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Edith Wharton [Paperback]

Hermione Lee
2.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Edith Wharton Edith Wharton 3.0 out of 5 stars (2)
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Book Description

3 Jan 2008
This masterly new biography of Edith Wharton paints a portrait of a fiercely modern author, writing of sex, love, money and war - a woman of strong convictions and conflicting ambitions and desires. Delving into every aspect of her extraordinary life story, the book shows in fascinating detail how she worked and what lies at the heart of her magnificent and elegant works.

Product details

  • Paperback: 864 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; New Ed edition (3 Jan 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0099763516
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099763512
  • Product Dimensions: 13.2 x 19.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 2.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 437,342 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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"A superb biography" (Colm Toibin Irish Times)

"Adding impressive depth and nuance to the received portrait of Wharton, Lee's biography excels in its discussions of her writing" (Peter Kemp The Sunday Times)

"Painstaking and elegant... One of this book's great pleasures is Lee's discussion of Wharton's work" (Kasia Boddy Daily Telegraph)

"A feat of exhaustive research...finely tuned to Wharton's creative achievement. This is a glorious biography" (Mark Bostridge Independent on Sunday)

"[A] majestically weighty autobiography as meticulous, exhaustive and exhausting in scope and scale as its subject" (Hilary Spurling Observer)

Book Description

A rich and powerful new life of a great novelist. The first biography by a British woman writer, it overturns the accepted view, displaying her as a tough, erotically brave, startlingly modern writer. Much more than the biography of Wharton for our generation - it is a touchstone in the art of the biographer, a must for everyone who cares about the period

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
25 of 29 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A bloated book 11 Jun 2009
By Tony Heyes VINE VOICE
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Reading this book rapidly became a chore. The art of biography depends on research and selection. Miss Lee has clearly researched this book very well but seems to have exercised little choice over what to leave out. One is left with a feeling of having read endless lists and been told numerous irrelevancies. With judicious cutting this book would have had far more pace and been easier to read. As it is, it is more of a reference book for dipping into than a "good read"; all the information is there but the narrative drive is lost in too many quotations and digressions. Trivial matters are accorded as much weight as the salient points of Edith Wharton's life. The narrative disappears under the weight of information that the author ought to have consigned to footnotes.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Comprehensive! 1 Sep 2013
By Robert
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I cannot agree with some reviewers who clearly feel this biography is too detailed or too long. If you have any interest in the background to the author of books such as the Age of Innocence or the House of Mirth then you would surely want as much information as possible. The factual history of her age and the highly representative fiction she wrote around it are of immense interest in their own right. That she and her husband were rich is beyond doubt. They spent the whole of her annual income of $10,000 (quite apart from their capital) on a three month cruise, not as passengers but hiring their own steam yacht. That income today may equate to several million dollars a year. Another perspective is that a seaman's wage on an atlantic liner was about 60 a year.

Edith Wharton's writing is more subtle than the grand luxury lifestyles of her characters suggest, and contains some bitter satire at her class's expense, which I think can be misunderstood by some audiences. An excellent example is Martin Scorsese's film interpretation of the Age of Innocence. In the film Newland Archer and his boss are seen dining luxuriously, and superficially it looks like some 'My Fair Lady' period glamour film; whereas Edith Wharton's line for the same scene in the book is 'they dined copiously'. A simple inversion of the concept of 'copiously ', usually referring to the act of excretion, but applied to ingestion instead illustrates the rather disgusting conspicuous consumption of her class in this period and her brilliance as a writer.

I recommend this book for anyone who likes great literature, has a feel for the intellectual and the finer things of life and an interest in history.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Hugely disappointing 27 Dec 2012
By hiljean VINE VOICE
What a relief to see from other reviews that I was not alone in finding this book too densely filled with facts, both relevant and irrelevant, to be able to finish it. It has taken me 18 months on and off to get as far as page 308 but it is taking up too much space on my bookshelves and has become a chore rather than a pleasure to read.

The only reader I can imagine who would be faintly interested in this "definitive" biography would be someone writing a thesis or dissertation on the works of Edith Wharton. What a shame that such an interesting woman has been so ill served by her biographer for, interesting though her life undoubtedly was, it comes across as one long yawn in this writer's words.

