Author Edith Wharton is born

Author Edith Wharton is born

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On January 24, 1862, Edith Wharton is born to an old and wealthy New York family. She grew up in an opulent world where pre-Civil War society tried to keep the nouveau riche at bay. Wharton, expected to become a typical wife, mother, and hostess, instead showed intellectual talent and began to write at an early age. She had begun to fear spinsterhood but then, at age 23, married Edward Wharton—who had neither a profession nor fortune. The match was unhappy and troubled, but the couple did not divorce until 1913. Wharton returned to writing, often dealing with themes of divorce, unhappy marriages, and free-spirited individuals trapped by societal pressures.

Wharton’s 1905 novel, The House of Mirth, told the story of a New York socialite with a strong sense of individuality who cannot adapt to the roles expected of her. The book became a bestseller.

Wharton traveled abroad frequently and after her divorce began writing for women’s magazines. Her novella, Ethan Frome, detailing a New England farmer trapped by the demands of the women in his life, is still one of her best-known works. Her 1920 novel, Age of Innocence, won the Pulitzer. Wharton published numerous other books, but some of her later work suffered from the deadlines and pressures imposed by writing for money. She remained in France during World War I, assisting refugees, and was made a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor in 1916. She published another bestseller, Twilight Sleep, in 1927 and her autobiography, A Backward Glance, in 1934. She died in France in 1937.

Biography of Edith Wharton, American Novelist

Edith Wharton (January 24, 1862 – August 11, 1937) was an American writer. A daughter of the Gilded Age, she criticized the rigid societal constraints and thinly veiled immoralities of her society. A notable philanthropist and war correspondent, Wharton’s work depicted how characters carry on and go through the motions in the face of luxury, excess, and lethargy.

Fast Facts: Edith Wharton

  • Known For: Author of Age of Innocence and several novels about the Gilded Age
  • Also Known As: Edith Newbold Jones (maiden name)
  • Born: January 24, 1862 in New York City, New York
  • Parents: Lucretia Rhinelander and George Frederic Jones
  • Died: August 11, 1937 in Saint Brice, France
  • Selected Works:The House of Mirth, Ethan Frome, Age of Innocence, The Glimpses of the Moon
  • Awards and Honors: French Legion of Honor, Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, American Academy of Arts and Letters
  • Spouse: Edward (Teddy) Wharton
  • Children:none
  • Notable Quote: “In the eyes of our provincial society, authorship was still regarded as something between a black art and a form of manual labor.”

Author Edith Wharton is born - HISTORY

PARIS, Aug. 12.--Edith Wharton, American novelist, died yesterday afternoon at her villa, Pavilion Colombes, near Saint Brice, Seine-et-Oise.

She had been in fairly good health until she suffered an apoplectic stroke early yesterday morning and did not recover consciousness. She died at 5:30 P.M., but her death was not known in Paris. At her bedside was her friend, Mrs. Royal Tyler.

Many of her friends will drive tomorrow to the villa, where the body is lying in state. Among them will be Edward Tuck, the philanthropist Mrs. Walter Gay Wells and American and French officials.

Funeral of Author Today

Saint Brice Sous Foret, France, Aug. 12 (AP).--Edith Wharton will be buried in the Protestant cemetery at Versailles tomorrow. Representatives of the French War Veterans Association of Saint Brice will accompany the coffin, honoring her for her war work for France.

She is survived by a niece, Mrs. Max Ferrard, wife of a noted historian.

Published Thirty-eight Books

Edith Wharton was the child as well as the author of the Age of Innocence. In her seventy-five years of life she published thirty-eight books, including that great love story, "Ethan Frome." But her reputation rested mostly upon her achievement as the chronicler of Fifth Avenue, when the brownstone front hid wealth and dignity at its ease upon the antimacassar-covered plush chairs of the Brown Decade.

As a child she lived within the inner circle of New York society that always thought of itself as spelled with a capital S. In her ancestry was a long succession of important names. The Schermerhorns, the Joneses, Pendletons, Stevenses, Ledyards, Rhinelanders and Gallatins, who had led the social life of New York before Mrs. Astor&aposs horse was a symbol, before Commodore from Staten Island, or men with strange new names from the West had descended on the town. Her own father, although not overly rich, was, nevertheless, able to live, as she said, "a life of leisure and amiable hospitality."

Besides Fifth Avenue, there was Newport. Beyond that was only Europe. When little Edith walked on the Avenue she passed nothing but brownstone and the cow pasture of the Misses Kennedy. When she went on Bailey&aposs Beach she shielded her fair skin from the sun with a black veil. When she went to Europe it was an escape from the crudities of American society--even that with a capital S. Innocence was the life of her childhood and it was the stuff of her better books.

Edith Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones on Jan. 24, 1862. Her father was George Frederick Jones her mother was the former Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander, and back of each were Colonial and Revolutionary ancestors. When she was 4 the family went abroad in pursuit of culture, health and economy, for her father&aposs inherited funds had not increased during the Civil War that was just ended.

