Edith Wharton was born in New York on 24 January 1862, into a very wealthy, high society family. Her father, George Frederic Jones, and mother, Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander, were ‘old-money.’ The phrase "keeping up with the Joneses" is said to refer to her father's family. Her social circle was governed by the importance of keeping up appearances, avoiding scandal, and repressing emotions – themes she would explore and satirise in her adult writing.
When Edith was four years old her family moved to Europe for five years, and travelled extensively in Italy, Spain, Germany and France. They returned to New York when Edith was nine, and she began private tutoring at home. She showed an early flair for writing. Her first work in print was Verses, a collection of poems, which was privately published in 1878.
On 29 April 1885, at the age of 23, Edith married banker Edward “Teddy” Robbins Wharton in New York. Over the next few years, the couple travelled extensively together, spending months at a time in Europe. They also entertained lavishly at home. Edith’s social circle included the cream of America's literary and public figures, including Henry James, who was a close friend.
Edith’s poems and short stories were first published in Scribner’s Magazine, in 1891. In 1899 she published a collection of short stories, The Greater Inclination. She wrote prolifically during the early 1900s. Her first novel, The Touchstone, was published in 1900. Her fourth novel, The House of Mirth, was a 1905 bestseller. She published seven short story collections between 1899 and 1913, nine novels, and a collection of poetry. Her work appeared in Atlantic Monthly, Century Magazine, Harper’s and the Saturday Evening Post.
Edith Wharton’s writing was not limited to fiction. She was also a talented designer and interior decorator, and published several books in this genre, including The Decoration of Houses in 1897 and Italian Villas and their Gardens in 1904, as well as a travel book, A Motor-Flight through France, in 1908.
In between writing, she took time out to design and oversee construction of The Mount, the palatial home she shared with Teddy, in Lenox, Massachusetts. The estate was completed in 1902. The marriage, however, was not a happy one. Teddy suffered from acute depression and alcoholism, and had a number of affairs. From 1906, Edith based herself mainly in Paris, and embarked on a passionate long-term affair with the American journalist Morton Fullerton. Edith and Teddy divorced in 1913.
The outbreak of war in 1914 saw Edith actively involved in assisting refugees and orphans in France and Belgium. She helped raise funds for their support, and was involved in creating and running hostels and schools for them. Her charitable work during the war earned her the title of Chevalier in the French Legion of Honour in 1916. She also toured the battlefields and hospitals of the front line. She recorded her experiences in the non-fiction work, Fighting France, from Dunkerque to Belfort, published in 1915, and the novel The Marne published in 1918.
Following the war, Edith moved to the French countryside. In Hyères, Provencem, she finished her twelve novel, The Age of Innocence, in 1920. The novel won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for literature. Edith was the first woman to win the award.
Between 1922 and 1938, she published a further ten novels (two posthumously), seven short stories, a collection of poetry, and a collection of essays. She also completed her autobiography, A Backward Glance, which was published in 1934. Her complete body of work comprises over 40 volumes of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction.
Edith died of a stroke in 1937 at her home in the French countryside, at the age of 75. She is buried in the American Cemetery in Versailles. Her papers and letters were deposited in Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book Room and Manuscript Library, and opened in 1968.
by Kerri McDonald