Thursday 29 May 2014

Edith Wharton by Hermione Lee

I had grand plans to start and finish this extraordinary biography about Edith Wharton during May & The Wharton Review.

Grand plans indeed!

The book has 756 pages with another 66 pages of notes at the end. The font is the smallest font allowable to still be legible!

There are three sections spaced evenly throughout the book with four pages of photos each.
I am still 70 pages shy of the first group of photos!

I have been reading this book in conjunction with Wharton's autobiography A Backward Glance, which helped to make ABG a more palatable read.

Lee strikes the right balance between revealing Edith's story (in her own words) and making informed comments.

Many of Wharton's comments in ABG appear snobbish & snooty, but Lee sympathetically reveals the class based prejudices that Edith grew up with.
From the great aunt Joneses' (who it is claimed the phrase "keeping up with the Joneses" was coined for) to

"no greater service can be rendered to children than in teaching them to know the best 
and to want it." (from The Decoration of Houses).

Lee also reveals many of the complex relationship details that Wharton carefully avoids in her memoirs including lovers & mental health issues.

All this in just the first 150 pgs! 

Anyone interested in getting to know Edith Wharton and the world she grew up in will delight in this majestic chunkster. It is thoroughly researched & conversational in tone.

I will leave the last word to Lee,

"This, then, is the story of an American citizen in France. 
She was a European on a grand scale who left her old home and made new ones for herself...
but who could never be done with the subject of American and Americans. 
Over and her over again, in a spirit of complex contradictions, 
she returned to the customs of her country, and to versions of herself 
as the daughter of her family and her country....
In almost every one of them (her books) there is a cultural comparison or conflict, 
a journey or a displacement, a sharp eye cast across national characteristics."


  1. Anonymous30/5/14

    I have Hermione Lee's biography of Virginia Woolf but still haven't read it (I wanted to wait until I had finished all of Virginia's novels) but this makes me want to try.

    1. I would be keen to read more bio's by Lee - is the Woolf as chunky as the Wharton?

  2. Anonymous30/5/14

    It's about 900 pages. From the select pages I have read it seems to be extremely detailed.


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