Her early impressions were the international--New York and Newport, Rome, Paris and Madrid. Added to this was a vivid imagination, which found outlet in story telling even before she could read. In keeping with the sheltered life of the time, she was never sent to school, but was taught at home. She began writing short stories in her early teens, but they were never about "real people." Little happened to the real people she knew what did "happen" was generally not talked about.

It was from this background that Mrs. Wharton was to inherit the belief from which she never departed, that "any one gifted with the least creative faculty knows the absurdity of such a charge" as that of "putting flesh-and-blood people into books." Later critics were to say that in this was her greatest lack.

The young author wrote her first efforts on brown paper salvaged from parcels. She was not encouraged. "In the eyes of our provincial society," she was later to say, "authorship was still regarded as something between a black art and a form of manual labor." Each was equally despised in her social level. Her first acceptance was three poems which she sent to the editor with her calling card attached.

In her autobiography Mrs. Wharton gives a picture of her literary beginnings along with a picture of her life. Her first novel, written when she as 11, began: "&aposOh, how do you do, Mrs. Brown?&apos said Mrs. Tompkins. &aposIf only I had known you were going to call I should have tidied up the drawing room.&apos" The little girl showed it to her mother, whose icy comment was: "Drawing rooms are always tidy."

Her first published book was a collaboration called "The Decoration of Homes." How many short stories she wrote before 1899 is not know. But she was encouraged in her writing by such friends as Egerton Winthrop and Walter Berry and somehow, while abroad, met Paul Bourget, the "chronicler of the bourgeoisie." Other mentors were William Brownell and Edward Burlingame, for many years editor of Scribner&aposs Magazine. In her autobiography she writes: "I do not think I have ever forgotten one word of the counsels they gave me." To which a well- known critic added, "One well believes it."

But it was Henry James who was her closest friend and most worth-while advocate. She was always his respectful disciple and, although in their many meetings he disguised the severity of his judgments with his usual elaborate verbal courtesies, he managed to convey the meaning of his criticism. He remained her close friend until his death.

In 1899 Mrs. Wharton--she had been married to Edward Wharton, a Boston banker, in 1885-- published her first book: "The Greater Inclination." In this may be found two of her best short stories, , "The Pelican" and "Souls Belated." This volume did not make her a wide reputation overnight. In fact, it was not until 1905 that she gained a large public, although in the interim there had appeared these books: "The Touchstone," "Crucial Instances," "The Valley of Decision" and "The Descent of Man and Other Stories," and her flare for travel books had asserted itself in two volumes on Italy, its villas and gardens.

In 1905 she published her first of many best-sellers, "The House of Mirth." Most critics do not consider this her greatest book, but its popularity established her as a writer. This was in reality her first novel, although she had written long short stories in her other books. Its title came from the biblical assertion, "The heart of fools is in the House of Mirth," and it was a happy title for projecting, as Wilbur Cross once put it, "a group of pleasure-loving New Yorkers, mostly as dull as they are immoral, and letting them play out their drama unmolested by others."

Other novels came in rapid succession, but none attracted the attention in this country that was reserved for the book Elmer Davis once called "the last great American love story"--"Ethan Frome." Those which had gone between were "Madame de Treymes," in which certain French critics detected the influence of Flaubert and Maupassant "The Fruit of the Tree," "The Hermit and the Wild Woman" and "Artemis to Actaeon."

"Ethan Frome," which was most successfully dramatized two seasons ago, was written in 1911. In it she most successfully blended the psychological refinements she had learned from Henry James with her own inimitable ability to tell a story with a beginning and an end. One critic has said it is comparable only to the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne as a tragedy of New England life. A novelette, it is considered a masterpiece of love and frustration, and is likely to stand, despite its comparative brevity, as her most accomplished work.

Until 1906 Mrs. Wharton had divided her time between New York and her Summer home at Lenox, Mass. In that year she went to live in France, in Summer at Saint Brice and in Winter at Hyeres in Provence.

Did Relief Work in War

When the World War broke out she was in Paris and she plunged at once into relief work, opening a room for skilled women of the quarter where she lived who were thrown out of employment by the closing of workrooms. She also fed and housed 600 Belgian refugee orphans. In recognition France awarded her the Cross of the Legion of Honor and Belgium made her a Chevalier of the Order of Leopold. Meanwhile she wrote stories and articles on the war, including "Fighting France" and "The Marne." After the war she visited Africa with General Lyautey at the invitation of the French Government, and wrote as a result "In Morocco."

"The Age of Innocence" was her next book and in terms of sales her most successful. Here she used actually the materials she had hitherto used only for background--the social life of the New York into which she had been born and in which she was bread.

Published serially here and abroad, it was widely read, and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for 1920. It showed Mrs. Wharton at her best, understanding the cramped society of her youth, unaware of the world beyond it. Four years later she followed it with four novelettes published under the title of "Old New York," a constricted panorama of society in the Forties, Fifties, Sixties and Seventies respectively.

