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The Shocking Ms. Wharton: Edith’s Erotica

We recently put together a feature highlighting some of the life and books of Edith Wharton. As you can see from the article, when we think of Edith Wharton, we tend to think of a very buttoned-up woman. Serious literary writing, gardening, maybe some architecture and interior design…. but erotica? Edith Wharton?

Apparently, yes.

Michelle Dean has a piece on The Rumpus exploring the outline of an unpublished story by Wharton, called Beatrice Palmato, which is, in passages, downright lurid in its pornographic – and highly taboo – detail. Assumed to be written when Wharton was in her late fifties, the story depicts an incestuous relationship in detail that would make anyone redden to their roots.

In her exploration of the fragment – of its meaning, its origins and the reason for its existence – Dean goes on to theorize that Wharton may have had some greater intention than shock, disturbance or titillation when she wrote the words.

For my part, I keep imagining this: Edith Wharton was not a stupid woman. The scholars vary on the timing but even so, when she drafted this, she is thought to have been no younger than her late fifties. She was several years from her divorce from Teddy and a few longer from her affair with Fullerton. She was an old grand dame by then, and most of her greatest books were behind her. When she picked up her pencil and wrote the pieces of Beatrice Palmato she likely did so in bed, because it was where she always said she liked to write. She lived in France, in the country, having left Paris and America for a quieter life. She knew what fame was, and she knew she had it. She knew most of all that it was a thing you managed.

Someone was guaranteed come along and read her papers. She had an idea of what people wanted to know and had, it seems, much of her life hidden it from public view. (Her memoir, A Backward Glance, doesn’t mention her troubles with mother, or her affair with Fullerton.) In her will she deliberately provided that they not be opened to scholars until 1968. She also knew that her good friend Henry James had destroyed many of his papers, including letters she’d sent him, at her death. Probably she was more interested in hiding her passionate letters to Fullerton than anything else, but it could not have escaped her notice that her unpublishable fragment wasn’t likely to remain so.

In any event, it appears there was more to Edith Wharton than at first meets the eye!

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