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