Shortly after the publication of this volume she was made an officer of the Legion of Honor. Then she returned to America, to be awarded the Gold Medal of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the first woman to be so honored. In 1924 she also became the first woman to be awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters degree by Yale University. In 1930 she was made a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Four years later she was elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Since that time she had written other books, including "Twilight Sleep," a story of fashionable life in modern New York "The Children," a study of the children of expatriated divorcees "Hudson River Bracketed," a study of a modern writer, and "Certain People," a collection of short stories.

But that was many years ago.

That generation which knew her best for "The Age of Innocence" flocked to see "Ethan Frome" when it was adapted for the stage by Owen Davis and his son, Donald. Presented on Broadway with Pauline Lord, Ruth Gordon and Raymond Massey in the leading roles, the grim tragedy proved to be as good theatre as it had previously been a great book.

"Ethan Frome" was not the only one of her books to have been translated into plays in recent years. "The Age of Innocence" helped add to the luster of Katharine Cornell eight years ago, and one of her shorter pieces became "The Old Maid" of the theatre, in which Judith Anderson and Helen Menken starred in 1935.


campbelld/pics/whart4.JPG" />One of the major figures in American literary history, Edith Wharton (1862-1937) presented intriguing insights into the American experience. Author of more than 40 volumes–novels, short stories, poetry, non-fiction–Wharton had a long and remarkable life. She was born during the Civil War, encouraged in her childhood literary endeavors by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and devoted to such varied friends as Henry James and Theodore Roosevelt yet she had also read William Faulkner, James Joyce, and T. S. Eliot, and had actually met Sinclair Lewis and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Her upbringing provided her with insights on the upper class, while her sense of humor and polished prose produced fiction that appealed to a large audience. Recipient of the French Legion of Honor for her philanthropic work during World War I and of the Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Age of Innocence (1920), in 1923 she became the first woman to receive an honorary doctorate from Yale. Wharton was a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

A naturally gifted storyteller, Wharton wrote novels and short fiction notable for their vividness, satire, irony, and wit. Her complex characters and subtly delivered point-of-view make the reading of Wharton’s fiction both challenging and rewarding, while her own life illustrates the difficulties that a woman of her era had to surmount to find self-realization.

In 1885, when she was twenty-three, she married Edward (“Teddy”) Wharton. Although from a similar social background, he lacked her artistic and intellectual interests and after nearly 30 years of marriage, she divorced him. Wharton eventually settled permanently in France, thereafter visiting the United States only rarely. In Paris in 1908 she began a briefly fulfilling but ultimately disappointing affair with Morton Fullerton, a journalist on the London Times and a friend of Henry James. In Paris she found intellectual companionship in circles where artists and writers mingled with the rich and well-born, and where women played a major role. Considered one of the major American novelists and short story writers of the 20th century, Edith Wharton died in France in 1937. — Abby Werlock, President, Edith Wharton Society

A Very Short Biography of Edith Wharton

In his Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives, John Sutherland calls Edith Wharton’s life ‘fascinating’. It certainly is. The novelist best-known for The Age of Innocence led an interesting life, and in this very short biography we aim to cover the most curious aspects of Edith Wharton’s life and work.

Edith Wharton was born Edith Jones in 1862, into the ‘leisure class’ of New York. As Karen Farrington observes in her compelling book of short biographies Great Lives: As heard on Radio 4, Wharton ‘wasn’t so much born with a silver spoon in her mouth as the entire cutlery set.’ She didn’t write to survive money was never going to be an issue. She spent much of her childhood outside of the United States, travelling around Europe. She was tutored at home and then continued her education herself, with the help of libraries.

She had become a published writer by the tender age of 16, when a book of her poems appeared, its publication funded by her mother. Yet she would not publish her first novel until she was 40, in 1902. (A non-fiction work on interior design, The Decoration of Houses, had been published in 1897, co-authored with an architect.)

The breakthrough came in 1905 with The House of Mirth Ethan Frome followed in 1911 and The Age of Innocence, her most famous novel, in 1920. It won her the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The awards continued: in 1923, she became the first woman ever to be awarded an honorary doctorate from Yale, and in 1930, the first woman to be honoured with a gold medal from the American Institute for Arts and Letters. Wharton’s fiction, which exposes the emptiness and cruelty at the heart of American society among the rich and comfortable, is sometimes associated with modernism, and certainly she has been likened to Henry James (whom she knew), whose work is also linked with American modernist fiction.

Edith Wharton’s life was marked by unhappy relationships: her unrequited lifelong love for Walter Berry, a lawyer her unhappy marriage to Edward Robbins ‘Teddy’ Wharton, who would later go mad and her extramarital affair with an American journalist, Morton Fullerton. Her marriage to Teddy fell apart when it emerged that he had embezzled his wife’s money to fund a love nest for his mistress. Writing novels, it seems, was Edith Wharton’s way of coming to terms with the disappointments of her life.

During the First World War, Wharton’s relief work in France earned her the Légion d’Honneur. After the Armistice in 1918, Wharton spent much of the remaining two decades of her life in France, returning to the US only once more before her death in 1937. She thought the key to life was striving to be ‘happy in small ways’. She has certainly made many readers happy.