Not recommended for any but the most intellectual and dogged researcher!
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20 of 28 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing 21 Nov 2008
My sister & I are keen Wharton fans and having read the review in the Telegraph, I purchased 2 copies.
Well after about a month we both admitted to each other that although this book may be factually accurate, the reading was heavy going. So my copy is now at the charity shop after 2 attempts to get half way through it.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.4 out of 5 stars  18 reviews
41 of 42 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the best Wharton biographies 30 April 2007
By Z Hayes - Published on
At 880 pages, with illustrations,this weighty tome is in my opinion the best biography of Edith Wharton. Hermione Lee who also gave us "Virginia Woolf" [another wonderful biography] is dedicated to research and detail, and manages to thoroughly flesh out her subjects. Given the complex life and character of Edith Wharton, the task of dissecting her life and accomplishments seems like a herculean task that Ms Lee does excellently. We learn of Ms Wharton's accomplishments not only as a great writer, having authored novels that have tackled the delicate issues of human frailty and desires [Custom of the Country, House of Mirth, and Age of Innocence, among others], but also her talents in designing, gardening & her philanthropical pursuits. Ms Wharton was also a prolific traveler, and this biography truly showcases her many talents besides writing. We learn of Ms Wharton's early marriage to a much older man, a union that was not successful and led to a divorce many years later. We also discover Ms Wharton's late blooming as an author [she was almost 40] and her affair with an American journalist and close friendships [mainly with the opposite sex]. The biography also gives us insight into Wharton's inspiration for her writing [drawn heavily from events in her own life], and all in all, it is a laudable effort at giving us tremendous insight into the life of a talented and complicated author.
49 of 52 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Wharton and Peace 25 May 2007
By Kyle P. Wagner - Published on
I just finished Hermione Lee's biography, which took me roughly a month to finish (I usually don't spend more than a few days on a book.), and its girth occasionally hurt my back. (That's a joke...) I have not read other biographies Lee has written (though I do own "Virginia Woolf", and was impressed with Lee's insight of Woolf on the DVD of "The Hours"), so I can't compare, but I gather the Virginia Woolf biography is very good. I have read other biographies of Edith Wharton; R.W.B. Lewis', and Cynthia Griffin Woolf's excellent "A Feast of Words", and Lee's is an exhaustive reiteration of much that has come before, with some subtle additions and revisions of thought. I have a new vision of Wharton during her "Neurasthenic" period, which struck her early in marriage. She gardened, wrote and traveled extensively, whereas I had the impression she was bed-ridden and slightly invalid. The life force of Edith Wharton appears to have been astonishing and exhausting. Very few of us would pass her formidable "muster", and I understand completely why Henry James labeled her "The Angel of Devastation" (Disappointing discovery that James was virulently anti-suffrage).

The book is at times, dispassionately academic. It has moments, and at its best one has the sense that Lee is weaving, or knitting, a complete picture of who Edith Wharton might actually have been. Yes, there are some things we will never know, but I get the idea. Some chapters moved along briskly, other didn't (for me). The chapter called "Italian Backgrounds" is loaded with minute detail about those kinds of gardens and Wharton's interest in them (as you would guess from the title). I'm not a gardener, however, and found myself losing interest - there is A LOT of description of Italian Gardens. Illustrations would have helped (me). I did enjoy HL's analysis of EW's Italian novel "The Valley of Decision" (the book is completely worth it for the analysis of the Wharton's writings. I wish Penguin, or N.Y.R.B, or Vintage would publish an affordable and attractive edition of "The Valley of Decision") As another reviewer observed, the book does get bogged down with detail from time to time. While I certainly couldn't write such a book (I disagree with the assertion that it was not well researched, on the contrary, the research seems dizzying and at the very least thorough: nothing is perfect.), I'm impressed that Hermione Lee did.

Wharton comes across as delightfully bitchy with the upper classes. The Breakers is described as a "Thermopylae of Bad Taste". Mrs. Wharton, on a tour of a wealthy acquaintances' home, was informed that this was the woman's "Louis Quinze Room", to which Mrs. Wharton replied, looking about through her lorgnette, "Why, my dear?" (Her knowledge of architecture and historical interiors was encyclopedic, and would currently entitle her to a Masters Degree. She would have several, in fact... and a Doctorate or two.) In a letter she stated that an unnamed party "...decided to have books in their library." Her story "The Line of Least Resistance" borrowed too closely from an angered Emily Sloane's personal life, and Ogden Codman may have summed up Edith best saying, " Poor Pussy is of course very unpopular... she goes out of her way to be rude to people."

Most familiar with EW know how involved she was with the building and all details of each new Wharton residence, and there were many. One of the virtues of Lee's book is that we get a complete view of events; the timelines, the day-to-day occurrences in the process (es), also the transgressions (notably with Ogden Codman and the building of the Mount.) It is clear that Edith (or "Puss") wore the pants in the family. Teddy comes across as an affable, but slightly bumbling, "Club" man of the "Old Chap" sportsman type. He was not intellectually inclined, and hopelessly mismatched with the polar opposite Edith Jones.

The latter half of the book is dedicated to Wharton's life in France; her affair with Morton Fullerton, homes in the Rue De Varenne (and social place in The Faubourg.), and of course her valiant, tireless war work, all covered in great detail. Interesting that Proust may have been a translator of "The House of Mirth", and though she and Proust were many times over connected socially, they never met. The pairing is a no-brainer, and bearing in mind Wharton's conscious or unconscious predilection for homosexual companions (Henry James, Andre Gide to name a few - even her passionate mid-life love affair was with the prodigiously bi-sexual Fullerton), it's possible that Proust and Wharton would have been great friends, though Lee points out that Proust was primarily interested in Countesses. When read together "The House of Mirth", "The Custom of the Country" (read it if you haven't - it's one of EW's most satisfying, ruthless, and well-written novels.), and "The Age of Innocence" (more sublime with every reading), could be compared to Wharton's miniature version of Proust. Have your French dictionary ready though, as there is much quotation of letters written in French with minimal translation - another category (like architecture, and gardening) in which Lee assumes her reader has a working knowledge.

