The House of Mirth follows the tragic fall of Lily Bart, a beautiful socialite who loses her footing in the savage social-climbing world of New York high society in the nineteenth century.
Lily Bart has no fortune, but she possesses everything else she needs to make an excellent marriage: beauty, intelligence, a love of luxury and an elegant skill in negotiating the hidden traps and false friends of New York's high society. But time and again Lily cannot bring herself to make the final decisive move: to abandon her sense of self and a chance of love for the final soulless leap into a mercenary union. Her time is running out, and degradation awaits. Edith Wharton's masterful novel is a tragedy of money, morality and missed opportunity.
‘Edith Wharton's 1905 novel gave literature one of its most complicated tragic heroines’ Independent
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About the Author
Edith Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones to George and Lucretia Jones in New York City on January 24, 1862. Edith married Teddy Wharton, 12 years older than she. They lived a life of relative ease with homes in New York, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. Novels flowed from her mind in the years between 1900 and 1938. Indeed her novels became so popular with the general public that Ms. Wharton was able to live comfortably on her earnings the rest of her life.
Edith divorced Teddy in 1912, having no immediate heirs, and never married again. Instead she traveled extensively by motorcar, helped untiringly with refugees in Paris during the first World War, and only returned once again in her lifetime to the United States to accept the Pulitzer prize for her novel, The Age of Innocence.
She held salons where the gifted intellectuals of her time gathered to discuss and share ideas. F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway were guests of hers.
Edith lived in two homes in France, one in the north of Paris, Pavillon Colombe, and one at Hyere, Ste. Claire. Her flat in Paris was at 53 Rue de Varenne. She retired to Pavillon Colombe and continued to write until a stroke took her life in August 1937. She is buried in the American Cemetery at Versailles. The inscription on her grave stone reads: "O Crux Ave Spes Unica", which translates: "Hail, o cross, the one hope."
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
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The House of Mirth
By Edith Wharton
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2016 Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Selden paused in surprise. In the afternoon rush of the Grand Central Station his eyes had been refreshed by the sight of Miss Lily Bart.
It was a Monday in early September, and he was returning to his work from a hurried dip into the country; but what was Miss Bart doing in town at that season? If she had appeared to be catching a train, he might have inferred that he had come on her in the act of transition between one and another of the country-houses which disputed her presence after the close of the Newport season; but her desultory air perplexed him. She stood apart from the crowd, letting it drift by her to the platform or the street, and wearing an air of irresolution which might, as he surmised, be the mask of a very definite purpose. It struck him at once that she was waiting for some one, but he hardly knew why the idea arrested him. There was nothing new about Lily Bart, yet he could never see her without a faint movement of interest: it was characteristic of her that she always roused speculation, that her simplest acts seemed the result of far-reaching intentions.
An impulse of curiosity made him turn out of his direct line to the door, and stroll past her. He knew that if she did not wish to be seen she would contrive to elude him; and it amused him to think of putting her skill to the test.
"Mr. Selden — what good luck!"
She came forward smiling, eager almost, in her resolve to intercept him. One or two persons, in brushing past them, lingered to look; for Miss Bart was a figure to arrest even the suburban traveller rushing to his last train.
Selden had never seen her more radiant. Her vivid head, relieved against the dull tints of the crowd, made her more conspicuous than in a ball-room, and under her dark hat and veil she regained the girlish smoothness, the purity of tint, that she was beginning to lose after eleven years of late hours and indefatigable dancing. Was it really eleven years, Selden found himself wondering, and had she indeed reached the nine-and-twentieth birthday with which her rivals credited her?
"What luck!" she repeated. "How nice of you to come to my rescue!"
He responded joyfully that to do so was his mission in life, and asked what form the rescue was to take.
"Oh, almost any — even to sitting on a bench and talking to me. One sits out a cotillion — why not sit out a train? It isn't a bit hotter here than in Mrs. Van Osburgh's conservatory — and some of the women are not a bit uglier." She broke off, laughing, to explain that she had come up to town from Tuxedo, on her way to the Gus Trenors' at Bellomont, and had missed the three-fifteen train to Rhinebeck. "And there isn't another till half-past five." She consulted the little jewelled watch among her laces. "Just two hours to wait. And I don't know what to do with myself. My maid came up this morning to do some shopping for me, and was to go on to Bellomont at one o'clock, and my aunt's house is closed, and I don't know a soul in town." She glanced plaintively about the station. "It is hotter than Mrs. Van Osburgh's, after all. If you can spare the time, do take me somewhere for a breath of air."
