Discouraged from reading fiction by her mother, the shy, self-conscious Edith Newbold Jones, born on January 24, 1862, did not seem destined to become one of America's greatest writers.
Her life of travel began at age four when her parents left New York for a six-year tour of Europe, with extended stays in Rome and Paris. At nine, she nearly died from typhoid fever, an experience that led to chronic fears. Her feelings about her childhood were perhaps best summarized in her 1934 memoir, A Backward Glance: "I was never free from the oppressive sense that I had two absolutely inscrutable beings to please—God & my mother ... and my mother was the most inscrutable of the two."
The Jones family eventually returned to New York in 1872. Wharton's parents were so alarmed with her passion for study and her increasing shyness that they defied convention to "bring her out" into society one year early. Edith Jones eventually married her brother's friend, Edward "Teddy" Robbins Wharton, in 1885.
After ten years of a mostly unsatisfying marriage, Edith Wharton had published only a few poems and stories. Literary fame and wealth followed the publication of The House of Mirth (1905), as did her love affair with American journalist Morton Fullerton. Consummated in the spring of 1909, this relationship remained a secret until the discovery of her letters in 1980. Wharton once told Fullerton that he had "given [her] the only moments of real life [she] had ever known."
Wharton permanently left America in 1911 and sued her husband for divorce in 1913. By this time, Wharton had published her masterpieces Ethan Frome (1911), The Reef (1912), and The Custom of the Country (1913). Despite the terror of World War I, France once again became a place of refuge for her as she focused more on charity work than her writing. She established and directed American Hostels for Refugees, which ultimately provided food, clothing, coal, and health care to more than 9,000 refugees. She organized six homes in France for the Children of Flanders Rescue Committee. She visited the French front several times and helped establish treatment programs for tubercular French soldiers. In 1916, she was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor—one of France's highest civilian awards. That same year, death robbed Wharton of Henry James, whose friendship she called "the pride and honour of my life." In her memoir, Wharton later reflected that after the devastation of World War I, she "found a momentary escape in going back to [her] childish memories of a long-vanished America" while writing The Age of Innocence (1920). Written in less than eight months, it was serialized in The Pictorial Review from July to October of 1920 and published as a book in October. An immediate bestseller, it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in May 1921; within two years, the novel's sales brought Wharton more than $50,000. With this money, Wharton planted orange orchards and repaired her Paris home, a property she named "Sainte Claire le Château."
Her last visit to America in 1923 was to accept an honorary Doctor of Letters from Yale. Along with her lifelong passions for gardening and traveling, Wharton continued to write to the end of her life—most notably her memoir A Backward Glance (1934). A stroke in June led to her death on August 11, 1937. Edith Wharton is buried near one of her lifelong friends, lawyer Walter Berry, in the Cimetière des Gonards, in Versailles, France.
In 1899, Edith Wharton fell in love with the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. She negotiated the purchase of the 113-acre Lenox property for $40,600 in 1901, and in 1902, she moved in with her husband, Teddy. Named The Mount, the house and gardens created a stable, tranquil environment where Wharton wrote her first bestseller, The House of Mirth. As Mount historian Scott Marshall has said, "The Mount was to be the scene of many of her greatest triumphs and of some of her deepest sorrows." The house and gardens have been restored and are open to the public. For more information, visit www.edithwharton.org.
"I have sometimes thought that a woman's nature is like a great house full of rooms: there is the hall, through which everyone passes going in and out; the drawing room, where one receives formal visits...but beyond that...in the innermost room, the holy of holies, the soul sits alone and waits for a footstep that never comes."
—Edith Wharton, from "The Fullness of Life"