, as society measures these things, but a less suitable match for Edith Jones would be hard to imagine.
In addition, Teddy's father had been institutionalized with a condition then known as "melancholia." Today those symptoms might more accurately be classified as manic depression or bipolar disorder. Edith's mother, Lucretia, seems to have been concerned about this, but doctors assured her the condition was not hereditary and there was nothing to worry about. It turned out that her initial fears for Teddy's mental well-being were well founded.
With her marriage only two days away, Edith Jones still didn't know what to expect. She had questions which in those days not only went unanswered, but were rarely asked. In her memoir, A Backward Glance, she dramatized a confrontation with her mother only days before the wedding. Suffering a bad case of nerves, she was finally able to muster the courage to ask "what marriage was really like."
Her mother responded with open contempt: "You've seen enough pictures and statues in your life," she said. "Haven't you noticed that men are… made differently from women?" When her daughter shyly indicated that she had noticed, Lucretia Jones decided that the case was closed. "Then for heaven's sake," she said, "don't ask me any more silly questions. You can't be as stupid as you pretend."
It's not hard to foresee that this marriage was off to a bad start.
Nevertheless, in 1885, at the age of twenty-three, Edith Newbold Jones became Mrs. Edward R. Wharton.
Her life seemed, at least on the surface, to be settled. But we can not really know how difficult those first weeks of marriage were. There is enough information to assume the worst. We do know that, for the first three weeks, she remained ignorant of what she called the "processes of generation." Then, shortly after their physical relationship began, it seems to have ended for good. Many a Victorian bride might have been traumatized on her wedding night by a clumsy or insensitive husband. But how much of this was Teddy's fault is impossible to say, since the emotional deprivations of Edith Jones's childhood would certainly have contributed to the failed intimacy of their marriage. In an unpublished biographical essay, "Life & I," she wrote that it was her mother's "training" which "did more than anything to falsify & misdirect my whole life." Edith Wharton would not know a passionate love affair until her mid-forties, when she met the journalist Morton Fullerton.
Teddy Wharton. Beinecke Library.She might have hoped, at the very least, that marriage would get her away from Lucretia Jones and sever that formidable influence forever... but she did not get very far. For the first three years, she and Teddy lived at Pencraig Cottage, a house owned by her mother, directly across the street from her stately Newport mansion. Half the newlyweds' year was spent at Pencraig Cottage, the other half was spent traveling through Europe. The contradictions between the person Edith Wharton was and the life that was expected of her grew greater and greater. And the dearest price she had to pay was having to reduce to second place the one element of her life which had ever given it substance and self-esteem: her writing. Without writing, physical intimacy, or intellectual companionship, she embarked on the kind of life expected of a woman of her station. She played the game as best she could. But illness caught up with her, and she suffered from a variety of ailments: eating disorders, migraines, claustrophobia, and asthma. For more than a decade after her marriage, she was plagued by bad health. In a letter, many years later, she describes that period as being filled with what she called an "intense feeling of nausea, & such unutterable fatigue." Her biographers suggest that these were psychosomatic symptoms. She had begun to experience what might be called a crisis of identity: her creative self at war with the self trapped in a frivolous world and an unsatisfying marriage.
And then, either consciously or through small, unconscious increments of will, she began to pull herself out of it. The key to this self-renewal was a gradual refocusing of her literary ambitions. All of the major biographies as well as her own autobiography trace the same trajectory, a healing of self through the redemptive properties of words. She had been writing since childhood. Marriage had deflected her for a while, but even through her first years as Mrs. Wharton she had continued—tentatively and a bit distractedly—to write poetry. In 1889, two of her poems were accepted for publication in Scribner's Magazine, and The Atlantic Monthly took a third. Later, her short stories started to appear in Scribner's Magazine. Many portrayed disillusioned characters imprisoned by their marriages, suggesting that Wharton was channeling her own moods and reflections at the time. Unlike most writers, who wait years for a first literary break, Edith Wharton seems, at least on the surface, to have had it all from the start. She found her way almost immediately into the highest paying markets. Editors wanted to publish her. Readers devoured her stories. But she still felt a great deal of uncertainty about her work. She had trouble finishing stories and, in between spurts of creativity, there were long gaps of silence.
Along with her writing and social duties, she began to find time for other interests, such as interior design and gardening, and living for the annual escapes to Europe, particularly France. In Paris she began to develop personal friendships with more sophisticated and intellectually stimulating companions—people with whom it was easy to share her views. While Teddy had enjoyed the frivolous life of Newport, with its parties and its sports, and felt at home among its socially prominent families, he was distinctly uncomfortable around her newer, more creative, and mostly male acquaintances. Many of these artistic friends, like novelist Henry James, thought that marriage to Teddy was the worst mistake she had made in her life.
In 1899, Scribner's brought out The Greater Inclination, her first published volume of fiction. Thus, in those years right around the turn of the century, Edith Wharton began a literary career almost unparalleled in its scope, vision, and ambition. Once it was finally released, her energy was astonishing. Between her marriage in 1885 and her first bestseller, The House of Mirth, in 1905 she published nine books, including three collections of short stories, a novel and two novellas, a book on interior decorating, two on the landscapes and gardens of Italy, and a translation of a German play.
A 1902 postcard of The MountWhile all that sustained writing activity was taking place, Edith Wharton designed and moved into The Mount, a country house which originally stood on upwards of one hundred acres of land in Lenox, Massachusetts. She considered The Mount her first real home. This is where she finally came into her own. She seemed at last to have shaken off any residual hold of Newport society and finally developed her own circle of intellectual and artistic friends.
This is also where Teddy began to show more and more the signs of his mental instability. He grew restless. The smallest things made him angry. He sank into the blackest depression, and suffered the first of many nervous collapses.
Earlier this summer, I travelled to the Berkshires and visited The Mount for the first time. The house has been beautifully restored, and after actually walking through its rooms and grounds and gardens, I had a more visceral understanding of the dynamics of the Whartons' marriage. From the start, Teddy had never quite been able to find a role for himself, and here the inequality of their positions became even more pronounced. They maintained separate bedrooms. Edith's was a sizeable, spacious suite of rooms where she slept and worked. Teddy's bedroom was small and austere, with few furnishings beyond a wooden desk where he sorted out the household finances and a narrow bed where he slept alone. Among his wife's sophisticated friends he felt either bored or foolish and was generally excluded from her interests. Although proud of his wife's accomplishments, it is unlikely that he ever actually read her books. When The House of Mirth was first published in 1905, it became a bestseller almost immediately, its sales surpassing not only any previous work of Wharton's, but every other beseller of the time as well—a final confirmation that she had at last achieved the life she had always dreamed of: a writing life. But Teddy, who was largely dependent on her considerable income, must have found it even more difficult to come to terms with her success. Despite their growing estrangement, and Teddy's steadily deteriorating mental condition, the Whartons' marriage lasted a total of twenty-eight years...
And here is a photo of me this past summer, sitting in Edith Wharton's secret garden at The Mount, pretending to be Henry James. I will be discussing Edith Wharton's life and works in greater detail during "Edith Wharton: A Writing Life," a talk to be given on November 15, 2:15-4 p.m., in the South Court auditorium of the New York Public Library.