Chatto & Windus, $79.95 hb, 853 pp
I took to Edith Wharton in the late 1970s but don’t remember why. I have never forgotten the name of the heroine of the first of her books that I read: Undine Spragg, all soft promise dashed by that biting surname. This was The Custom of the Country (1913), and I read on: Ethan Frome (1912), Summer (1917), and The Children (1928), for instance. Someone offered me R.W.B. Lewis’s Edith Wharton: A Biography (1975), and a friend created space on his bookshelf by unloading The Collected Short Stories (edited and introduced by Lewis, who calls himself an ‘addict’). Much later, when the film of The Age of Innocence was released in 1993, I primly chose to read the novel rather than see a version of it. Then I left Edith Wharton, née Jones, born to wealth in 1862 in New York, on the shelf.
All of the above is to declare that I came to Hermione Lee’s literary biography of Wharton as a general reader, neither as a Wharton aficionado nor with academic interest in this writer who published forty-eight books in forty years. Lewis’s Life had surprised me: I admit to being hardly friendly towards biography. It was engaging and compelling enough to invite a lively interest in Wharton whose Old New York circumscribed much of her social attitudes (V.S. Pritchett called her ‘the accountant-historian of a rich society’). Old New York had a penchant for, and the money to sail to, France and Italy and Old European Culture. Often, Old New York established itself in Europe. Wharton did, and Lee insists that her biography is ‘the story of an American citizen in France’.