We hope you found this very short biography of Edith Wharton helpful if you’d like to discover more about her life, we recommend Dame Hermione Lee’s extensive biography, Edith Wharton.

Image: Picture of Edith Wharton, by Francis W. Halsey (1851-1919), copyright 1919, The Literary History of the World War, Volume III. Via Wikimedia Commons.


The Age of Innocence, which was set in the time of Wharton's childhood, was a softer and gentler work than The House of Mirth, which Wharton had published in 1905. In her autobiography, Wharton wrote of The Age of Innocence that it had allowed her to find "a momentary escape in going back to my childish memories of a long-vanished America. it was growing more and more evident that the world I had grown up in and been formed by had been destroyed in 1914." [3] Scholars and readers alike agree that The Age of Innocence is fundamentally a story which struggles to reconcile the old with the new. [4]

Wharton was raised in the old world of rigid and proper New York society which features in the story. She had spent her middle years, including the whole of World War I, in Europe, where the devastation of a new kind of mechanized warfare was felt most deeply. As explained by Millicent Bell in the Cambridge companion to Wharton, "The Age of Innocence was composed and first read in the aftermath of [Theodore] Roosevelt's death and in the immediate wake of World War I. We frame the ending remembering the multiple losses. not only the loss of Roosevelt but the destruction of the prewar world and all that Wharton valued in it." [5]

The Age of Innocence centers on an upper-class couple's impending marriage, and the introduction of the bride's cousin, plagued by scandal, whose presence threatens their happiness. Though the novel questions the assumptions and morals of 1870s New York society, it never develops into an outright condemnation of the institution. The novel is noted for Wharton's attention to detail and its accurate portrayal of how the 19th-century East Coast American upper class lived, as well as for the social tragedy of its plot. Wharton was 58 years old at publication she had lived in that world and had seen it change dramatically by the end of World War I.

The title is an ironic comment on the polished outward manners of New York society when compared to its inward machinations. It is believed to have been drawn from the popular painting A Little Girl by Sir Joshua Reynolds that later became known as The Age of Innocence and was widely reproduced as the commercial face of childhood in the later half of the 18th century. [6] The title, while ironic, was not as caustic as the title of the story featured in The House of Mirth, which Wharton had published in 1905.

Newland Archer, gentleman lawyer and heir of one of New York City's most illustrious families, happily anticipates his highly desirable marriage to the sheltered and beautiful May Welland. Yet he finds reason to doubt his choice of bride after the appearance of Countess Ellen Olenska, May's exotic and beautiful cousin. Olenska strikes Archer as the opposite of the innocent and ignorant May Welland. Ellen has returned to New York from Europe after scandalously separating herself (per rumor) from a disastrous marriage to a Polish count. At first, Ellen's arrival and its potential taint on the reputation of his bride-to-be's family disturbs Newland, but he becomes intrigued by the worldly Ellen, who brazenly flouts New York society's fastidious rules. As Newland's admiration for the countess grows, so do his doubts about marrying May, a perfect product of Old New York society his match with May no longer seems the ideal fate he had imagined.

Ellen's decision to divorce Count Olenski causes a social crisis for the other members of her family, who are terrified of scandal and disgrace. Living apart can be tolerated, but divorce is unacceptable. To save the Welland family's reputation, a law partner of Newland asks him to dissuade Countess Olenska from going through with the divorce. He succeeds, but in the process comes to care for her. Afraid of falling in love with Ellen, Newland begs May to elope and accelerate their wedding date, but she refuses.

Some weeks later, Newland tells Ellen he loves her Ellen corresponds, but is horrified that their love will hurt May, so does not want him to leave May for her. Newland receives May's telegram agreeing to wed sooner.

Newland and May marry. He tries unsuccessfully to forget Ellen. His society marriage is mediocre, and the social life he once found absorbing has become empty and joyless. Though Ellen lives in Washington and has remained distant, he is unable to cease loving her. Their paths cross while he and May are in Newport, Rhode Island. Newland discovers that Count Olenski wishes Ellen to return to him, but she has refused, although her family wants her to reconcile with her husband and return to Europe. Frustrated by her independence, the family has cut off her money, as the count had already done.

Newland desperately seeks a way to leave May and be with Ellen, obsessed with how to finally be with her. Despairing of ever making Ellen his wife, he urges her to run away with him, but she refuses. Then Ellen is recalled to New York City to care for her sick grandmother, who accepts her decision to remain separated and agrees to reinstate her allowance.

Back in New York and under renewed pressure from Newland, Ellen relents and agrees to consummate their relationship. However, Newland then discovers that Ellen has decided to return to Europe. Newland makes up his mind to abandon May and follow Ellen to Europe when May announces that she and Newland are throwing a farewell party for Ellen. That night, after the party, Newland resolves to tell May he is leaving her for Ellen. She interrupts him to tell him that she learned that morning that she is pregnant she reveals that she had told Ellen of her pregnancy two weeks earlier, despite not being sure of it at the time. The implication is that May did so because she suspected the affair and that this is Ellen's reason for returning to Europe. Hopelessly trapped, Newland decides to remain with May and not to follow Ellen, surrendering his love for the sake of his child.