He declared himself entirely at her disposal: the adventure struck him as diverting. As a spectator, he had always enjoyed Lily Bart; and his course lay so far out of her orbit that it amused him to be drawn for a moment into the sudden intimacy which her proposal implied.
"Shall we go over to Sherry's for a cup of tea?"
She smiled assentingly, and then made a slight grimace.
"So many people come up to town on a Monday — one is sure to meet a lot of bores. I'm as old as the hills, of course, and it ought not to make any difference; but if I'm old enough, you're not," she objected gaily. "I'm dying for tea — but isn't there a quieter place?"
He answered her smile, which rested on him vividly. Her discretions interested him almost as much as her imprudences: he was so sure that both were part of the same carefully-elaborated plan. In judging Miss Bart, he had always made use of the "argument from design."
"The resources of New York are rather meagre," he said; "but I'll find a hansom first, and then we'll invent something." He led her through the throng of returning holiday-makers, past sallow-faced girls in preposterous hats, and flat-chested women struggling with paper bundles and palm-leaf fans. Was it possible that she belonged to the same race? The dinginess, the crudity of this average section of womanhood made him feel how highly specialized she was.
A rapid shower had cooled the air, and clouds still hung refreshingly over the moist street.
"How delicious! Let us walk a little," she said as they emerged from the station.
They turned into Madison Avenue and began to stroll northward. As she moved beside him, with her long light step, Selden was conscious of taking a luxurious pleasure in her nearness: in the modelling of her little ear, the crisp upward wave of her hair — was it ever so slightly brightened by art? — and the thick planting of her straight black lashes. Everything about her was at once vigorous and exquisite, at once strong and fine. He had a confused sense that she must have cost a great deal to make, that a great many dull and ugly people must, in some mysterious way, have been sacrificed to produce her. He was aware that the qualities distinguishing her from the herd of her sex were chiefly external: as though a fine glaze of beauty and fastidiousness had been applied to vulgar clay. Yet the analogy left him unsatisfied, for a coarse texture will not take a high finish; and was it not possible that the material was fine, but that circumstance had fashioned it into a futile shape?
As he reached this point in his speculations the sun came out, and her lifted parasol cut off his enjoyment. A moment or two later she paused with a sigh.
"Oh, dear, I'm so hot and thirsty — and what a hideous place New York is!" She looked despairingly up and down the dreary thoroughfare. "Other cities put on their best clothes in summer, but New York seems to sit in its shirtsleeves." Her eyes wandered down one of the side-streets. "Someone has had the humanity to plant a few trees over there. Let us go into the shade."
"I am glad my street meets with your approval," said Selden as they turned the corner.
"Your street? Do you live here?"
She glanced with interest along the new brick and limestone house-fronts, fantastically varied in obedience to the American craving for novelty, but fresh and inviting with their awnings and flower-boxes.
"Ah, yes — to be sure: The Benedick. What a nice-looking building! I don't think I've ever seen it before." She looked across at the flat-house with its marble porch and pseudo-Georgian facade. "Which are your windows? Those with the awnings down?"
"On the top floor — yes."
"And that nice little balcony is yours? How cool it looks up there!"
He paused a moment. "Come up and see," he suggested. "I can give you a cup of tea in no time — and you won't meet any bores."
Her colour deepened — she still had the art of blushing at the right time — but she took the suggestion as lightly as it was made.
"Why not? It's too tempting — I'll take the risk," she declared.
"Oh, I'm not dangerous," he said in the same key. In truth, he had never liked her as well as at that moment. He knew she had accepted without afterthought: he could never be a factor in her calculations, and there was a surprise, a refreshment almost, in the spontaneity of her consent.
On the threshold he paused a moment, feeling for his latchkey.
"There's no one here; but I have a servant who is supposed to come in the mornings, and it's just possible he may have put out the tea-things and provided some cake."
He ushered her into a slip of a hall hung with old prints. She noticed the letters and notes heaped on the table among his gloves and sticks; then she found herself in a small library, dark but cheerful, with its walls of books, a pleasantly faded Turkey rug, a littered desk and, as he had foretold, a tea-tray on a low table near the window. A breeze had sprung up, swaying inward the muslin curtains, and bringing a fresh scent of mignonette and petunias from the flower-box on the balcony.
Lily sank with a sigh into one of the shabby leather chairs.
"How delicious to have a place like this all to one's self! What a miserable thing it is to be a woman." She leaned back in a luxury of discontent.
Selden was rummaging in a cupboard for the cake.
"Even women," he said, "have been known to enjoy the privileges of a flat."
"Oh, governesses — or widows. But not girls — not poor, miserable, marriageable girls!"
"I even know a girl who lives in a flat."
She sat up in surprise. "You do?"
"I do," he assured her, emerging from the cupboard with the sought-for cake.
"Oh, I know — you mean Gerty Farish." She smiled a little unkindly. "But I said marriageable — and besides, she has a horrid little place, and no maid, and such queer things to eat. Her cook does the washing and the food tastes of soap. I should hate that, you know."
"You shouldn't dine with her on wash-days," said Selden, cutting the cake.
They both laughed, and he knelt by the table to light the lamp under the kettle, while she measured out the tea into a little tea-pot of green glaze. As he watched her hand, polished as a bit of old ivory, with its slender pink nails, and the sapphire bracelet slipping over her wrist, he was struck with the irony of suggesting to her such a life as his cousin Gertrude Farish had chosen. She was so evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced her, that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate.
She seemed to read his thought. "It was horrid of me to say that of Gerty," she said with charming compunction. "I forgot she was your cousin. But we're so different, you know: she likes being good, and I like being happy. And besides, she is free and I am not. If I were, I daresay I could manage to be happy even in her flat. It must be pure bliss to arrange the furniture just as one likes, and give all the horrors to the ashman. If I could only do over my aunt's drawing-room I know I should be a better woman."
"Is it so very bad?" he asked sympathetically.
She smiled at him across the tea-pot which she was holding up to be filled.
"That shows how seldom you come there. Why don't you come oftener?"
"When I do come, it's not to look at Mrs. Peniston's furniture."
"Nonsense," she said. "You don't come at all — and yet we get on so well when we meet."
"Perhaps that's the reason," he answered promptly. "I'm afraid I haven't any cream, you know — shall you mind a slice of lemon instead?"
"I shall like it better." She waited while he cut the lemon and dropped a thin disk into her cup. "But that is not the reason," she insisted.
"The reason for what?"
"For your never coming." She leaned forward with a shade of perplexity in her charming eyes. "I wish I knew — I wish I could make you out. Of course I know there are men who don't like me — one can tell that at a glance. And there are others who are afraid of me: they think I want to marry them." She smiled up at him frankly. "But I don't think you dislike me — and you can't possibly think I want to marry you."
"No — I absolve you of that," he agreed.
"Well, then —?"
He had carried his cup to the fireplace, and stood leaning against the chimney-piece and looking down on her with an air of indolent amusement. The provocation in her eyes increased his amusement — he had not supposed she would waste her powder on such small game; but perhaps she was only keeping her hand in; or perhaps a girl of her type had no conversation but of the personal kind. At any rate, she was amazingly pretty, and he had asked her to tea and must live up to his obligations.
"Well, then," he said with a plunge, "perhaps that's the reason."
"The fact that you don't want to marry me. Perhaps I don't regard it as such a strong inducement to go and see you." He felt a slight shiver down his spine as he ventured this, but her laugh reassured him.
"Dear Mr. Selden, that wasn't worthy of you. It's stupid of you to make love to me, and it isn't like you to be stupid." She leaned back, sipping her tea with an air so enchantingly judicial that, if they had been in her aunt's drawing-room, he might almost have tried to disprove her deduction.
"Don't you see," she continued, "that there are men enough to say pleasant things to me, and that what I want is a friend who won't be afraid to say disagreeable ones when I need them? Sometimes I have fancied you might be that friend — I don't know why, except that you are neither a prig nor a bounder, and that I shouldn't have to pretend with you or be on my guard against you." Her voice had dropped to a note of seriousness, and she sat gazing up at him with the troubled gravity of a child.
"You don't know how much I need such a friend," she said. "My aunt is full of copy-book axioms, but they were all meant to apply to conduct in the early fifties. I always feel that to live up to them would include wearing book-muslin with gigot sleeves. And the other women — my best friends — well, they use me or abuse me; but they don't care a straw what happens to me. I've been about too long — people are getting tired of me; they are beginning to say I ought to marry."
