The Talented Mrs. Edith Whartonby Richard Davies
Did you know Edith Wharton was the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction? Did you know she was born into America’s social elite and yet much of her writing was critical of the privileged classes? Did you know she wrote dozens of short stories? Did you know she designed and oversaw the construction of a 113-acre mansion where she could garden and write in peace?
But my favorite piece of Edith Wharton trivia is that you or I could stage our wedding in The Mount, the writer’s palatial pad in Massachusetts (although I don’t think the rental fee is in my price range).
Edith Wharton (1862-1937) was a remarkable woman. She remains one of America’s greatest writers and her work shows an acute understanding of life and people. She could also have had a career in landscape gardening or interior design if the whim had taken her.
Her 1920 novel, The Age of Innocence, helps to define her literary legacy as it won the 1921 Pulitzer, but Ethan Frome (1911) and The House of Mirth (1905) are also immensely important novels in her portfolio. Her 1904 non-fiction book, Italian Villas and Their Gardens, is also well regarded and The Decoration of Houses (1897) is an important manual in the history of home decoration. Wharton described herself in a letter as being “a better landscape gardener than novelist.”
Italian Villas and Their Gardens is famous for its 26 illustrations by Maxfield Parrish. The book looks at more than 75 villas and is still a key reference tool today for landscape gardeners. The House of Mirth was her first important piece of fiction and the book’s tragic protagonist, Lily Bart, is one of her most famous characters.
Wharton had a wealth of talent. She was a great traveler and wrote one of the first travel books about Morocco. She campaigned to support the refugees fleeing the conflict during World War I and wrote a book about her experiences on the front line – Fighting France from Dunkerque to Belfort.
She was a francophone and lived in France after the War. She had a home in Provence and is buried in Versailles. It seems that this woman, who stood toe-to-toe with the male intellectuals of this era, was never dull.
Where do you start? Perhaps with her highly regarded ghost stories like Tales of Men and Ghosts from 1910. Another option would be her autobiography, A Backward Glance - published in 1934 three years before her death.
A Selection of Edith Wharton Books
A sad story of a failing marriage told in flashbacks.
The House of Mirth
A novel of New York’s ruling class with a doomed heroine.
The Age of Innocence
A novel about scandal and marriage in elite society.
The Decoration of Houses
A design manual that abandons the frumpy Victorian style.
A pioneering travel book.
Fighting France from Dunkerque to Belfort
Written in 1915 about Wharton’s trips to the Front.
Tales of Men and Ghosts
One of Wharton’s collections of ghost stories.
A Backward Glance
Wharton’s autobiography from 1934.
Wharton’s debut novel from 1900.
A Son at the Front
A World War I-inspired novel from 1923.
The Fruit of the Tree
A novel from 1907 set in a New England textile mill.
A novel about a young woman’s social awakening.
A novel about the relationship between three characters.
Wharton’s final novel from 1938.
A collection of short stories set in Italy, France and America
French Ways and their Meaning
A collection of essays about the French.
The Custom of the Country
A dark satire on American life with a ruthless protagonist.
A collection of six short stories from 1930.
The New York Stories of Edith Wharton
A collection of 20 stories written from experience.
Edith Wharton Abroad: Selected Travel Writings 1888-1920
This strong-willed woman on Europe, Morocco, and the Mediterranean.
The Letters of Edith Wharton
edited by R.W.B. Lewis & Nancy Lewis
A Historical Guide to Edith Wharton
edited by Carol J. Singley
Contains a series of essays that illustrate Wharton’s life.
by Hermione Lee
A critical biography from 2007.
Edith Wharton: A Biography
by R.W.B. Lewis
A bio from 1975 written from letters and manuscripts.
No Gifts of Chance: A Biography of Edith Wharton
by Shari Benstock
An upbeat bio from 1995.
5 Most Expensive Edith Wharton Books Sold on AbeBooks
1. Ethan Frome - $4,500
A first edition bound in polished calf. The book includes a tipped in typed letter, signed by Wharton, on the stationary of Oeuvre Des Enfants des Flanders to Mr. Hoyt. The letter is dated January 8th, 1917.
2. The Age of Innocence - $2,000
A first edition complete with an original later issue dust jacket.
3=. The Age of Innocence - $1,500
A first edition lacking the rare dust jacket.
3=. Italian Villas and Their Gardens - $1,500
A first edition in the gilt-stamped illustrated green cloth.
3=. Ethan Frome - $1,500
One of 50 numbered copies printed on handmade paper.