Edith Wharton 1862-1937
Edith Wharton was an American novelist, short story writer, and interior and garden designer. Born into American high-society, Wharton combined an insider’s view with a powerful prose style in her novels and short stories, realistically portraying the lives and morals of the late nineteenth century American society, an era of decline and faded wealth. Wharton was acquainted with many of the well-known people and writers of her day, both in America and in Europe, including President Theodore Roosevelt.
Edith Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones to George and Lucretia Jones on January 24,1862 in New York City. She had two older brothers, Frederic and Henry. To her friends and family she was known as ‘Pussy Jones.’ The saying ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ is said to refer to her father’s family.
Wharton was born during the American Civil War and after the war, the family travelled extensively in Europe. From 1866 to 1872, they visited France, Italy, Germany and Spain. While in Europe, the young Edith was educated by tutors and governesses and she became fluent in French, German, and Italian. However, Edith was hungry for more education than she received, so she read from her father’s and his friends libraries. To ‘protect’ her daughter, her mother forbade her to read novels until she was married, and surprisingly, considering her disdain for the fripperies of society at the time, Edith obeyed her.
Wharton began writing poetry and fiction as a young girl and attempted to write her first novel at age eleven. Her first published work appeared when she was 15, a translation of a German poem for which she was paid $50. Her family did not want her name to appear in print, since writing was not considered a proper occupation for a society woman of her time, but a friend of her father encouraged her ambition to write professionally and she secretly wrote a novella ‘Fast and Loose’. Despite some early successes, she was not encouraged by her family or her social circle, but despite this she continued to write.
On April 29, 1885, when she was 23, she married Edward (Teddy) Wharton, who was 12 years her senior. He was from a well-established Boston family, of the same social class and shared her love of travel, so for many years they spent at least four months of each year abroad, mainly in Italy.
In1897 Edith Wharton purchased Land’s End, Newport, Rhode Island on which she spent thousands of dollars to alter the home’s facade, decorate the interior, and landscape the grounds.
In 1902, Wharton designed ‘The Mount’, her estate in Lenox, Massachusetts, which survives today as an example of her design principles. Edith Wharton wrote several of her novels there and at ‘The Mount’, she entertained the cream of American literary society, including her close friend, novelist Henry James,
Although she spent many months traveling in Europe nearly every year, ‘The Mount’ was her primary residence until 1911.
From the late 1880s until 1902, her husband Teddy Wharton, suffered acute depression and the couple ceased their extensive travel. She divorced Edward Wharton in 1913 after 28 years of marriage.
When her marriage deteriorated, she decided to move permanently to Paris in France and after World War I broke out, she was for four years a tireless and ardent supporter of the French war effort, opening of a workroom for unemployed women where they were fed and paid one franc a day. When the Germans invaded Belgium, Paris was flooded with Belgian refugees, so she helped to set up the American Hostels for Refugees, which managed to get them shelter, meals, clothes and eventually an employment agency to help them find work.
Aided by her influential connections in the French government, she was among the few foreigners in France allowed to travel to the front lines, which Wharton described in a series of articles that were later published as ‘Fighting France, from Dunkerque to Belfort’, which became an American bestseller. Throughout the war she worked tirelessly in charitable efforts for refugees, the injured, the unemployed, and the displaced. In 1916, the President of France appointed her Chevalier of the Legion of Honour, the country’s highest award, in recognition of her dedication to the war effort.
After four years of intense effort, she decided to leave Paris and settled ten miles north in Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt, buying an eighteenth-century house on seven acres of land. She would live there in summer and autumn for the rest of her life spending winters and springs on the French Riviera.
She finished her most famous novel, ‘The Age of Innocence’ in 1920 which won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for literature, the first woman to win the award.
In June 1937, Edith Wharton was at the French country home of Ogden Codman, where they were at work on a revised edition of ‘The Decoration of Houses’, when she suffered a heart attack and collapsed.
Edith Wharton later died of a stroke on August 11, 1937 at her home. Wharton was buried in the American Protestant section of the Cimetière des Gonards in Versailles.
In addition to sixteen novels, Wharton wrote at least 85 short stories. She was also a garden designer, interior designer, and a taste-maker of her time. She wrote several design books, including her first major published work, ‘The Decoration of Houses ‘(1897), co-authored by Ogden Codman. Another of her ‘home and garden’ books is the generously illustrated ‘Italian Villas and Their Gardens’ of 1904.