There was a moment's pause, during which Selden meditated one or two replies calculated to add a momentary zest to the situation; but he rejected them in favour of the simple question: "Well, why don't you?"
She coloured and laughed. "Ah, I see you are a friend after all, and that is one of the disagreeable things I was asking for."
"It wasn't meant to be disagreeable," he returned amicably. "Isn't marriage your vocation? Isn't it what you're all brought up for?" She sighed. "I suppose so. What else is there?"
"Exactly. And so why not take the plunge and have it over?"
She shrugged her shoulders. "You speak as if I ought to marry the first man who came along."
"I didn't mean to imply that you are as hard put to it as that. But there must be some one with the requisite qualifications."
She shook her head wearily. "I threw away one or two good chances when I first came out — I suppose every girl does; and you know I am horribly poor — and very expensive. I must have a great deal of money."
Selden had turned to reach for a cigarette-box on the mantelpiece.
"What's become of Dillworth?" he asked.
"Oh, his mother was frightened — she was afraid I should have all the family jewels reset. And she wanted me to promise that I wouldn't do over the drawing-room."
"The very thing you are marrying for!"
"Exactly. So she packed him off to India."
"Hard luck — but you can do better than Dillworth."
He offered the box, and she took out three or four cigarettes, putting one between her lips and slipping the others into a little gold case attached to her long pearl chain.
"Have I time? Just a whiff, then." She leaned forward, holding the tip of her cigarette to his. As she did so, he noted, with a purely impersonal enjoyment, how evenly the black lashes were set in her smooth white lids, and how the purplish shade beneath them melted into the pure pallour of the cheek.
She began to saunter about the room, examining the bookshelves between the puffs of her cigarette-smoke. Some of the volumes had the ripe tints of good tooling and old morocco, and her eyes lingered on them caressingly, not with the appreciation of the expert, but with the pleasure in agreeable tones and textures that was one of her inmost susceptibilities. Suddenly her expression changed from desultory enjoyment to active conjecture, and she turned to Selden with a question.
"You collect, don't you — you know about first editions and things?"
"As much as a man may who has no money to spend. Now and then I pick up something in the rubbish heap; and I go and look on at the big sales."
She had again addressed herself to the shelves, but her eyes now swept them inattentively, and he saw that she was preoccupied with a new idea.
"And Americana — do you collect Americana?"
Selden stared and laughed.
"No, that's rather out of my line. I'm not really a collector, you see; I simply like to have good editions of the books I am fond of."
She made a slight grimace. "And Americana are horribly dull, I suppose?"
Excerpted from The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. Copyright © 2016 Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgements Introduction Edith Wharton: A Brief Chronology A Note on the Text
The House of Mirth
- Book I Book II
Appendix A: Edith Wharton’s Introduction to the 1936 Edition of The House of Mirth
Appendix B: From Edith Wharton’s Autobiography, A Backward Glance (1934)
Appendix C: Edith Wharton’s Correspondence about The House of Mirth, 1905
Appendix D: Contemporary Reviews of The House of Mirth
- Independent (20 July 1905)
- Outlook (21 October 1905)
- Times Literary Supplement (1 December 1905)
- Literary Digest (December 1905)
- From Olivia Howard Dunbar, “A Group of Novels,” Critic (December 1905)
- Saturday Review (17 February 1906)
Appendix E: A Social Picture of New York and Newport
- From Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899)
- From Henry James, The American Scene (1907)
- From Anna Wentworth Sears, “The Correct Thing,” Harper’s Bazaar (1905)
- From Masquerades, Tableaux and Drills (1906)
- From W.C. Brownell, “Newport,” Scribner’s Magazine (August 1894)
- From Florence Howe Hall, “Changes in the Newport Life and Forms of Entertainment,” Harper’s Bazaar (November 1905)
Appendix F: The Lives of Women
- From Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Women and Men (1898)
- From Clara Sidney Davidge, “Working-Girls’ Clubs,” Scribner’s Magazine (May 1894)
- Editorial, “Our National Fault,” Harper’s Bazaar (February 1894)
- Editorial, “Cards in the Morning,” Harper’s Bazaar (January 1905)
- From Mrs. John Sherwood, Manners and Social Usages (1887)
- Fashion Images (1905)
Appendix G: From Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman, Jr., The Decoration of Houses (1897)
Appendix H: Edith Wharton, “The Introducers” (1905)
What People are Saying About This
Gore Vidal There are only three or four American novelists who can be thought of as "major," and Edith Wharton is one.