I had hoped there might be more information about Wharton's frosty mother Lucretia, and Edith's relationship with her. Lee points out that little written material relating to her parents has survived. However, Lee suggests that Wharton's own haughty nature may have been an inherited trait of Mama, and that "Lu" is front and center in many, many instances of Wharton's writing. Wharton was candid in her version of her mother. I wonder if it ever occured to her that she may have been more similar to Lucretia than different. (Perhaps Lily's mother in "The House of Mirth", who expresses distaste at people who "live like pigs" is a sketch of Lucretia Jones) It's been commonly thought that Lucretia had Edith's young poetry published in a volume titled "Verses" in Newport, but it was more likely her more intellectually sympathetic fathers's doing. Which makes more sense, as one pictures the exasperation Mother must have felt with the bafflingly intelligent Edith - forcing Mama to entertain her friends while the child is seized with the urge to "Make-Up" (write stories)

All in all, "Edith Wharton" is an exhaustively researched biography of considerable merit. There were sections that moved ahead with full steam, and some that sort of drag (for me) and need to be plowed through in order to finish, but I certainly don't resent the information. For the most part it has beautifully "woven" quality about it. It does seem that it would benefit with more editing; the amount of smaller (I hesitate to say lesser) detail is mind numbing. Her great friendship with Henry James is beautifully documented. Included is the account of the elaborate hoax she and James New York publisher orchestrated in order to give James a generous advance on a future book (meant to bolster his flagging self-esteem), which was really just a very generous monetary gift from Edith. The analysis of stories and novels is excellent, and well worth the price of admission. I read in an interview of Hermione Lee that she felt she would not be thought "smart enough" if she were actually able to meet Edith Wharton. Perhaps the length and breadth stems from that thought, that she is writing to prove herself worthy of her subject. I think Ms. Lee may rest easy with her next subject: she is a perfectly capable biographer.

Also recommended: Cynthia Griffin Wolff's "A Feast of Words", a tightly written compellingly analyzed study of Mrs. Wharton
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Unfulfilled Life 28 April 2007
By C. Hutton - Published on
This massive, nearly 900 page biography of Edith Wharton will be considered the definitive account of her life. Ms. Lee performed extensive research to flesh out this writer of conventional social graces and of the inner emotional life (see "The Age of Innocence"). Of interested is the thwarted life of Edith Wharton, trapped in a loveless marriage and embarking upon a mid-life affair with a confused American.

A writer of short stories, poems and novels, she wrote of ghost stories, decorating, social satires of New York, and war correspondence from the Great War. Edith Wharton was a woman of many talents who will keep the reader entralled long after the biography ends.
23 of 31 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars interesting but drowning in minutiae 13 May 2007
By Christine L. Gilman - Published on
I have read a small smattering of Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence and Ethan Frome. I HAVE read Hermione Lee's biographies of Willa Cather and Virginia Woolf. Her previous biographies were so enlightening that I immediately read all of Cather's works (some I reread) and Woolf's works (I had only read two of her works). This biography however, does not make me want to run out and read more Wharton because I got so drowned in her critiques of her writing that I found all these details overwhelming. Lee also includes details of daily living that become burdensome at times for the reader. Wharton was a prolific writer and her own life certainly would have made an interesting novel. When Lee sticks to the details of Wharton's life without delving into every written Wharton word and how each work is autobiographical, or compares to some event of her life, or doesn't compare, the reader will find Lee writes so well that you can't wait to find out what happens next. Unless I have gone brain dead, I don't recall this much discussion from Lee in her previous works on Woolf and Cather. The parallels she drew in those previous works to the authors' lives is what prompted me to read everything they wrote! I felt I understood Cather and Woolf after reading Lee's biographies, but I still don't understand Wharton. Maybe I understand her better than I did, but she still remains a mystery to me overall.

Lee does speculate on some matters, and maybe my problem is more with the subject of Wharton than what Lee wrote. Edith Wharton buried and hid so much of her life that it may never be known what made her tick.

I just wish I didn't have to spend so much time reading this book to find that out, as it's very lengthy, and "drowning" in details.
20 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Another majestic biography from Professor Lee 13 April 2007
By Reine des Coeurs - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Edith Wharton truly hasn't been given the respect and noteworthiness that is so deserved, but hopefully some of that will change with Professor Hermione Lee's new biography. As wonderfully detailed as her previous biography for Virginia Woolf, it's inspired me to set my own Wharton works in order for a re-reading just as soon as I complete this book.
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