Twenty-six years later, after May's death, Newland and his eldest son are in Paris. The son, learning that his mother's cousin lives there, has arranged to visit Ellen in her Paris apartment. Newland is stunned at the prospect of seeing Ellen again. On arriving outside the apartment building, Newland sends up his son alone to meet Ellen, while he waits outside, watching the balcony of her apartment. Newland considers going up, but in the end decides not to he walks back to his hotel without seeing her. Newland's final words about the love affair are "It's more real to me here than if I went up." [7]

Newland Archer Edit

The story's protagonist is a young, popular, and successful lawyer living with his mother and sister in an elegant New York City house. Since childhood, his life has been shaped by the customs and expectations of upper-class New York City society. His engagement to May Welland is one in a string of accomplishments. At the story's start, he is proud and content to dream about a traditional marriage in which he will be the husband-teacher and she the wife-student. His life changes when he meets Countess Ellen Olenska. Through his relationship with her—first friendship, then love—he begins questioning the values on which he was raised. He sees the sexual inequality of New York society and the shallowness of its customs, and struggles to balance social commitment to May with love for Ellen. He cannot find a place for their love in the intricate, judgmental web of New York society. Throughout the story's progress, he transgresses the boundaries of acceptable behavior for love of Ellen: first following her to Skuytercliff, then Boston, and finally deciding to follow her to Europe (though he later changes his mind). In the end, though, Newland Archer finds that the only place for their love is in his memories. Some scholars see Wharton most projected onto Newland's character, rather than Ellen Olenska. [8]

May Welland Edit

Newland Archer's fiancée, then wife. Raised to be a perfect wife and mother, she follows and perfectly obeys all of society's customs. Mostly, she is the shallow, uninterested and uninteresting young woman that New York society requires. When they are in St. Augustine, though, May gives Newland a rare glimpse of the maturity and compassion he had previously ignored. She offers to release him from their engagement so he can marry the woman he truly loves, thinking he wants to be with Mrs. Rushworth, a married woman with whom he had recently ended a love affair. When he assures May that he loves only her, May appears to trust him, at least at first. Yet after their marriage, she suspects that Newland is Ellen's lover. Nonetheless, May pretends to be happy before society, maintaining the illusion that she and he have the perfect marriage expected of them. Her unhappiness activates her manipulative nature, and Newland does not see it until too late. To drive Ellen away from him, May tells Ellen of her pregnancy before she is certain of it. Yet there still is compassion in May, even in their mediocre marriage's long years after Ellen's leaving. After May's death, Newland Archer learns she had always known of his continued love for Ellen as May lay dying, she told their son Dallas that the children could always trust their father, Newland, because he surrendered the thing most meaningful to him out of loyalty to their marriage. May is a picture of Innocence.

Ellen Olenska Edit

May's cousin and Mrs. Manson Mingott's granddaughter. She became a countess by marrying Polish Count Olenski, a European nobleman. Her husband was allegedly cruel and abusive, stole Ellen's fortune and had affairs with other women. When the story begins, Ellen has fled her unhappy marriage, lived in Venice with her husband's secretary, and has returned to her family in New York City. She is a free spirit who helps Newland Archer see beyond narrow New York society. She treats her maid, Nastasia, as an equal, offering the servant her own cape before sending her out on an errand. She attends parties with disreputable people such as Julius Beaufort and Mrs. Lemuel Struthers, and she invites Newland, the fiancé of her cousin May, to visit her. Ellen suffers as much as Newland from their impossible love, but she is willing to live in emotional limbo so long as they can love each other at a distance. Ellen's love for Newland drives her important decisions: dropping divorce from Count Olenski, remaining in America, and offering Newland choice of sexual consummation only once, and then disappearing from his life. Her conscience and responsibility to family complicate her love for Newland. When she learns of May's pregnancy, Ellen immediately decides to leave America, refusing Newland's attempt to follow her to Europe, and so allow cousin May to start her family with her husband Newland. The reception of Ellen's character has changed over time. From a willful temptress to a fabulously independent woman, far ahead of her time, one thing is for certain: “Ellen has only to walk alone across a drawing room to offend its definitions.” [9]

Mrs. Manson Mingott Edit

The matriarch of the powerful Mingott family, and grandmother to Ellen and May. She was born Catherine Spicer, to an inconsequential family. Widowed at 28, she has ensured her family's social position through her own shrewdness and force of character. She controls her family: at Newland's request, she has May and Mrs. Welland agree to an earlier wedding date. She controls the money—withholding Ellen's living allowance (when the family is angry with Ellen), and having niece Regina Beaufort ask for money when in financial trouble. Mrs. Mingott is a maverick in the polite world of New York society, at times pushing the boundaries of acceptable behavior, such as receiving guests in her house's ground floor, though society associates that practice with women of questionable morals. Her welcoming Ellen is viewed skeptically, and she insists the rest of the family support Ellen. Mrs. Mingott was inspired by Edith Wharton's own portly great-great-aunt, Mary Mason Jones, who is said to have given rise to the phrase "Keeping up with the Joneses", due to her belief that fashionable society would always strive to keep up with her. [10]

