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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Edith Wharton & Biography

We were at Hermione Lee‘s lecture at York University last evening. She began by quoting Virginia Woolf on memory:

That is, I suppose, that my memory supplies what I had forgotten, so it seems as if it were happening independently, though I am really making it happen. In certain favourable moods, memories – what one has forgotten – come to the top.

Lee spoke of the problems of tracking down anyone’s life, and the peculiarities of tracking down someone – like Edith Wharton – who simply does not want to be found. The bulk of her letters have been destroyed and the buildings, most of them, in which she lived in America, have been replaced.

One of the most interesting aspects of the lecture was Lee’s pondering on the age of her subject; as a child and a young woman, and at some point the ages of biographer and subject cross, one going in one direction and the other in the opposite direction. But Lee also thought that one comes with a kind of optimum age, so that we can meet someone who is twenty and feel that they should be fifty-two. Or it could be the other way around. And we grow towards our optimum or away from it, but somehow manage to maintain it through all of our days.

Hermione Lee’s biography of Edith Wharton will be published in February 2007, and concentrates on Wharton’s life in Europe, on her social context and on the ways she worked on her texts.

Edith Wharton, who was a contemporary of and companion of Henry James, Bernard Berenson, Aldous Huxley and Kenneth Clark, is given the last word here:

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 in going in and out; the drawing room, where one receives formal visits; the sitting room, where the members of the family come and go as they list; but beyond that, far beyond, are other rooms, the handles of whose doors perhaps are never turned; no one knows the way to them, no one knows whither they lead; and in the innermost room, the holy of holies, the soul sits alone and waits for a footstep that never comes.

(from ‘The Fulness of Life, 1893)

One Response to “Edith Wharton & Biography”

  1. Anne says:

    What a treat that must have been. Her Woolf biography is great and I had the great privilege of introducing her (and, better still, driving her to the airport) when that came out. She was then just turning to Wharton. I am looking forward to it.

    In Septermber, on our last hurrah of summer, we had a tour of The Mount, Wharton’s Massachusetts home. It’s pretty derelict, gradually coming back to life, but it does have about half of Wharton’s library in it.

    It’s always strangely moving to see a writer’s home. This one, being Wharton’s, was so grand and a bit forbidding.

    jb says: Yes, the lecture was a treat. Especially here in York, where Hermione Lee taught at the University for something like 20 years.

    That half of Wharton’s library you mention has a story to it. During the war the library was split into two halves for safety and one half was burned during the blitz of London. The other half was kept in the home of Kenneth Clark and survived in tact. When Kenneth Clark died the remains of the library fell into the keeping of his son, Alan.

    The books were eventually brought to York where they were catalogued by a local bookseller and finally shipped over to The Mount, Wharton’s Massachusetts home, where you saw them last summer.