Gore Vidal There are only three or four American novelists who can be thought of as "major," and Edith Wharton is one.
Reading Group Guide
The House of Mirth, published in 1905, marks Edith Wharton's emergence as one of America's greatest writers. Although Wharton had previously published two collections of stories, The Greater Inclination (1899) and Crucial Incidents (1901) and the novel The Valley of Decision (1902), her decision to write about fashionable New York, a world she "had been steeped in since infancy," brought her immediate success and recognition. As she wrote in her autobiography, A Backward Glance (1934), her goal in The House of Mirth was to uncover the true nature of society's power and to answer the question: "in what aspect could a society of irresponsible pleasure-seekers be said to have, on the 'old woe of the world,' any deeper bearing that the people composing such a society could guess?"
By 1905, the genteel milieu of Wharton's childhood was rapidly disappearing. Fashions—and economics—had changed, and Old New York society was forced to recognize the power of "new money" and even to accept the newly rich, with their tremendous wealth earned in a suspect marketplace, into their circle. It was a concession that would not only corrode their sense of style and decorum, but allow them to sacrifice the members of the "old" society who could not keep pace. Lily Bart, the heroine of The House of Mirth, is a victim of a large, unstoppable shift in the ways of the world.
Launched into society at a glorious and very expensive debutante ball, Lily sees a world of unlimited possibility before her. But her father's announcement that he is financially ruined, followed quickly by his death, leave Lily and her mother with only one "asset"—Lily's extraordinary beauty and charm. At the age of 29, now orphaned, Lily lives with an aunt who offers minimum, often grudging, hospitality and financial support. A wealthy husband could satisfy her craving for luxury and admiration, but Lily is reluctant to consummate this kind of "deal." In a chronicle that richly details the follies of shallowness, and cruelties of society as it illuminates Lily's own ambivalence about who and what she wants, Wharton traces her heroine's decline from her elite position as a much-desired guest in exclusive social events, to her role as a liaison between rich "outsiders" eager to be accepted in society but ignorant of its ways, to her piteous existence when the homes of both old and new society are firmly, finally, closed to her.
On one level a devastating satire of a world devoid of moral scruples, The House of Mirth is also a stringent critique of the particular restrictions and limitations such a world imposes on women. Lily is a woman not only of charm, but of intelligence; her outward beauty matched by a genuine, if undeveloped, appreciation of art and of nature's beauty. By succumbing to society's definition of her as a beautiful object and nothing more, however, Lily in many ways authors her own fate. Woven throughout the novel are threads of Wharton's own experience. Born in 1862, Wharton spent her childhood in the staid brownstones of New York and the elegant country houses to which the rich retired during the summer, and was intimately acquainted with the styles of entertaining, of dress, and of conspicuous consumption favored by the people who inhabited them. She married five years after her own debut, late enough to have contemplated the likely fate of an unmarried woman in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Though her husband, Edward, was well-enough off to avoid working in the despised business world, the two were fundamentally incompatible. Edward admired Edith's brilliance, but he was far from her intellectual equal and shared few of her interests. The critic Edmund Wilson speculated that Wharton turned to fiction to ease the tensions of her marriage; certainly the world she created through her writing must have been a welcome haven from the tedium and disappointments of life with Edward. But it is the very act of writing that separates Wharton from her fictional creation. Unlike Lily, Wharton took an active role in defining herself, becoming a masterful writer, and establishing that a woman need not depend on others to achieve dignity and a sense of worth. The world is much richer for it.
ABOUT EDITH WHARTON
Edith Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones on January 24, 1862, during the American Civil War, into a world that could hardly have been more discouraging of her desire to be a writer. Her parents, George Frederic and Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander Jones, descendants of prosperous English and Dutch businessmen, bankers, and lawyers, were pillars of the fashionable New York society Wharton would depict in many of her novels. It was a society in which the only acceptable aim for a young woman of the upper class was to enter into marriage with a gentleman of the upper class and become mistress of a household. Edith's mother, a notoriously commanding and aloof woman to whom the birth of her daughter relatively late in life was an embarrassment, was perpetually critical and disapproving of her daughter's intellectual ambitions.