Mrs. Augusta Welland Edit

May's mother, who has raised her daughter to be a proper society lady. May's dullness, lack of imagination, and rigid views of appropriate and inappropriate behavior are a consequence of this influence. Augusta has effectively trained her husband, the weak-willed Mr. Welland, to conform to her desires and wishes. Mrs. Welland is the driving force behind May's commitment to a long engagement. Without her mother's influence, May might have agreed sooner to Newland's request for an earlier wedding date. After a few years of marriage, Newland Archer foresees in May the attributes of his mother-in-law — a woman who is stolid, unimaginative, and dull. Later he comes to experience the same molding by May which was imposed upon Mr. Welland.

  • Christine Nilsson: A famous singer who performs in the opera Faust on the night of Archer and May's engagement. She sings in the same opera two years later.
  • Mrs. Lovell Mingott: May and Ellen's aunt, and the daughter-in-law of Mrs. Manson Mingott.
  • Lawrence Lefferts: A wealthy young man and a member of Archer's social circle. He is considered the expert on manners. Archer believes that Lefferts is behind New York society's rude refusal to attend the welcome dinner for Ellen. According to Archer, Lefferts makes a big show of his morality every time that his wife, Mrs. Gertrude Lefferts, suspects that he is having an affair.
  • Sillerton Jackson: The expert on the families that make up New York society. He knows who is related to whom, and the history of every important family. Mrs. Archer and Janey invite him over for dinner when they want to catch up on gossip.
  • Julius Beaufort: An arrogant British banker who tries to have an affair with Ellen. He even follows her to Skuytercliff during the weekend that Archer goes to visit Ellen. His banking business eventually fails, and he leaves New York society in disgrace. His downfall is probably inspired by the Panic of 1873.
  • Regina Beaufort: Julius Beaufort's wife and Mrs. Manson Mingott's niece. She comes to Mrs. Mingott to ask for a loan when her husband's bank fails. Her visit causes Mrs. Mingott to have a stroke.
  • Janey Archer: Archer's dowdy, unmarried sister who never goes out and relies on Archer. She and her mother invite guests to dinner so they can gossip about New York society. Janey disapproves of Ellen, because she is unconventional and independent, and does not simply tolerate her husband's abuse.
  • Mrs. Adeline Archer: Archer's widowed mother. She does not get out to events often, but loves to hear about society. She and Janey strongly believe in the values of New York society. Like Janey, she views Ellen with suspicion. Henry van der Luyden is her cousin. She is said to be based partly on Edith Wharton's own mother, Lucretia Rhinelander.
  • Mrs. Lemuel Struthers: A woman on the fringes of New York society. She is treated with mistrust and scorn until Ellen befriends her. She eventually becomes popular at the end of the novel, May thinks it appropriate to go to her parties.
  • Count Olenski: Ellen's husband, a dissolute aristocrat who drove Ellen away with neglect and misery. At first, Count Olenski is content to let Ellen go. Later, though, he sends his secretary to America to ask Ellen to return, with the stipulation that she only appear as his hostess occasionally. He never appears in the story, but is described as half paralyzed and very pale, with thick feminine eyelashes. He constantly cheats on Ellen, and a veiled remark of Lefferts' implies that he copulates with men, too. What other abuses and infidelities he commits are unknown, but he seems quite malicious.
  • Sophy Jackson: Sillerton Jackson's unmarried sister. She is a friend of Janey and Mrs. Archer.
  • Louisa and Henry van der Luyden: Cousins of the Archers, and the most powerful people in New York society. They only mingle with people when they are trying to save society. Mrs. Archer goes to the Van der Luydens after New York society snubs Ellen. They invite her to a very exclusive party in honor of the Duke of St. Austrey to show society that they support her. They are said to be based on the Van Rensselaers, who were cousins of Edith Wharton.
  • Duke of St Austrey: An English Duke. A cousin of the Van der Luydens, he is the guest of honor at a dinner party thrown by them. Both Ellen and Archer find him dull.
  • Nastasia: Ellen's Italian maid. She invites Archer and the other guests to wait in Ellen's sitting room.
  • Mr. Letterblair: The senior partner of Archer's law firm. He gives Archer the responsibility of talking Ellen out of her plans to divorce the Count.
  • Mrs. Rushworth: The vain married woman with whom Archer had an affair before his engagement to May.
  • Ned Winsett: A journalist. He and Archer are friends, despite their different social circles. He is one of the few people with whom Archer feels that he can have a meaningful conversation. Ned Winsett challenges Archer to think of things outside society.
  • Reggie Chivers: An important member of society. Archer spends a weekend at their country home on the Hudson River.
  • Marchioness Medora Manson: The aunt who took Ellen to Europe as a child. She now lives in Washington, where Ellen goes to take care of her. During a visit to New York, she tries to persuade Archer to convince Ellen that she should return to the Count. Beaufort's bank failure eventually ruins Mrs. Manson's fortune, and she moves back to Europe with Ellen.
  • Dr. Agathon Carver: A friend (and possible love interest) of the Marchioness Manson. Archer meets him at Ellen's house.
  • Du Lac aunts: Archer's elderly aunts. They offer their country home to May and Archer for their honeymoon.
  • Mrs. Carfry: An English acquaintance of Janey and Mrs. Archer. She invites Archer and May to a dinner party while they are on their European wedding tour.
  • M. Rivière: The French tutor of Mrs. Carfry's nephew. He fascinates Archer with his life story and intellect. Later, Archer learns that he was Count Olenski's secretary and the man who helped Ellen escape her marriage. The count sends him to Boston to try to convince Ellen to return to Europe.
  • Blenker family: The unfashionable, socially inferior family with whom the Marchioness and Ellen stay while in Newport. They are the guests of honor at Mrs. Emerson Sillerton's party, and seem to be a clever, kind bunch.
  • Dallas Archer: May and Archer's eldest child. He takes his father on a trip to Europe. Through Dallas, Archer learns that May felt sorry for his empty heart after Ellen left.
  • Fanny Beaufort: Dallas Archer's fiancée and the daughter of Julius Beaufort and his second wife. She asks Dallas to visit Ellen while he and Archer are in Paris.

