Saturday, April 21, 2007

She is, according to many estimates, America’s finest female writer. (Ardent admirers of Willa Cather may disagree.) In other estimates,she looms as a frosty grande dame whose elegant fictions feature socialites and social climbers engaged in well-mannered mortal combat.

The real Edith Wharton (1862-1937) was, to be sure, born in New York City into a well-to-do family that knew its way around the haunts of the hoi polloi. (This despite its common, arguably ignoble surname: She began life as Edith Newbold Jones.)

In Hermione Lee’s rich new biography, which makes exhaustive use of “hitherto untapped sources” (mainly, its subject’s lesser known nonfiction writings), we are made constantly aware of the tensions between social convention and obligation, and of a penetrating intellect’s compulsion to excavate the sources and consequences of social and (quite frequently) sexual irregularity and transgression.

As she did in her masterly analytical biography of Virginia Woolf, Ms. Lee “reads” her subject’s oeuvre and life as products of a brilliant woman’s disciplined determination to move beyond the limitations of her upbringing and class and excel in the man’s world of literary achievement. The resulting portrait of an artist certainly complements, and probably surpasses, R.W.B. Lewis’ much admired and honored Wharton biography of more than 30 years ago.

Ms. Lee begins her study on a note that would be struck again and again throughout Wharton’s lifetime: A trip to Paris made by Wharton’s parents in 1848 (when a later French revolution was underway) is juxtaposed with Wharton’s own experience of France in 1914, when she would not be content to stand and watch a civilization she adored succumb under foreign attack.

It was the pattern of Edith’s life: foreign travel, residence abroad and an eventual drawing away from what she would perceive as the commercialization and cultural devaluation of her native country.

Ms. Lee offers a plaintive picture of the young Edith, indulged and encouraged in her pursuit of learning and “childhood passion for the sound of words,” even as she was being groomed for entry into a society for which her parents only barely qualified. Her well meaning father’s suspect earning capacity was further compromised by her imperious and foolish mother’s lavish spending sprees.

It was thus all but inevitable that Edith would be married off to the ostensibly proper Bostonian Edward “Teddy” Wharton, a wan underachiever and a probable homosexual who failed to satisfy any of his ardent young spouse’s needs. (Long-available evidence strongly suggests that the marriage remained unconsummated for some time, and its inevitable end was divorce.)

She was fortunate enough to have several outlets for her energies. The Atlantic Monthly had published poems written when she was a teenager (poetry was not her forte, as she quickly realized). An early product of her lifelong interest in interior design and landscape architecture and gardening was her first book, “The Decoration of Houses,” written in collaboration with her friend Ogden Codman. It was generously praised as an authoritative work on its subject.

And there was travel — to her beloved France (whence her family repeatedly returned, and where Wharton would spend her later years alone) and to Italy (which comprised “a theatre for Wharton, in which she saw acted out the survival of the ancient and the classical”).

The organization of Ms. Lee’s book, as thematic as it is chronological, allows the biographer to treat major themes in depth, showing their relevance to the entire span of her life and work.

Her chapter on “Italian Backgrounds,” perhaps Ms. Lee’s finest, thus considers both the romance and the realism Wharton gleaned from her Italian experiences (e.g., in her perception of how “the sense of ordinary lives” permeates Italian fiction, drama and even grand opera) and its specific relevance to the development of her fiction — in Wharton’s arduously researched first novel, the historical romance “The Valley of Decision.”

Yet this is much more than a literary study. Ms. Lee acutely and unsparingly describes Wharton’s nonromantic friendships with like-minded male companions (her longtime soulmate in America and Europe, Walter Berry, was undoubtedly the most agreeable of them), many of them much younger than she.

There’s a devastating picture of freelance journalist Morton Fullerton, whose sexual relationship with Wharton at least offered some compensation for the arid years endured with Teddy Wharton (whom she never completely abandoned, despite their divorce and his eventual descent into what seems to have been bipolar disorder).

And Ms. Lee deals quite credibly with Wharton’s well known uneasy encounter with young F. Scott Fitzgerald (who tried and failed to shock her) and her rather surprising affection for Sinclair Lewis, who would be generously fictionalized in her paired late novels “Hudson River Bracketed” and “The Gods Arrive.”

Ms. Lee’s account of Wharton’s long companionship with Henry James (20 years her senior) strikes a convincing balance between acknowledgement of his beneficial influence on her steadily increasing powers as a conscious literary artist and a firm analysis of how she carefully maintained her independence from his stylistic mannerisms and tendency toward obscurity.

Even more persuasive is Ms. Lee’s account — bolstered by frequent references to autobiographical and travel writings — of Wharton’s wholehearted plunge into fundraising and “home front” support activities during World War I, when she “dedicated herself to France and turned into a heroic worker on behalf of her adopted country.” These burdens were shouldered at a time when she was in her literary prime, and no one knows how great the cost was, how many more significant books might have been written.

But what she completed and published has endured for several generations, and it is unlikely to be forgotten. Ms. Lee pays appropriate tribute to the best of Wharton: nearly 100 estimable short stories, including some of the best ghostly tales ever written; her early masterpiece “The House of Mirth,” in which the power of society to seduce and destroy was unflinchingly portrayed.

Ms. Lee also acknowledges the terse, claustrophobic power of her brilliant short novels “Bunner Sisters,” “Summer” and “Ethan Frome;” the autumnal melancholy and beauty of her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Age of Innocence” (though Ms. Lee, for reasons incomprehensible to this reviewer, chooses as her best long fiction Wharton’s mordant transatlantic satire “The Custom of the Country”). And, amid the flood of mediocre books that marked the end of her career, the still-underrated novels “Twilight Sleep” and “The Children.”

In a summary assessment of some of Wharton’s earliest fiction, Ms. Lee observes that “In many of these stories, there is a feeling of being stuck inside a dilemma from which there is no exit.” As she continued to write, Wharton found that exit — in the shaping power of the imagination to wrest meaning and beauty from even the most inhibiting circumstances and experiences (wealth and privilege not excluded).

This fine biography helps us understand that the exit was in fact an entry — into personal fulfillment and an estimable body of work that, however high its reputation, nevertheless cries out for rediscovery.

Bruce Allen, who lives in Kittery, Maine, reads and writes about new and classic fiction for the Boston Globe, Kirkus Reviews and several other publications.

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