But Edith demonstrated early a formidable intellect and a great love for books. Though her education—at the ends of a series of governesses—was intended only to provide her the social graces necessary for a society wife, she spoke three languages before adolescence, and read widely in the great literature of Western culture. She first attempted to write a novel at the age of eleven, but her mother criticized her first lines, effectively dissuading her from fiction writing for several more years. She did, however, begin writing poetry, and achieve her first publication at the age of thirteen when a magazine published her translations of several German poems.
Attempting to elude the negative economic repercussions of the Reconstruction, the Jones family moved to Europe for six years beginning in 1866, when Edith was five; when she returned to America, after a life-threatening battle with typhoid fever that would indelibly mark her consciousness, she found her country ugly and deeply depressing. Though the family's move to Newport, Rhode Island temporarily revived her spirits, Wharton's affinity for Europe and her ever deepening loathing for the increasing materialism of American life would lead to many return trips to the Continent. She would settle permanently in Paris in the early 1900s.
In 1885, after the death of her beloved father, when she was twenty-three and thus dangerously close to being considered a spinster, Edith married Edward "Teddy" Wharton, a gentleman from Boston of appropriate social background twelve years her senior. The first years of her marriage were spent in frequent travel and in making the proper social rounds in New York and Newport. Edith was pleased to be mistress of her own house and garden. But as her confidence grew, and she became more and more involved in and excited by her writing, her kindhearted but intellectually unimaginative husband and their stultifyingly predictable, possibly sexless married life began to drain her spirits.
In 1907, at the age of forty-five, she would begin a passionate love affair—apparently the only of her life—with the journalist Morton Fullerton. The relationship was brief, but it marked a profound emotional and sexual awakening for Wharton. Teddy, meanwhile, began to suffer from mental illness—possibly manic depression. He also took a mistress, and embezzled money from his wife to buy his mistress a house. He was institutionalized in 1912, and in 1913, Edith divorced him. She would never remarry.
Wharton published her first short story in 1891; her first story collection, The Greater Inclination, in 1899; a novella called The Touchstone in 1900; and her first novel, a historical romance called The Valley of Decision, in 1902. That same year she began a correspondence with Henry James, to whom she had been introduced by mutual friends. He judged her at the time as a gifted writer but perhaps too imitative a student of his; their friendship would grow, as would James's estimation of his friend's talents, until; James's death in 1916. The Age of Innocence, written soon afterward, is marked by several allusions to Wharton's dear friend and to his novel The Portrait of a Lady.
The book that made Wharton famous was The House of Mirth, published in 1905. Between that book and the publication of her autobiography, A Backward Glance, in 1934, she published sixteen novels and novellas, eight collections of short stories, several works of nonfiction, and two volumes of poetry as well as many articles, translations, introductions, and reviews. The novel she was working on before her death, The Buccaneers, was published posthumously in 1938. This impressive productivity was spurred on in part by the fact that many of her works, including The Age of Innocence, were contracted by magazines to appear on a serial basis, requiring her to produce a certain number of words within a limited amount of time and space. Wharton both prospered and chafed under this regime; she wrote prolifically and made a tremendous amount of money, but many critics have noted that the quality of her work, particularly after World War I, suffered under the influence of its rapid production for a mass market.
Beyond her writing, Wharton's life was also distinguished by her selfless service to France and to the European refugees who flooded Paris during World War I, work for which the French government made her—the first woman so recognized—a chevalier of the Legion d'Honneur. When she died in 1937, her coffin was attended by French war veterans on recognition of her adopted country.
Though she was a well-known public figure, Wharton was always guarded about her private life and real feelings. Her autobiography was so unrevealing that her publishers, to Wharton's fury, tried to adjust their contract to permit severe cutting of what they called long "dull" parts. Wharton had destroyed many photographs, letters and literary documents that might well have better illumined her life. Her letters to Morton Fullerton, which she had asked him to destroy, did not surface until the mid-1980s, many years after her death.
Edith Wharton's interior life is known best through her letters to many treasured friends, through their reminiscences of her, and through the miracle of her writing. As Wharton's biographer Shari Benstock noted, "Nothing in Edith Jones's background heralded her diverse creativity and abounding energy, nor was she encouraged her to develop her 'gift.'" Yet she did, through a force of character and imagination which enabled her to produce a body of work remarkable for its craft, its insight into human nature, and its depictions of the complex interactions between individuals and their limited social world, full of pitfalls and obstacles, in which they do or do not reach for meaning.
