Benstock ( Women of the Left Bank: Paris 1900-1940 ) here presents a comprehensive portrait of the gifted writer; born into a prominent New York family, Edith Jones (1862-1937) married Edward Wharton in 1885 and embarked on life as a society matron. The author asks provocatively, ``How did the frightened debutante become the social chronicler of her age?'' Benstock's engrossing response draws extensively on unpublished materials to detail Wharton's dramatic metamorphosis into the successful author whose fiction ( House of Mirth , 1905) exposed the hypocrisies of her class. Wharton traveled abroad and lived for many years in France, where her love affair with Morton Fullerton provided a passionate escape from her difficult marriage. Her husband's unpredictable behavior--he was manic-depressive--precipitated a divorce in 1913. Wharton's close circle of intellectual friends, including writer Henry James, encouraged and sustained her. Despite bouts of debilitating respiratory illness, she wrote prolifically and won the Pulitzer Prize for Age of Innocence (1920). Photos not seen by PW . (July)
Relying on newly available materials from the Wharton archives, Benstock (Women of the Left Bank, LJ 11/15/86) has drawn a compelling portrait of Henry James's ``angel of devastation.'' In rich and sometimes tedious detail, the author traces the development of Wharton's private life and its impact on her public persona. This study provides greater insight than previous biographies into Wharton's failed marriage, her affair with Morton Fullerton, her guilt over her childlessness, and her intimate relationship with Henry James. The Wharton who emerges is a highly energetic writer for whom sexuality, passion, and the roles of women in society are central to life and art. Filled with engaging social history and literary criticism, Benstock's work challenges and complements R.W.B. Lewis's Edith Wharton (1975). This is first-rate literary biography. Highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 1/94.]-Henry L. Carrigan Jr., Westerville P.L., Ohio
Who's "not" reading "The Age of Innocence"? The Martin Scorsese film version of this classic American novel wasn't so much the genesis as only one important aspect of the current reawakening to Edith Wharton's world "and" genius. And not so much cashing in on this trend as advancing it is this new biography. Wharton was born in 1862 into New York City high society, and she wrote about this milieu once she saw the avenue of authorship opening up to her inclinations and talents and leading her away from mere hostessing. That she became a writer and not what she was supposed to become, a society matron--a "self-transformation," as Benstock refers to the process--is the thesis followed out here in all its fascinating detail. "She might have spent her afternoons reading novels (as her mother did); instead, she spent her mornings writing them." Of course, let's not imagine she threw over all her advantages for a life led in artistic poverty in a cold-water garret; she lived with fine things in fine places, a straddle between the artist's existence and one of wealth. This excellent biography makes wonderful ancillary reading to the rereading of her fiction.
Drawing on government records, legal and medical documents, and recently opened collections of Wharton's letters, Benstock's feminist biography reveals Wharton (1862-1937) as neither the emotionally withdrawn nor neurasthenic victim of earlier portraits, but as an ambitious, disciplined, and self-determined woman who fashioned her own life and art. Includes 16 pages of b&w photographs. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)