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 bio from 1975 written from letters and manuscripts.
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.