Born into a wealthy, aristocratic family, Edith Wharton grew up among the kind of people she wrote about in The Age of Innocence. After marrying, she divided her time between America and Europe, spending more and more of her time abroad. Her later years were spent in the company of fellow writers and she was recognized as the grande dame of American letters.
Born in New York City on January 24, 1862, Edith Newbold Jones was the daughter of George Frederic and Lucretia Rhinelander Jones. Her parents, descendants of Dutch and English colonists, were socially prominent with wealth from real estate, shipping, and banking. Edith's mother did not encourage her daughter's writing. Later, Edith saw her mother as cold and concerned with appearances; she saw her rarely in later life. Edith also had two much older brothers, Henry (b. 1850) and Frederic (b. 1846). Their lives were filled with servants, carriages, and social etiquette. From these happy childhood memories, the sensitive and intelligent Edith drew many ideas for her later writings about life among the leisure class.
Having suffered financial reverses, the family traveled through Spain, Italy, France, and Germany from 1866 to 1872 where the cost of living was lower. Edith learned German, Italian, and French before she was 10. In 1872, they returned to the United States, living on West 23rd Street in New York City with summers in Newport, Rhode Island. Edith was disappointed with America, finding New York City an ugly brown, and the architecture and interior decoration unsightly. She did not go to school but instead read from her father's extensive library and was taught by governesses. In 1878, Wharton wrote a book of poetry, Verses, that was printed privately. The editor of The Atlantic Monthly, William Dean Howells, put one of her poems in his magazine that same year. Her early writing was generally about the poor and their imagined harsh lives. By the time Edith made her social debut in 1879, she had written many early pieces. In 1880, the family went back to Europe and her father died at Cannes in 1882.
Marriage and Depression
By 1883, Edith was 21 years old. In Bar Harbor she met Walter Berry, a Harvard graduate and lawyer who shared her literary interests and much of her life. She credits him with helping her writing style and in later years she burned their personal correspondence. Biographers allude to this relationship as hopeful on her part, yet Berry did not propose to her.
She reluctantly married Edward Robbins ("Teddy") Wharton in 1885. He was from a similar social background, a Boston banker 12 years her senior who graduated from Harvard in 1873. He did not, however, share Edith's literary or artistic interests. During this time, she observed the new rich — the Vanderbilts and Astors — garnering details for her later works about life among the wealthy. She and Teddy bought a home called Land's End in Newport, lived in an apartment on Park Avenue in New York City, and traveled abroad. Throughout their marriage they would have no children. In fact, Edith went into marriage totally unprepared for the sexual side of being a wife; she did not find a passion that fulfilled her until much later in life. In 1894, she suffered the first of several nervous breakdowns, which biographers connect with her conflict between her social position and her writing ambitions. The unhappiness of her marriage was also a possible cause. Travel helped her depression and months in France and Italy not only gave her writing ideas, but also encouraged her love of Europe, a lifelong passion. In 1896, with architect and friend, Ogden Codman, she published her first book-length work, The Decoration of Houses, which encouraged a change from heavily decorated Victorian homes to simple classic designs that emphasized balance, symmetry, and proportion. By this time, she also had written more poems that were printed in Scribner's magazine, as well as a short story collection called The Greater Inclination.
Passions, Artistic Friends, and Travel
During the first two years of 1900, the Whartons built a summer home in Lennox, Massachusetts, naming it "The Mount." Edith was an avid gardener and her home had extensive gardens. The novelist Henry James (1843–1916) became a lifelong friend during this time. Also from a wealthy family, James had traveled extensively, living in Paris and England, and shared Edith's sense of irony and humor. Theodore Roosevelt, whose second wife was a distant cousin of Edith's, met the Whartons when he visited Newport. Later, Edith attended the awarding of TR's honorary degree from Williams College; he dined at the Wharton's home on Long Island, Sagamore Hill, and he makes a fictional appearance in The Age of Innocence. During these years, Edith wrote her first novel, The Valley of Decision. In 1903, she toured Italy for material for magazine articles, and she also published another novella, Sanctuary.