One of the most prominent themes that can be seen throughout the text is the idea of wealth and social class. The characters take pride in their social standings and those that come from "old money" feel threatened by those that are coming from "new money". The characters' lives revolve around staying up to date on the latest fashion, gatherings, appearances, etc. Being accepted by this high society is the most important thing to the people in this novel and they're willing to do anything to be accepted. Being accepted by high-class acquaintances is another common theme that is displayed throughout this novel. Another theme that is clear in the novel is love, whether it be the love between Newland Archer and May Wellend, or the undeniable love and lust between Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska. Newland Archer's infatuation with May Welland's innocence can't be missed in the beginning scenes of the novel. The theme of innocence changes throughout the novel, as May states she is pregnant only to ensure that Ellen stays away from Newland.

"Ms. Wharton often employed dichotomy in her own life: her role as socialite and author, woman of old New York and European maverick, and her life as spouse or beloved. Compartmentalizing her life’s roles prevented her from having to compromise the distinct qualities of each paradigm. Similarly, in The Age of Innocence, Ellen and May are completely opposite representations of life and culture in the 1870s who cannot happily coexist together. Wharton draws this contrast by painting their psychological landscapes, relying heavily on the motifs of water and fire, elements that if combined are mutually destructive." [11]

Hillary Kelly suggests that Wharton's "status made her story more than believable—it made the story real . Novelists before Wharton understood that storytelling was an act of exposure, but she built it into the architecture of The Age of Innocence and weaponized it." [12]

Helen Killoran explains in The Critical Reception of Edith Wharton that critics have always admired Wharton's craftsmanship, her attention to structure, and her subtle ironies, along with her description of interiors (attributed to her time as an interior designer). [13] In the decades since the book's publication, critics have placed more stress on the portrayal of money and class distinctions in the book. [14]

Ellen Olenska and May Welland have also long been at the heart of critical discussion. Originally perceived as having done the right thing by talking about her pregnancy in order to save her marriage, May Welland can also be seen as manipulative rather than sympathetically desperate. Ellen Olenska brings up the general "Woman Question" in modern literary criticism. [15]

Rather than focusing on the lavish lifestyle which Newland Archer has not had to work for, some modern readers identify with his grim outlook. [15]

The trip to reach the Aegean Island cost $10,000 when Edith was 26 years old. During the trip, she created a journal of her journey. It was published under the title The Cruise of the Vanadis.

Facts about Edith Wharton 8: Pulitzer Prize for literature

In 1921, Edith was awarded with Pulitzer Prize for literature due to her work The Age of Innocence published in 1920.

facts about Edith Wharton

10. There’s no shortage of movie and TV versions of Edith Wharton’s books.

Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Winona Ryder star in Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of The Age of Innocence (1993). Noted for its attention to period detail, it earned an Oscar for Best Costume Design and a rave review from Roger Ebert. Liam Neeson plays the enigmatic title character in Ethan Frome (1993) alongside Joan Allen and Patricia Arquette. Gillian Anderson portrays a New York socialite in tragic decline in The House of Mirth (2000). Stay tuned for Sofia Coppola’s series adaptation of The Custom of the Country for Apple TV+.

Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton was an American author best known for her stories and novels about the upper-class society to which she was born. She was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1921 and was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1996. Many of Wharton’s novels are characterized by a subtle use of dramatic irony. Having grown up in upper-class, late-nineteenth-century society, Wharton became one of its most astute critics (Britannica “Edith Wharton).

Her major works include The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence for which she won the Pulitzer Prize, Ethan Frome, and numerous collections of short stories including her autobiography A Backward Glance which appeared in 1934. Despite not publishing her first novel until she was forty years-old, Wharton was an amazing writer and produced in total fifteen novels, seven novellas, and eighty-five short stories . On top of that, she wrote books on design, travel, literary and cultural criticism, and a memoir.

