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Edith Wharton

Bio: Edith Wharton, a prolific writer best known as a novelist of manners whose fiction exposed the rigid mores of aristocratic society in a world that has all but vanished, was born Edith Newbold Jones in New York City on January 24, 1862. Both her parents belonged to long-established, socially prominent New York families. Her mother was the former Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander, and her father was George Frederic Jones. (It is said that the expression 'keeping up with the Joneses' referred to them.) She was privately educated at home and in Europe by governesses and tutors. 'I used to say that I had been taught only two things in my childhood: the modern languages and good manners,' she recalled in the compelling memoir A Backward Glance (1934). 'Now that I have lived to see both those branches of culture dispensed with, I perceive that there are worse systems of education.' Her first publication was Verses (1878), a book of poems privately printed in Newport when she was sixteen. In later life she brought out two other volumes of poetry, Artemis to Actaeon and Other Verse (1909) and Twelve Poems (1926), but her verse never succeeded in conveying the emotion of her prose.

In 1885 Edith Jones married Bostonian Edward Robbins Wharton, whom Henry James dubbed 'cerebrally compromised Teddy,' and over the next decade the couple explored Europe while maintaining residences in New York and Newport. Wharton eventually turned to writing for a measure of fulfillment as she grew dissatisfied with the roles of wife and society matron. In collaboration with architect Ogden Codman she published The Decoration of Houses (1897), an influential work on architecture and interior design. Several of her early stories appeared in Scribner's Magazine. Three collections, The Greater Inclination (1899), Crucial Instances ( 1901), and The Descent of Man and Other Stories (1904), display an innate mastery of the short story, which she envisioned as 'a shaft driven straight into the heart of human experience.' Two novellas, The Touchstone (1900) and Sanctuary (1903), reveal a talent for psychological realism. Wharton's passion for Italy inspired a first novel, The Valley of Decision (1902 ), as well as Italian Villas and Their Gardens (1904) and Italian Backgrounds (1905), a series of travel sketches. Her subsequent volumes of travel writing include A Motor-Flight Through France (1908) and In Morocco (1920).

The publication of The House of Mirth in 1905 marked Edith Wharton's coming of age as a writer. An immediate bestseller, this brilliant chronicle of upper-class New York society helped secure her reputation as America's foremost woman of letters. By then Wharton was living at 'The Mount,' a grand home she had built in Lenox, Massachusetts. Over the next years she wrote Madame de Treymes (1907), a novella of Jamesian inspiration about young innocents abroad; The Fruit of the Tree (1907), a novel of social reform; The Hermit and the Wild Woman and Other Stories (1908); and Tales of Men and Ghosts (1910), a collection of supernatural thrillers. Then in rapid succession Wharton produced three of her greatest novels: Ethan Frome (1911), a tragedy of relinquished passion set against the austere New England countryside; The Reef (1912), a richly nuanced story of unrequited love hailed by Henry James as 'a triumph of method'; and The Custom of the Country (1913), a fierce indictment of the materialism that ruled America in the so-called Gilded Age.

By the time Wharton divorced her husband in 1913 she had settled permanently in France.

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1 The Age of Innocence [Secure eReader]
by Edith Wharton
  On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York. (Published: 2005)
Category: Classic Literature

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