Tuesday 27 May 2014

A Backward Glance by Edith Wharton

I've been putting off writing this review for Wharton Review month, because I love Edith Wharton's books and I don't want to write something negative about her!

A Backward Glance is her autobiography first published in 1934 - only three years before her death on the 11th August, 1937.

Wharton's strong control of the story of her life is very evident. We only know what she wanted us to know.
Part of this is her (valid) concern for privacy, but I also think it is partly her ability or inability to stop telling stories.

Stories are at the centre of her life, according to this book.
Each event & each relationship is discussed only as it helps or hinders her on her (inevitable) journey to be a writer.

Wharton spends whole chapters listing friends and acquaintances in a gossipy manner.
She relates "delightful little tales" that they've told. Given the famous nature of some of these people and the times they all lived through together, these anecdotes should have been fascinating.
Instead, we found ourselves skating very close to name-dropping boredom!

One of the things I love about Wharton's stories is how they delve into the deepest motivations and complex feelings of her characters. However, her personal stories were, disappointingly, all surface fluff.
The nuanced insights & revelations that Wharton revels in in her novels, were sadly missing from her life story.

The only positive from this reading experience, is that I have been reading Hermione Lee's Biography at the same time.

Lee fills in all the gaps as well as showing the discrepancies between Wharton's 'glance' and the messier facts (as they've come to light in later documentation).

We all spend our lives writing and rewriting our stories; Wharton was no different in that regard. I had just hoped for more perception & penetration from such a wonderful novelist.

The cover of my book is the one at top right...perhaps if I'd had the book with the cover on the left, I might have enjoyed it more :-P


  1. Anonymous28/5/14

    Hahaha, your comment about the two different covers is funny! I'm looking forward to reading your review of Lee's biography of Wharton. I think I'll be skipping the autobiography... (And maybe, just maybe, I'll be able to sneak in reading Xingu before the month is over. I've read nothing but good reviews of it.)

    1. Cover's do add to the appeal - & it was a vague laugh at myself about surface vs depth!!

      Xingu is delightful and you'll read it in half an hour...as for Lee's bio - it's 796pgs long with the smallest font allowable to still be legible! It's fascinating, but after a month of reading I'm still only 152 pgs in - at this rate I will be reviewing it for next years Wharton review :-D

  2. Sounds like the author who could tell stories about others was paralyzed about telling her own story.

    BTW, that second cover is definitely more appealing than the first. Talk about judging a book by its cover.

    1. Astute comment Ruth. I think Edith was a very perceptive member of her social milieu, but at the same time, she lived in a society that frowned upon self-perception as being neurotic and selfish.

  3. I read most of Edith Wharton's novellas. I haven't tried this one yet.


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