Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The gist of me

Edith Wharton, American writer of high society novels, was born a century and a half ago today. Most famous, perhaps, for writing Ethan Frome, she spent many of her early years travelling in Europe, and then chose to live in France for her last 30 years. Her diaries are not very extensive and have never been published, but the manuscripts, held by Yale and Indiana university libraries, are often consulted by Wharton scholars. Yale says one of the diaries has inscribed on the inside cover: ‘If ever I have a biographer, it is in these notes that he will find the gist of me.’

Edith Newbold Jones was born in New York City on 24 January 1862 into one of the city’s more elite families. During her first ten years, she moved with her parents and two older brothers to Europe, where they lived in France, Italy and Germany. They returned to New York in 1872, where she was tutored at home.

By the age of 16, Edith had written her first novella, and a collection of her poems had been privately printed; and by the time she was 18 her poems were being published in Atlantic Monthly. A second long European trip ended in her father’s death; and then once again in New York she married the older Edward Wharton, a wealthy banker, in 1885.

For the next two decades or so, the Whartons spent much of every year in Europe, during which time Edith’s writing progressed from short stories to novels, often concerned with the upper class society she knew best. Henry James, her main literary influence, came from the same world, and in time they became firm friends.

Wharton’s first important work of fiction, The House of Mirth, was published in 1905. By 1907, Wharton had moved to live in France where she grew to know other major writers of the age. Her most famous novels followed in the next few years, Ethan Frome, for example, and The Age of Innocence which won a Pulitzer Prize. In 1908 she began an affair with Morton Fullerton, a journalist for The Times; a few years later she and her husband divorced.

The Reader’s Companion to American History (found on Answers.com) lists the themes that dominated Wharton’s work during the sixty years of her career as: ‘the moral decay of an indolent society, the waste of treating women as decorative objects, the need for the social order to protect the values of decency, honesty, and commitment, the belief that the true dramas of history are worked out within the soul.’ More succinctly, others says her fiction was notable for its vividness, satire, irony, and wit. She died in 1937, having published more than 20 novels and novellas, nearly a dozen volumes of short stories and various non-fiction works as well. Further information is available from the Washington State University website on Wharton, and Wikipedia.

Intermittently, Wharton kept brief diaries, and although none of these have (to my knowledge) been published they have been used repeatedly by Wharton scholars. Some extracts from these diaries can be read for example in Edith Wharton’s dialogue with realism and sentimental fiction, by Hildegard Hoeller (University Press of Florida, 2000), and in Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome: a reference guide by Suzanne J Fournier (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006) - both partially available to read on Googlebooks. Hermione Lee, in her 2007 biography (Chatto & Windus), draws on Wharton’s diaries, though this is not freely available online.

Wharton’s diary manuscripts appear to be split between two archives: at Lilly Library, Indiana University, and Yale University Library. The Lilly Library has diaries that ‘cover primarily 1920-1937’; however, it also has the most widely quoted of Wharton’s diaries, the one she herself dubbed ‘love diary’ of 1907-1908 in which she records the romance with Morton Fullerton.

The Yale website describes its holding as follows: ‘Personal Papers also contains Wharton’s diaries for the years 1920 and 1924-1934, though the entries are brief and very sporadic. For 1920, most of the entries are memoranda of business transactions or household accounts, but several are comments on the progress of her writings. The diary for 1924-1934, although containing only some twenty-five entries, is more substantive. Among other topics, she discusses solitude, religion, the death of friends, her illnesses, and her fear of animals, and includes several borrowed quotations and personal aphorisms (“Life is always either a tight-rope or a feather-bed. Give me the tight-rope.”). [. . .] The diary has few entries, but Wharton clearly intended it as a major comment on her life and work, for the inside cover bears the inscription, “If ever I have a biographer, it is in these notes that he will find the gist of me.” ’

No comments: