four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
29-July-Aug-2007
By: 
Hermione Lee
user_rating: 
0

A-Edith WhartonBorn to privilege, Edith Wharton (1862–1937) escaped an unhappy marriage and the repressive expectations of Gilded Age New York by writing and publishing her first novel in her 40s. Highlighting Wharton’s later years as an expatriate in France, Hermione Lee’s biography illuminates the prolific—if late-blooming—Pulitzer Prize winner (The Age of Innocence, 1920) against the cultural and political upheaval of the early 20th century. She also explores Wharton’s affair with Morton Fullerton, her divorce, her friendship with Henry James, and their subsequent effects on her writing. Though Wharton’s subtle evocations of love, loss, and loneliness, set against the hypocrisy of Victorian society, reflect the dismal reality of her youth, Lee paints a spellbinding portrait of the spirited, indomitable woman who lived life on her own terms.
Knopf. 869 pages. $35. ISBN: 0375400044

Atlanta Jrnl-Constitution 4.5 of 5 Stars
"In her massive new retelling of Wharton’s long and eventful life, Hermione Lee has outdone all previous biographies, presenting a richly detailed, carefully nuanced portrait of this fascinating, conflicted and phenomenally gifted woman. … Marked by an elegant literary style that does justice to its subject and a clear, compassionate eye for detail, Edith Wharton is not only the best book on its subject, but one of the finest literary biographies to appear in recent years." Greg Johnson

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4.5 of 5 Stars
"With well-nigh Whartonian plotting, [Lee] confidently paces her work, marshalling her comprehensive research into a naturalistic accumulation of detail. … Even though we know the end before we begin, death being the biographer’s structural straitjacket, the reader is absorbed, suspenseful, eager to find out how it will turn out." Anne Trubek

Newsday 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Hermione Lee’s magnificent new biography is by far the longest and most comprehensive study of the writer’s full, populous and robust life. … Wharton lived a spirited and passionate life, and Lee captures that passion in a biography that may well be unsurpassable in scope and surely in sensitivity." Linda Simon

Wall Street Journal 4.5 of 5 Stars
"This thorough, scholarly work, with 63 pages of exhaustive notes, gets all of Wharton—writer, serious gardener, cutting-edge interior designer, war correspondent and intrepid traveler—between the covers in spite of Edith’s lifelong determination that no one ever would. … The extraordinary accomplishment of her biography enables readers to feel that they have known Mrs. W all their lives and—for better or worse—with the same sort of intimacy that her closest friends enjoyed." Barbara Amiel

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Lee, in her resurrecting ardor, resurrects every last button and shoelace. … Sometimes, though, she goes into a sublime overdrive, never more than in a portrait of Wharton and James that has never been bettered." Richard Eder

St. Louis Post-Dispatch 4 of 5 Stars
"[Lee] is exhaustive in dissecting and interpreting all of Wharton’s work, not just the works on which her considerable reputation rests—The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence, Ethan Frome—but all of her novels, critical reviews, articles and poetry. … Lee’s exhaustive biography offers a thorough examination of that vanished age of ideas and culture." Jamie Spencer

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 2 of 5 Stars
"When a book is that long, critics frequently call it ‘sprawling,’ but Lee’s focus is so narrow, her attention so concentrated on the mundane and trivial, that the best adjective I can offer is ‘obsessive.’ … There are serious attempts to interpret Wharton’s writings, but in Lee’s approach, the works come across as just another activity like designing a garden." Bob Hoover

Critical Summary

Edith Wharton had an unfortunate habit of burning her letters, which makes her an elusive topic for biographers. Critics enthusiastically agreed, however, that Hermione Lee succeeds in bringing Wharton to vibrant life. They were impressed by Lee’s scholarship and unwillingness to speculate, as others have done before her, without proof. Instead, Lee teases out the details of Wharton’s life by analyzing evidence that scholars often overlook: houses she decorated, travel itineraries, and reading lists. Most reviewers consider Lee, a Professor of English at Oxford, at her best when outlining and exploring Wharton’s numerous works. Confidently dispelling myths that Wharton was a prudish spinster who mimicked the style of others, this voluminous biography reveals a fiercely independent woman ahead of her time.

Also by the Author

Virginia Woolf (1999): In this critically acclaimed, exhaustively researched debut, Lee examines the life and work of Virginia Woolf—as brilliant as, but perhaps even more misunderstood than, Edith Wharton.