Edith Wharton

By Hermione Lee

Another one of those universally acknowledged truths that are often trotted out is that academic biographies of literary figures are much too long. Whether this is the result of what Gore Vidal referred to as the psychology of the “scholar squirrel” – the research mentality that won’t allow any factoid, no matter how trivial, to go unreferenced – or a Quixotic ambition to write the “definitive” version of someone’s life (which is never going to happen), is, in the final analysis, irrelevant. For if the book itself is unreadable, as so many of these soggy bricks are, what does it matter?

Hermione Lee’s Edith Wharton is profoundly unreadable. Let me say first of all that I am not constitutionally indisposed to literary biography. I’ve even liked some very long ones (Juliet Barker’s The Brontës, an even longer book, is a personal favourite.) And I have nothing against Ms. Wharton’s fiction. In fact I think classic novels like The Custom of the Country, The House of Mirth, and The Age of Innocence brilliantly recreate the social world of America’s Gilded Age, while her New England-Gothic Ethan Frome is one of those unique little works that never leave you.

Having read as much as I could stand of this biography, however, I will admit that I don’t much care for Edith Wharton the person. Even as a member of a class whose snobbery was legendary (old money New York around the turn of the century), she managed to mark out her own territory as a snob. Here she is, to take just one example from among many, visiting Italy:

I think sometimes that it is almost a pity to enjoy Italy as much as I do, because the acuteness of my sensations makes them rather exhausting; but when I see the stupid Italians I have met here, completely insensitive to their surroundings, & ignorant of the treasures of art & history among which they have grown up, I begin to think it is better to be an American, & bring to it all a mind & eye unblunted by custom.

Well, unblunted by Italian custom anyway. Was she the product of her environment then? Very much so. But also vain enough to enjoy her reputation as a “self-made man.” A playful designation with only a slight foundation in reality. Yes, she did get rich from her books. But what made her a successful novelist was the fact that she was born into the kind of fairy-tale world of money and leisure that the novel-reading public liked (and still like) to imagine themselves inhabiting. She could do the Gilded Age because she was born gilded.

But as I began by saying, all of this is beside the point. What is to the point is the following:

It was an ambitious and carefully planned journey. They boarded the yacht on 17 February after a cold foggy stay in Paris, a train journey to Marseilles, and a steamer to Algiers. From Algiers they went to Tunis, Malta, Sicily (with trips to Taorima and Monreale), Corfu, the island of Zante, a number of the Cycladic islands, and Rhodes. Then up the Turkish coast to Chios, Smyrna, and Mitylene, across the Aegean to Mount Athos, and down between the coast of Greece and Euboea to Marathon and Athens, and westwards to Cephalonia and Ithaca. Then up the Dalmation coast, with a trip inland to “unconquered Montenegro,” north to Ragusa (Dubrovnik), Spalato (Split) and Zada (Zara), and last across the Adriatic to Ancona, where they left the yacht on 7 May, and took the train to Rimini.

This is not biography. Indeed it isn’t even writing. It’s an itinerary. But whether it’s places, people, or any list of proper nouns, Lee wants to get it all in. The reader’s eyes, and mind, inevitably begin to wander as the indiscriminately compiled trivia continues to flow in a tedious, irrelevant stream.

There were wealthy health-seekers from Italy, Russia, Egypt, France, England, the USA – among them (in the list for 1912), Princesse Dorothy Radziwill of Rome, Princesse de Lyar of Paris, Mme Charles Hunter of London, Mr. André Ponomatoff of St. Petersburg, Mr. and Mrs. Allen Curtiss of Boston, Mrs. Bruce Geddes of Scotland, M. Edouard Hermann of Paris, and the Marquise de Ripon Lady de Gray of England.

And . . . so what? Who cares about any of these people? They have nothing to do with the story of Wharton’s life. Are we supposed to be impressed that Lee managed to track down the hotel’s register for this year? To what end?

But Lee obviously thinks all of these details are of some significance. Here is another list, this time taken from one of Wharton’s letters, describing how her garden grows. The list is just as pointless as the two above, yet Lee feels it necessary to not only quote from it at length, but to provide a scholarly annotation for the horticulturally challenged:

snapdragons, lilac and crimson stocks, penstemons, annual pinks in every shade of rose, salmon, cherry and crimson – Hunnemannia [the poppy-like perennial], the lovely white physostegia [known as the “obedient plant,” this was the “summer snow” variety, with close-set flowers and spikes], the white petunias . . . the intense blue Delphinium chinense [or “grandiflorum” – perhaps the hardy, deep blue “blue butterfly” variety], the purple and white platycodons [known as the “balloon flower”: lanterns when closed, stars when opened] . . . hollyhocks of every shade from pale rose to dark red.

This is simply appalling. And what makes it worse (if there is anything worse for a book than to be unreadable) is that Wharton lived a life with more than enough drama to fill out a book this size without such copious amounts of padding. In all of the reviews of this book I have seen thus far there has been some critical comment made about its excessive length. This is usually thrown in as an aside however, while Lee the scholar squirrel still receives her gold star for making evident just how many hours she’s spent in the library and how many sources she’s consulted.

But she does not deserve a gold star. None of the characters, even Wharton herself, comes to life. Narrative is deliberately frustrated by Lee’s technique of building the book around quasi-thematic chapters that vaguely track the outline of Wharton’s life. The writing itself is inexact, sounding almost rushed. A sort of mental laziness seems to have carried over from the pages of mere transcription. When Lee’s critical faculties are required she seems caught in neutral:

Beatrix [Wharton’s niece] uses a moral language for the rules of landscape gardening. Choices are “good” or “bad”: gardeners must notice, care, learn, and distinguish. The same kind of moral rhetoric coloured the arguments of the time over architectural styles. . . .

What, one has to ask, is “moral” about a language or rhetoric (the elegant variation speaks) that includes such terms as “good” and “bad”? These are not necessarily moral terms, and certainly don’t appear to be so in context. Nor are professional skills like notice, care, and the ability to learn and distinguish what would normally be considered moral values.

This kind of sloppiness abounds, but there is no need to take any of this further. Edith Wharton may represent a triumph of scholarship, but as a book it is an awesome failure – guaranteed to frustrate all but the most determined (or professional) readers, encouraging the rest of us to skim and finally surrender long before the end.

Review first published online April 24, 2007.