Madame de Treymes (1907) is set in fashionable Paris society, where a once free-spirited American woman is trying to extricate herself, with the help of a fellow countryman, from her marriage to an aristocratic Frenchman. Wharton’s keen sense of the American-European contrast shows Paris society as stifling as life in any New England village.
Such a village is the scene of Ethan Frome (1911), a tale of marital entrapment even more relentless. Ethan’s unhappy marriage and his desperate love for his wife’s cousin Mattie drive him to an act of shattering violence. The magnificent coda is a classic of American realistic fiction.
Set in the same region of the Berkshires, Wharton called Summer (1917) “the Hot Ethan.” It is the story of a young woman’s initiation into the intricate sexual and social mores of a small town—and her revolt against them. The complex relationship between Lawyer Royall and his ward, Charity, is one of Wharton’s most subtle and evocative.
Observations of the American scene continue in the four novellas that make up Old New York (1924). They take us from the 1840s of “False Dawn,” where a young man is ostracized for his avant garde taste in art, to the 1870s of “New Year’s Day,” where a domestic scandal unfolds. “The Spark” tells of a seemingly ordinary socialite who nevertheless was touched by his Civil War experiences. “The Old Maid,” a story of illegitimacy in which a mother refuses to claim her parental rights so her daughter might have advantages she cannot offer, is one of Wharton’s most popular.
The poignancies of parenthood are also the theme of The Mother’s Recompense (1925). Kate Clephane, a divorced woman who has been living in Europe, returns to New York to find her former lover engaged to her daughter—and to face the emotional tangles of this unusual triangle. Wharton also explores here the changes that have taken place in New York since World War I.
The fullest portraits of New York are saved for A Backward Glance (1934), one of the most compelling of American autobiographies. It is a fascinating record of Wharton’s literary career, of her friendships (including a loving appreciation of Henry James), as well as her thoughts on writing.
Another perspective is offered in “Life and I,” an autobiographical fragment that shows a younger Wharton writing with great frankness about her early life. It is published here for the first time.
About the Author
Born into a prosperous New York family, Edith Wharton (1862-1937) wrote more than 15 novels, including The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth, Ethan Frome, and other esteemed books. She was distinguished for her work in the First World War and was the first woman to receive a Doctorate of Letters from Yale University. She died in France at the age of 75.
Date of Birth:January 24, 1862
Date of Death:August 11, 1937
Place of Birth:New York, New York
Place of Death:Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt, France
Education:Educated privately in New York and Europe