A trip through England with Henry James in 1904 was the first of many motor trips through Europe that became part of Edith's life. She bought a Paris apartment in Faubourg Saint-Germain. Then she discovered her husband was keeping a mistress in Boston and misappropriating her money. She visited England without Teddy and began an affair with a journalist from the London Times named Morton Fullerton. He became the great love of her life and she found the passion that was missing in her marriage. In these years she wrote Italian Villas and Their Gardens and The Descent of Man. She also published one of her more famous novels, The House of Mirth, a social satire about Lily Bart, a beautiful but poor woman trying to marry rich to survive in materialistic New York City.
During this period, Edith socialized with such literary figures as James, Henry Adams, Bourget, Gide, and Cocteau as well as expatriate artists and writers. Teddy Roosevelt dined at her Paris apartment, she began a friendship with Bernard Berenson, and she published another short story collection called Tales of Men and Ghosts. By now, her husband, Teddy, had embezzled over $50,000 from her trust funds; he made restitution later by selling The Mount. By 1910, she was back in Paris and Teddy was in a sanitarium suffering from depression. His father had endured depression and committed suicide in 1891. Teddy would follow in his father's footsteps, having difficulties with depression until his death in 1928. Between 1910 and 1913, Wharton published Ethan Frome, The Reef, and The Custom of the Country. Continuing her friendship with Berry and Berenson, she legally separated from Teddy, later divorcing him in 1913. She spent the rest of her life in France.
The War and Later Years
In 1914, Wharton urged America to join the war and carried on numerous efforts to help those in need. She founded the American Hostels for Refugees and the Children of Flanders Rescue Committee. Engaging in fund raising and visiting military hospitals, she also helped refugees coming into Paris after the battles of Marne and Ypres, finding them shelter, jobs, and food. She wrote The Book of the Homeless, asking for contributions from writers and artists, and giving the proceeds for war relief. For all these charitable deeds, she was decorated by the French Legion of Honor. In 1918, Wharton bought Villa Jean-Marie near Paris, naming it Pavillon Colombe. She divided her later years between this home and a chateau in the south of France, which was near Hyeres and named Chateau Sainte-Claire. Novels that came out of her war experiences include The Marne (1918), French Ways and Their Meaning (1919), and Sons at the Front (1923). The middle book was an attempt to explain French attitudes to Americans, as she had seen Americans come to Paris after the war and their actions were distasteful to her. As time went by, this abhorrence of American excess was replaced by a feeling that even the narrow-minded social code of 1870s New Yorkers had something noble about its ability to pass on civilized values.
Meanwhile, she was becoming famous as an American woman of letters and she was awarded several prizes during these years. In 1920, The Age of Innocence was published, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1921.Two years later, Wharton came to America for the last time to receive an honorary doctorate from Yale. In 1924, she was awarded the Gold Medal by the National Institute of Arts and letters, the first woman so honored. Over the next five years, she published several important works, including The Writing of Fiction in 1925, which discussed many contemporary writers' works and also elaborated on her own methods of writing. The Age of Innocence was adapted for the stage and opened at the Empire Theatre in New York on November 27, playing 207 performances. Also during this time, her friend Walter Berry and her ex-husband, Teddy, died. From 1920 to 1933, Wharton spent a great deal of time among authors and artistic circles in Paris. She published her autobiography, A Backward Glance, in 1934, which described the pleasures of her childhood, her early years as an author, and her friends and travels. In 1935, she suffered a slight stroke, but the following year she was writing again and published The World Over. In 1937, while visiting Ogden Codman's chateau, she suffered another stroke and died on August 11. She was buried in Cimitiere des Gonards in Versailles near Walter Berry. Posthumously, her novel The Buccaneers was published, completed by Marion Mainwaring. Wharton had begun it in 1934, and it was similar in theme to The Custom of the Country, concerning nouveau riche New Yorkers whose daughters go to Europe to seek out aristocratic European titles.