The Age of Innocence
David Stuart Davies looks at Edith Wharton's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel ...
"There are moments when a man's imagination, so easily subdued to what it lives in, suddenly rises above its daily level and surveys the long windings of destiny. "
Edith Wharton (born Edith Newbold Jones) was born on the 24 January 1862 to parents George Frederic Jones and Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander. The saying “Keeping up with the Joneses” is said to refer to the family of her father.
In 1885, when she was 23 years old, Edith married Edward (Teddy) Robbins Wharton, who was twelve years her senior. Teddy shared her love of travel, but they had little in common intellectually. His tendency to spend money on younger women began to take its toll on Wharton’s mental health and they divorced in 1913 after he suffered a nervous breakdown and was confined to a hospital.
Edith combined her insider’s view of America’s privileged classes with a brilliant, natural wit, to write humorous and incisive novels and short stories. Besides her writing, Wharton was highly regarded as a landscape architect and interior designer.
In 1902, Edith built The Mount, her estate in Massachusetts, which survives today as the supreme example of her design principles. It has since been converted into a museum. Whilst living at The Mount, she wrote several of her novels, including The House of Mirth (1905), Ethan Frome (1911), and The Age of Innocence (1920), The Ghost Stories were published in 1937. After her divorce from Teddy, Edith moved permanently to France, returning to the United States only once after World War l to receive an honorary doctorate from Yale University in 1923.
During WWI, Wharton contributed greatly to charitable efforts for refugees – including setting up workrooms for unemployed Frenchwomen, organising concerts to provide work for musicians, opening tuberculosis hospitals and founding the American Hostels for Belgian refugees. For her efforts, she was named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour in 1916. Also in 1916, Wharton edited The Book of the Homeless, composed of writings, art and musical scores by almost every major contemporary European artist.
After the war, she divided her time between Paris and Providence, where she finished The Age of Innocence in 1920. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1921, making her the first woman to win the award. She spoke flawless French as well as several other languages and many of her books were published in both French and English.
Wharton continued writing until her death, lying in bed and dropping each finished page to the floor to be collected when she finished. On 11th August 1937, in Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt, France, she suffered a stroke and died at the age of 75. The street on which she was living at her time of death is today called Rue Edith Wharton. She is buried in the American Cemetery in Versailles, France.
Wharton’s last novel, The Buccaneers, was unfinished at the time of her death. Marion Mainwaring finished the story after carefully studying the notes and synopsis Wharton had previously written. The novel was published unfinished in 1938, with Mainwaring’s completed version published 55 years later in 1993.
TITLES BY EDITH WHARTON