Edith Wharton

“There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.”

Edith Wharton, American novelist, 1862-1937

Considered the Grande Dame of American letters, Edith Wharton wrote 40 books in 40 years, including The Age of Innocence, for which she won a Pulitzer Prize for Literature, thus becoming the first woman to do so. 

Born into a wealthy New York family, she traveled to Italy and France where she developed a lifelong love of language, art and architecture. Wharton spent much of her childhood with her nose in a book in her father’s library, the fictional characters becoming her friends. She was fluent in German, Italian and French by age 10, and at 16, she published her first book of poetry, Verses. Wharton was married at 23 to a banker 12 years her senior, who shared her love of dogs and travel. Not long after, she suffered a nervous breakdown, said to have been caused by her writing ambitions in conflict with social expectations of the leisure class to which she belonged. The couple lived on Park Avenue, and kept a country home in Newport, where Wharton co-authored her first book, on interior design, called The Decoration of Houses, in 1897. 

In 1904, a magazine commissioned Wharton to write a series of articles about gardens, and she and her husband set off on a 4-month tour of Italy. The resulting book, Italian Villas and Their Gardens, influenced a generation of garden designers. Wharton considered herself a better landscape architect than she did a novelist, and would build and design a home and garden called The Mount, in Lennox, on a vast acreage. Here she wrote her greatest works, including The House of Mirth (1905) and Ethan Frome (1911). But while her writing was prolific, her marriage was not, and she and her husband divorced, childless, in 1913. He had been keeping a mistress in Boston, she discovered, embezzling money from her trust fund.

Wealthy, famous and single, Edith Wharton moved to Paris, her favorite city, and began dating an English journalist. Her social circle was made up of famous literary figures and politicians, including Teddy Roosevelt. When World War I broke out, rather than go into hiding, she reported bravely from the front lines.  She established complex charities to help war-torn children, tuberculosis patients and refugees, and established workrooms for unemployed seamstresses.  In 1916 she received the French Legion of Honor for these efforts.

Wharton then moved to the countryside where bought a restored convent and completed her seminal work, “The Age of Innocence,” satirizing the Old New York society that she had once been a part of. She returned to the U.S. to accept the Pulitzer Prize in Literature, as well as an Honorary doctorate from Yale, but lived out her life in France.


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