Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Edith Wharton

I’m still slogging through Hermione Lee’s eponymous biography of Edith Wharton (2007), having picked it up last May and returned to it sporadically up until . . .well, now.  Don’t get me wrong—it’s a wonderfully written biography.  But I do feel that, just as Lee’s portrait of Wharton is of someone who is in some ways “‘inaccessible’” to those who knew her (558; Vintage, 2008), so there is something inaccessible to the reader about Wharton.  When reading Lee’s biography of Virginia Woolf I didn’t have this problem of having to put down and return to the book: almost every page held something vulnerable and telling about Woolf, and part of me thinks this has to do with Woolf’s character itself as something fragile, erratic, and charming.  Probably the difference between the two biographies also has to do with the materials available to Lee; Woolf has diaries and diaries to draw from, whereas with Wharton there are mostly letters (some of which, notably those written to Henry James, she had destroyed).  But I can’t help feeling that, even with this issue of available materials and with the possible ways in which the biographer’s craft can enhance the reader’s interest in the subject, the attraction of the reader to the biography will depend on the attractiveness of the subject herself.  (I realize my feelings toward Wharton in Lee’s biography may be mine only—may be subjective—but I do think there is something slightly uninviting about Wharton’s character, less inviting to being known than Woolf.)  By contrast with this emphasis on the potential attractiveness of the biographical subject, up to now I’ve thought of biography as more like fiction-writing—as works measured not by the potential attractiveness of their subjects to readers, but by the craft of authors.  I am weary, though, using this term ‘attractiveness’: I think I’m assuming that my reader interest in Wharton as a biographical subject coincides with my personal sense of her attractiveness as a personality.  I’m not sure how to separate these two things; I wonder how they could be separated.

Large portions of Edith Wharton are dedicated to cataloguing gardens, architecture, and interior design that Wharton admired or such projects as she undertook.  While these can sometimes be tedious to read, design was a big part of Wharton’s life and fiction.  There are a few really interesting passages in which Lee describes the relation between Wharton’s passion for design and her character; these, in turn, speak to some of the central themes of Wharton’s works.  Lee’s quotation of Daisy Chanler on Wharton’s renowned garden at Ste Claire in Hyères, France, makes some sense of Wharton’s gardening:

‘“What are you saying about my garden?” she [Wharton] seems to ask, and I hardly dare to say more.  She could do it so much better herself, but I doubt if she would try to describe it.  It would be telling something too intimate, for her garden is somehow an image of her spirit, of her inmost self.  It shows her love of beauty, her imagination, her varied knowledge and masterly attention to detail; like her, it is somewhat inaccessible.  Her garden is a symbol of the real Edith.’ (557-8)

Lee makes explicit Chanler’s latent comparison:

it might not be too fanciful to think that gardening and novel-writing have something in common.  The mixture of disciplined structure and imaginative freedom, the reworking of traditions into a new idea, the ruthless elimination of dull, incongruous or surplus materials, and the creation of a dramatic narrative, all come to mind . . . John Hugh Smith reported to [Percy] Lubbock, in 1938, that ‘she told me that she thought her gardens were better than her books.’ (559)

The artistry of the garden—or of interior design, or architecture, for that matter—is similar to that of the novelist.  Although I don’t know Wharton’s works well enough to say how widely Lee’s comparison applies to Wharton’s fiction, I am immediately reminded of House of Mirth (which I had to read for a course this last term, American Literature 1865-1914) and one of Wharton’s short stories, “Souls Belated” (1899).  The big issue for the heroine of House of Mirth, Lily Bart, is, of course, that she cannot reconcile her desire to break free from the constraints of wealthy society with the opportunities for self-realization wealth allows her.  Lily’s best self lies in her artistry, and this artistry finds expression in expensive objects and their design: “the setting she had pictured for herself” is

an apartment which should surpass the complicated luxury of her friends’ surroundings by the whole extent of that artistic sensibility which made her feel herself their superior; in which every tint and line should combine to enhance her beauty and give distinction to her leisure. (110; Penguin, 1986)

We cannot separate Lily from her social set and its physical surroundings.  And Lily’s best audience, the person most equipped to appreciate her artistry, is Sim Rosedale, a Jewish magnate in social ascent.  Somewhat similar to Lily in predicament, Lydia in “Souls Belated” doesn’t have the strength to leave her lover, Gannett, and the comfort they’ve achieved pretending to be a married couple in a kind of high society colony on the Mediterranean.  Although it is not suggested that Lydia requires her social trappings for the same reasons Lily does, it is impossible for us and for Lydia to conceive of her outside the story’s particular social milieu.  Lydia and Lily, then, embody something of the way in which Wharton insists on the relationship between self-realization and the social.  Judging from Lee’s portrayal of the attitudes of Wharton and others to Wharton’s gardens and houses, Wharton’s own individual self-expression has strong thematic presence in (at least some of) her works. 

Lee reveals much of Wharton that feels very personal, for instance, the intimate details surrounding her affair with Morton Fullerton.  But it would seem that we are also supposed to get a strong sense of Wharton through the description of the gardens and houses she puts together and admires.  Perhaps this (inevitable?) figuration of Wharton through what are essentially art objects—gardens, houses and their rooms—contributes to my feeling of her inaccessibility; perhaps Wharton in some way comes across as more like a series of objects than a person.  Putting down Lee’s biography yet again I do feel as though I understand Wharton—I just don’t sympathize with her.  This brings up questions of the aims of biography: whether these involve reader sympathy; to what degree reader sympathy can be differentiated from understanding the subject; and to what degree reader sympathy can be separated from reader interest, my measure in the first paragraph of this post.  I think these questions are a re-articulation of my problem with using the word ‘attractiveness,' above, and may get at the heart of my issue with reading Edith Wharton. 


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