NBCC Awards Finalists in Biography: Hermione Lee’s “Edith Wharton”


This is the eighteenth in a series of blog posts by NBCC board members covering the finalists for the NBCC awards. The awards will be announced on March 6, 2008, at the New School.

Hermione Lee, “Edith Wharton,” Knopf.

You can approach Hermione Lee’s monumental biography of Edith Wharton as the overlong portrait of a novelist best remembered for a handful of sharp, unsettling novels set in the rarefied drawing rooms of provincial old New York. But a better way to appreciate this vast, lavishly detailed book is as a full-scale immersion in the life and times of a complicated, vital, difficult personality. Wharton was an artist who managed to critique her culture, while gently (though never quite completely) extracting herself from its grip. She also wrote a few dozen books most of us have never heard of, traveled incessantly, read compulsively, dropped everything to aid refugees during World War I, and maintained strong friendships with the likes of Henry James and Bernard Berenson. Not the least of her accomplishments: She was a renowned and generous hostess who struggled to master the art of what can only be called, however inadequately, “homemaking.”

Born to a well-to-do New York family, Edith Jones seemed destined to become a society wife and mother.  But her first and only marriage, in 1891, was a catastrophe. Her husband, Teddy Wharton, was mentally ill, and the couple never had children. (They divorced in 1913.) Like many women writers, Wharton did not find her voice until she was in her thirties. Her first book, co-written with the architect Ogden Codman, was “The Decoration of Houses,” an influential treatise on style that crisply (and a little snobbishly) outlined both the principles and ethics of good taste. After this came an almost unstoppable torrent of work which lasted until Wharton’s death in 1937. Poems, translations, travel narratives, a well-regarded study of Italian villa gardens, haunting short stories, autobiographical essays, and the glorious novels for which she is justly famous. Books like “The Custom of the Country” and “The Age of Innocence” which, as Lee puts it, combine “harshly detached, meticulously perceptive, disabused realism with a language of poignant feeling and deep passion.”

That Wharton ever found time to write is something of a miracle, for she simultaneously led the busy, fussy life of a wealthy woman, with a large staff of maids and cooks, a hectic social calendar, trips to organize, menus to plan, and lavish gardens to plant. Lee’s biography has been criticized for being too fat, too detailed, overly fixated on the trivia of how Wharton arranged her library, whom she invited to tea, and which flowering shrubs she planted in the terraced garden of which French estate. As if such things are beneath not just a sensitive novelist but her biographer. In fact, Wharton was a exuberantly worldly woman who wrote worldly books. Neither a feminist nor a bohemian, she was unapologetic about her fascination with bric a brac, gardens and guest lists, and her understanding of the surfaces and rituals of social life ground her finest, most astute novels. A more streamlined biography might capture the trajectory of Wharton’s life, but for a capacious, rounded portrait of this extraordinary woman, Lee’s 800-page Edith Wharton is exactly the right size.—NBCC board member Jennifer Reese

Review in the New York Sun (Louis Auchincloss).

Review in The Guardian (Hilary Spurling).

Review in the New York Times Sunday Book Review (Claire Messud).

Review in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Bob Hoover).

Review in The New Republic (Andrew Delbanco).

Interview with Hermione Lee.

Excerpt from Chapter 1:“An American in Paris.”