The Age of Innocence (1920)
With an Introduction by Cynthia Griffin Wolf and Explanatory Notes by Laura Dluzynski Quinn
Wharton's novel was a Pulitzer Prize-winning, critically acclaimed ("It is one of the best novels of the twentieth century . . . a permanent addition to literature." —The New York Times) bestselling success when it was released in book form in 1920. When the Countess Ellen Olenska returns from Europe, fleeing her brutish husband, her rebellious independence and passionate awareness of life stir the educated sensitivity of Newland Archer, a man already engaged to her cousin May Welland. In the story of Ellen and Newland's thwarted love, Wharton uses her sharp wit and mastery of form to explore the timeless and universal conflicts between passion and responsibility, freedom and tradition, the desire for self-actualization and the moral requirement to honor one's commitments. Wharton's sharp ironic wit and mastery of form create a picture of men and women caught in a society that denies humanity while desperately defending "civilization."
Ethan Frome (1911)
With an Introduction and Notes by Doris Grumbach
Wharton's best-known book is unique among her thirty-one novels, novellas, and collections of short stories both in substance and style. Constructed as a story-within-a-story told by an unnamed narrator, and set in a bleak, frozen rural landscape, it is the tale of the struggling farmer Ethan Frome and his difficult hypochondriacal wife Zeenie, whose marriage is threatened by the arrival in their household of Zeenie's vivacious cousin Matty. In her Introduction, Wharton claimed that the genesis of this austere, tragic book was her "uneasy sense that the New England of fiction bore little . . . resemblance to the harsh and beautiful land as I had seen it." Later, in her autobiography, she would call it the work she most enjoyed "making," and to which she "brought the greatest joy and the fullest ease."
With an Introduction by Anita Brookner
Anna Leath, an American widow living in France, has renewed her relationship with her first love, the diplomat George Darrow. But on his way to her château, Givre, where he hopes to consolidate her marriage plans, Darrow encounters Sophy Viner, who is as vibrant and spontaneous as Anna is reserved and restrained. Months later, when Darrow finally makes his way to Givre, he learns that Anna's stepson, Owen, is engaged to the girl. And what to Darrow was a formidable interlude becomes the reef on which the lives of four people are in danger of floundering. Acutely conceived and rigorously crafted, distinguished by a compelling mood of fatality, The Reef met with negative reviews and poor sales upon its first publication. Wharton, discouraged, called it a "poor miserable lifeless lump." Henry James, however, thought it the finest thing she had yet written, a passionately poignant" drama reminiscent of ancient Greek tragedy.
The Custom of the Country(1913)
With an Introduction by Anita Brookner
Considered by many literary critics to be Wharton's best novel, The Custom of the Country is about, in the words of Anita Brookner, "the upwardly mobile and what eventually put an end to their aspirations, about the unscrupulous and the entrenched, about nearly getting what one wants and being rendered powerless by the forces of society that lie in wait for those who overreach themselves." Mr and Mrs. Spragg are hoping to forge an entrée into society and arrange a suitably ambitious match for their only daughter. As Wharton unfolds the story of Undine Spragg—a heroine who is as vain, spoiled, and selfish as she is irresistibly fascinating—she provides a detailed glimpse of what might be called the interior decor of upper-class America and its nouveau riche fringes. Her vision of social behavior is both supremely informed and both supremely disenchanted; her intricate and satisfying plot is supremely entertaining.
With an Introduction and Notes by Elizabeth Ammons
Written in six weeks while Wharton was on vacation from her home in Paris and her exhausting relief work on behalf of World War I refugees, Summer is the story of Charity Royall, who lives unhappily with her hard-drinking adoptive father in the isolated village of North Dormer, until a visiting architect awakens her sexual passion and hope for escape. Inspired in part by Wharton's own secret affair with Morton Fullerton, in part by her own passionate view of American small-mindedness, this is a tale of forbidden desire and thwarted dreams.
Completed by Marion Mainwaring
Wharton's last, uncompleted novel, published posthumously in 1938, is a romantic trale about five wealthy American girls who set sail for London where they marry lords, earls, and dukes who find their beauty charming—and their wealth useful. Now completed by Marion Mainwaring, who took her cue from Wharton's own synopsis, The Buccaneers is "brave, lively, engaging . . . a fairy-tale novel, miraculously returned to life." (The New York Times Book Review).