Lily Bart, heroine of "The House of Mirth," was able to parse New York society, but the knowledge couldn't save her. Not so her creator, Edith Wharton, who famously turned her reading of upper-class 19th-century New York into a brilliant career.
"Lily acts out a parallel – but much less successful – version of her author's professional career," writes Hermione Lee in Edith Wharton, her authoritative new biography of the writer. But "she is always losing her opportunities, because she cannot quite turn herself into a commodity."
Wharton, as Lee shows, made the most of every opportunity that presented itself in her professional life. She wrote copiously – publishing 48 books, including novels, poetry, short stories, travel writing, books on gardening and interior decorating, and war propaganda – read and traveled widely, and clung loyally to her friends, including her adopted country, France. In fact, France awarded her the Legion of Honor in 1916 for her philanthropic work on behalf of Belgian refugees during World War I.
Not that success came easily. At the age Wharton became a professional writer (37), Lily had been dead for seven years. And Wharton's success came after long struggles with illness, an unhappy marriage, and unhappy childhood.
Edith Newbold Jones was born in 1862 to a family of wealthy New Yorkers. (They were so well-heeled that the phrase "keeping up with the Joneses" was coined regarding her aunts.) A lonely child who used to pace while stories tumbled out of her mouth, she grew into a young woman who liked to quip that she was thought "too fashionable to be intellectual in Boston" and "too intellectual to be fashionable in New York" and who, frankly, felt like "an exile in America."
Wharton seems fond of her father, who died when she was 20, but her relations with her censorious mother were strained. "For years afterward I was never free from the oppressive sense that I had two absolutely inscrutable beings to please – God and my mother," Wharton wrote in an autobiography (she wrote three – two for public consumption, and a somewhat more candid unpublished one). On the other hand, as Lee writes, "Wharton's version of Lucretia Jones is one of the most lethal acts of revenge ever taken by a writing daughter." Aspects of Lucretia show up throughout Wharton's work, such as Newland Archer's mother in "The Age of Innocence."
Sadly, the woman renowned for her ability to dissect character in her books couldn't put the same skill to use in real life. Her marriage was a lonely one to a mentally unstable man. (Aside from being completely incompatible with his intellectual wife, Teddy Wharton speculated with $50,000 of her money – more than $1,082,000 in today's dollars – and spent $16,000 of it on a mistress.) She had no children. Her one love affair, at age 46, was with, to employ an archaic term, a "bounder." Famous for his conquests of both sexes, Morton Fullerton was involved with Wharton at the same time that he also was living with (and being blackmailed by) a former mistress, having a fling with another woman, and engaged to his adopted sister.
Denied an outlet for romantic or familial love, Wharton was generous and loyal to her friends. She helped support her sister-in-law and niece after her brother's divorce, for example, and secretly funneled money to Henry James ($8,000 – about $160,000 today) through a ruse involving her publisher.
Lee, author of an acclaimed biography of Virginia Woolf, had access to letters and other materials unavailable when R.W.B. Lewis wrote his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Wharton in 1975. She makes full use of both these and her exhaustive knowledge of Wharton's writing to create what deserves to be known as the definitive biography.
Lee overturns stereotypes, such as Wharton's reputation as a lesser "female Henry James," and refutes rumors that Wharton had affairs with two male friends, a lawyer and an art dealer. She doesn't gloss over Wharton's failings, but instead sets them in context.
"Edith Wharton" is meticulous and authoritative – sometimes at the cost of readability. (And if you were foolish enough to study a language other than French, Lee is not inclined to help you, even though she quotes extensively. Wharton was so fluent she wrote the first draft of "Ethan Frome" in French.)
Interestingly, neither the beginning nor the end of the biography are particularly memorable: Lee starts with Wharton's parents' honeymoon tour through Europe and ends with her own visit to Wharton's neglected grave, where she tidies up and plants a silk azalea at which, she notes, Wharton probably would have sneered. But in between, there is a wealth of investigation and first-rate analysis, all the more impressive because Wharton destroyed a lot of correspondence and censored her own diary.
"A woman's environment will speak for her life, whether she likes it or not," Wharton wrote in her nonfiction "The Decoration of Homes." It was a technique that she employed brilliantly in her own writing, and Lee has made good use of that advice here.
• Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.