This Day In Literary History
On January 24th, 1862, the legendary American writer Edith Wharton was born. She was born Edith Jones in New York City. The famous saying "Keeping up with the Joneses" is said to refer to her father's family.
The Joneses were indeed an upwardly mobile aristocratic family - the kind of people Edith Wharton would skewer in her writings. In 1885, the 23-year-old Edith married Edward "Teddy" Robbins Wharton, who was 12 years her senior.
Teddy also came from an aristocratic family, one of Boston's most respected, but he wasn't an intellectual like Edith - he was a sportsman. He did, however, share her love of traveling.
Teddy Wharton suffered from acute depression - recurring brief episodes of severe depression. Over time, the episodes would grow worse, ultimately manifesting as a serious mental illness. By 1908, he would be pronounced incurable and committed.
Later that year, Edith moved to Paris, France, where she met and fell in love with Morton Fullerton, an American journalist who was working as a correspondent for the London Times.
In Fullerton, Edith found a soul mate and intellectual equivalent. They were introduced by a mutual friend - the legendary writer Henry James. Edith Wharton's first novel, The Touchstone, was published in 1900.
Her fourth novel, published in 1905, would make her name as a writer and be considered a classic. Though it was called The House of Mirth, it was no comedy. Rather, it presented a stark and scathing indictment of the fate of women in the aristocracy of early 20th century New York City.
The tragic heroine, Lily Bart, realizes that like all women of her class, she was "brought up to be ornamental" - a trophy wife for a wealthy upperclassman. But what she wants is love and a relationship based on mutual respect.
Lily's naivete results in her ruin by both vicious, scheming society women and her refusal to stoop to their level to take revenge and restore her reputation, which was tarnished when the women falsely implicated her in scandalous behavior.
Lily ultimately dies from a possibly intentional overdose of chloral hydrate, a sedative which she had become addicted to. Another one of Edith Wharton's classic novels was her novella Ethan Frome (1911).
Unlike her previous writings which depicted the misery of upper class social mores, this novella dealt with working class life and its own miserable mores. The title character is a good man from rural Massachusetts whose marriage to his bitter, sickly wife Zeena has grown colder than the New England winter landscape.
Zeena's cousin Mattie has come to help keep house and take care of Zeena. Mattie and Ethan soon develop strong feelings for each other, which they struggle to repress. Zeena suspects that the two are falling in love and seethes with anger.
When the family cat breaks Zeena's favorite pickle dish, she blames Mattie and decides to get rid of her on the pretense of needing a more competent housekeeper. Ethan plans to run away with Mattie, but guilt forces him to reconsider.
They decide to go sledding, and Mattie proposes a double suicide pact. They plan to crash their sled into a tree at full speed. At the last moment, Ethan panics and turns away.
He and Mattie survive the crash but are left crippled. The novel ends with Zeena, who recovered from her illness, forced to take care of her husband and Mattie, who is now the bitter and sickly one.
In 1920, Edith Wharton published the novel that made her the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize. The Age Of Innocence, a tale of upper class life in late 19th century New York City.
The novel opens with lawyer and respected gentleman Newland Archer happily anticipating his upcoming marriage to May Welland, a beautiful, pampered fellow aristocrat. Archer's outlook is changed completely when May's exotic cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska, arrives for a visit.
Trapped in a rotten marriage to a Polish count, Ellen left him, scandalizing herself and her family in the process. What's worse, she plans to divorce him. Archer is horrified and has second thoughts about marrying May.
When a law partner of Archer's asks him to convince Ellen to return to husband to save May's family's reputation, he comes to understand, care about, and ultimately fall in love with Ellen. Ellen reciprocates his affection, but won't consummate the relationship because she doesn't want to hurt her cousin.
Archer marries May, but it's a loveless marriage, as he can't forget Ellen, who decided to remain separated from her husband but not divorced from him. Desperate to escape his unhappy life, Archer takes Ellen as his mistress.
Later, Archer plans to leave May, but before he can tell her, she tells him that she's pregnant. Suspecting the affair, she deliberately got pregnant to trap her husband. With no way out, Archer is forced to give up his true love and remain in a loveless marriage for the rest of his life.
In addition to her novels, Edith Wharton published collections of short stories, poetry, and non-fiction. She was living in France when World War I broke out in 1914; thanks to her connections in the French government, she was allowed to travel to the front lines.
She wrote a series of articles about France's war effort that would be published as Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort. During the war, she worked tirelessly to help homeless Belgian refugees.
Edith also found work for unemployed Frenchwomen, promoted concerts to provide work for musicians, and opened tuberculosis hospitals. She edited The Book of the Homeless, a collection of manuscripts, art, musical scores, and erotica by artists left homeless by the war.
For her war efforts, Edith would be named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. After the war ended, she bought a villa in Provence. She would divide her time between Paris and Provence, writing and traveling. Her literary circle included her old friend Henry James and new friends Sinclair Lewis, Jean Cocteau, and Andre Gide.
Edith Wharton died of a stroke in August of 1937. She was 75 years old.
Quote Of The Day
"In spite of illness, in spite even of the arch-enemy sorrow, one can remain alive past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways." - Edith Wharton
Today's video features a complete reading of Edith Wharton's classic novella, Ethan Frome. Enjoy!