A female Ulysses

No Gifts from Chance
June 2, 1995

0b-On publication of The Great Gatsby in 1925, Scott Fitzgerald sent Edith Wharton a most respectfully signed copy. She, summoning all the residual charm of "Old New York", professed herself "touched", adding self-deprecatingly that to the rising American literary generation of Fitzgerald she imagined she must appear to be "the literary equivalent of tufted furniture and gas chandeliers". If her words smacked winningly of tongue-in-cheek - the oblique irony of a literary grande dame - they were also close to the mark, and became closer with time.

Her encounters with Fitzgerald in the flesh have the headiness of legend, as befits his Jazz Age persona. In 1923, at the New York offices of Scribner's on Fifth Avenue he allegedly threw himself at Wharton's feet. In 1925, at her Pavillon Colombe, near Paris, he is said to have turned up drunk and told her and the other guests an off-colour brothel story. Whatever else is indicated by these stories, they surely underline that this was a meeting of two American eras, two styles of life and literature.

In Wharton's case the primum mobile lay, it seemed, in the manners of old wealth, the ins and outs of WASP gentility. For Fitzgerald, it meant new wealth in the form of 1920s smash and grab, a buccaneer Gatsbyism as it were, with Hollywood newly in play purveying an image of desire at any price.

In truth, both Wharton (who died in 1937) and Fitzgerald wrote and lived to infinitely subtler effect, not least in their shared habit of making both their storytelling and their own lives serve as a kind of ongoing "fiction". Yet Wharton, unlike Fitzgerald, has, despite a continuing if reduced readership, been progressively consigned to being a period piece. Even the best, or best-known, of her fiction suffers from this tendency - whether it be The House of Mirth with its vintage "novel of manners" portrait of Lily Bart as a woman caught out by the dream of wealthy marriage and gentrification, or Ethan Frome, the odd-man-out Wharton novella which takes on a provincial and puritanised New Englandism, or The Custom of the Country, her worldly-wise yet wonderfully animated satire of social climbing, or The Age of Innocence, another classic of "manners" shot through with sexual desire and abnegation (as Martin Scorsese was quick to pick up in his recent movie adaptation), or Hudson River Bracketed, Wharton's provocative late story of American provincialism and art.

The fact is that Wharton has been turned into a kind of embalmed standard bearer for the monied, upper-tier society of the Atlantic seaboard from which, to be sure, she hailed but which in her work she subjected to a powerfully ironic critique. And as that society stepped from the 19th into the 20th century, was not her interest in "Old New York" (and, given her later fiction, "Old Europe") more than anything else her donnee, her occasion for a larger exploration of human contrariety?

Wharton's 40-plus books were outmatched only by her 60 or so Atlantic crossings. Henry James, her great alter ego, fellow expatriate and, figuratively at least, literary companion-in-arms, was not too far off when he called her "a female Ulysses". With new Wharton papers now available, Shari Benstock's new biography takes up the task of rethinking this literary daughter of merchant New York in its gilded age with quite the briskest of energy.

The results, it has to be said, are mixed. There are a number of advances in information on R. W. B. Lewis's landmark biography published in 1975, especially concerning the blighted marriage to Teddy Wharton, the long, winding platonic friendship with Walter Berry and the love affair with the handsome, furtive, bisexual journalist, William Morton Fullerton (in whom Henry James, too, showed not always veiled interest). Benstock also writes more fully than most on Wharton's Europe, her balades by car (a habit she shared with Gertrude Stein) and her relish of, and writings on, art and travel; the book unravels much of the relationship with Bernard Berenson. Wharton's activities in the first world war - this "world-gloom" as she called it - and her charity work and dismay at America's late entry into the war, receive due attention, including her staid and shamelessly propagandist Son at the Front.

Less positively, much of this information is accompanied by an occasionally wearying ledger of minor detail: sales of Wharton's books, her household accounts, her indefatigable purchases of clothes and room furnishings. Somewhere along the line the flowering of the imagination Wharton once described in her carefully selective autobiography, Backward Glance, as being "coiled" in childhood, "a mute hibernating creature" - gets somewhat eclipsed. No Gifts From Chance too readily gives in to the local, the episodic, at the cost of the unfolding and the overall picture.

Still there is an abundance to learn from and savour - starting with the genteel "frightened debutante" Edith Jones who made her society bow before her (the phrase "keeping up with the Joneses" arose from her monied dynasty), but who was "born into a family rife with secrets and fearing scandal". There is scandal in plenty: philanderers, illegitimate offspring, affairs, and also illness, invalidism, neurasthenia, strokes, Teddy Wharton's manic depression, and Edith's own eventual faints and heart attacks - in sum, American high society as a version of Freud's Vienna. Wharton's driven, unhappy marriage went downhill in two ways: through her own success as a writer (an "alleged preponderance of intellectuality", one of the society sheets called it) and through Teddy's instability. That is part of the reason why she took more to Europe than her own country and acquired a taste for setting up new houses, such as The Mount in Lenox, Massachusetts and Pavillon Colombe in France.

Nor does Benstock shirk the issue of Wharton's sexuality: she sets out in full the whole Fullerton liaison, with its eroticism transferred to letters, poetry and fiction, in contrast with the odd mariage blanc that she enjoyed with the loyal but bachelorish Walter Berry. Other contradictions include her obvious sympathy for orphans and those dispossessed by war and yet her anti-Semitism (she would speak of her hostility to "female Yids" and praise Fitzgerald's Wolfsheim as "the perfect Jew"). And though Henry James's called her a "great generalissima", Wharton showed anything but support for feminism.

Yet whatever her social and literary conservatism, there is always her fiction, as consequential in its grasp of human loss and gain as in its manipulation of perspective. That, as Benstock's biography serves to remind us, is the real significance of Edith Wharton's life, what she herself called her "longing to tell about the life of imaginary people who populate my dreams".

Robert Lee is reader in American literature, University of Kent.

No Gifts from Chance: A Biography of Edith Wharton

Author - Shari Benstock
ISBN - 0 241 13298 3
Publisher - Hamish Hamilton
Price - £20.00
Pages - 474

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