EDITH WHARTON (1862 – 1937) had an extremely wealthy background: private tutors and a governess provided her home education, and she spent six years living in France as a child (France became her main home from 1914). Wharton was well connected socially, politically and, in later years, with the literary world. Henry James was a great friend (though her meeting with Scott Fitzgerald proved to be disappointing to both: “to your generation,” wrote Wharton, “I must represent the literary equivalent of tufted furniture and gas chandeliers”). Her marriage was unfulfilling in every way, and passion came only in her mid-40s when she embarked on a relationship with Morton Fullerton, a slight cad, which ended unhappily for Edith.
Wharton lived luxuriously. She toured Europe by chauffeured car or yacht, and indulged her instinct for interior decoration, renovation and gardening. Such patrician mode was encouraged by an admiration for the French Empire, and it prompted her refusal to donate to Teddy Roosevelt, her great friend, when his policies, for instance, became too populist.
As a child, Wharton developed a great appetite for writing, though her mother had forbidden her to read a novel until she married. Her first novella was written when she was 15. An initial lack of success and scant encouragement saw Wharton turn to writing travel pieces. Her first short story was published only when she was 29, and her first collection of short stories, The Greater Inclination, when 37; The Touchstone, Wharton’s first extended piece of fiction, was published a year later, and is her first book to examine the faded fortunes of New York society life. Wharton’s first novel, The Valley of Decision, was published in 1902; The House of Mirth (1905); Ethan Frome (1911) won her considerable acclaim. Wharton was a prolific author, and published over forty books, including 15 novels. Her polished writing style was flooded with wit, satire and observation. The Age of Innocence (1920) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize even though the jurors had all voted for Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street; the decision was overturned by the Pulitzer board. She wrote to Lewis that when she had “discovered that I was being rewarded — by one of our leading Universities — for uplifting American morals, I confess I did despair.”