Edith Wharton’s Connection to NYC

The above is a picture of Edith Wharton’s home on West Twenty-third Street. Wharton came from a distinguished and prominent New York family. She was educated by private tutors in her home. They belonged to that tiny but powerful New York clan who clung together, intermarried, set the tone and made the rules for society in Manhattan. I think it is important to take a look into how Wharton sees NYC, “New York is very slender — it stretches from Third Avenue to Sixth, essentially — and its center is what is now the campus of New York University… ‘One of the most depressing impressions of my childhood is my recollection of the intolerable ugliness of New York'” (“Edith Wharton”).

American children’s books that contained slang words were forbidden in Wharton’s home. Wharton’s mother forbid her from reading many novels and Wharton said she “read everything else but novels until the day of my marriage.” [70] Instead, Wharton read the classics, philosophy, and history. Her influences included Darwin and Herbert Spencer, which contributed to her ethnographic style of novelization.

Wharton’s paternal family, the Joneses, were a very prominent and wealthy family from which the saying “keeping up with the Joneses” derives. (She was born Edith Newbold Jones).

A Backward Glance: The Background

Analysis on Wharton’s Autobiography

This analysis provides a deeper look at Wharton’s “A Backward Glance: The Background. Wharton describes herself as “but merely a soft anonymous morsel of humanity,” and essentially feels she lived a life of insignificance until she remembered a day she was “wakened to conscious life by the two tremendous forces of love and vanity” (582). Wharton goes into great detail when she is walking down the streets of the City with her Father and how she was just a small child and the most she could see were signs and up to the knees of strangers until she and her father came to a halt to talk to her father’s cousins little boy, Daniel. The encounter was described as an exchanging of interesting looks between them until the boy lifted her bonnet and gave her a kiss on the cheek, “it was the first time—and the little girl found it very pleasant” (582). There is something to be said for the fact that Wharton felt invisible and “unconscious” until she received attention from the opposite sex. While they were young and the situation is cute—the shadows and sunlight paradigm is evident here that these two female writers were certainly a part of the former. In fact, both female writers mentioned some type of plight faced when trying to start a career. “My little-girl life, monotonous…which according to Goethe, it is impossible to write poetry” (584). Here, Wharton was told that her life was too uneventful to write poetry but clearly the opposite happened.

Edith Wharton’s Moroccan Clichés

In 1917, the American novelist Edith Wharton travelled in Morocco seeking ‘barbaric splendor’ and an escape from war-torn Europe. Her French colonial hosts, keen to gain US support for their Protectorate, were happy to oblige.

E dith Wharton travelled to Morocco in autumn 1917 as a guest of France’s Resident-General Hubert Lyautey. ‘Oh the relief’, she wrote from her hotel in Rabat, ‘of a real holiday.’ For three years, Wharton had immersed herself in wartime work in Paris, where she had set up shelters for Belgian refugees and found work for unemployed seamstresses. She travelled regularly to the Western Front to report on the war for Scribner’s Magazine. Her Moroccan sojourn undoubtedly offered a welcome respite from the discomforts and anxieties of war-torn Europe.

But Wharton’s trip to Morocco was a working holiday. The articles and books that she published about it aimed to convince her American compatriots of the pressing need for a French empire in the Arab world. This year the literary world commemorates the centennial of perhaps Wharton’s most celebrated novel, The Age of Innocence, but 2020 also marks 100 years since the publication of one of Wharton’s lesser-known works, her 1920 travelogue In Morocco.

Edith Wharton in Newport, Rhode Island, 1907.

France had appointed Hubert Lyautey as its first Resident-General in Morocco in 1912 after its conquest of the country. Wharton may well have crossed paths with him when he returned to France in early 1917 as Minister of War. Wharton glorified Lyautey. When she stopped in Crévic, Lyautey’s birthplace, she described to her readers how German troops bombed his family home during the Battle of Lorraine. It was an act of revenge, Wharton explained, deeming Lyautey, ‘one of France’s best soldiers, and Germany’s worst enemy in Africa’.

Lyautey understood France’s need for US support. The US had yet to recognise French control over its North African territory when he became Minister of War. Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State, Robert Lansing, had expressed concern to the French ambassador, Jean Jules Jusserand, that the French Protectorate would negatively affect US commerce. Jusserand refused to provide the US with what were essentially extraterritorial rights in Morocco. This diplomatic foot-dragging sidetracked US entry into the First World War. It was only in January 1917 that Lansing agreed in principle to recognise France’s new Protectorate.

Lyautey’s stint as Minister of War was a short one and he returned to Morocco by April. That year’s Foire de Rabat brought a number of influential public figures to Morocco. Wharton joined a select group of official visitors, political and literary figures who could promote colonial Morocco. She and other guests attended an exhibition where local artisans plied their wares and, in turn, French companies sold modern equipment, from tractors to phonographs. ‘The sight of these rapidly improvised exhibitions’, wrote Wharton, describing Moroccan reactions to the colonial Foire, ‘fascinated their imagination and strengthened their confidence in the country that could find time for such an effort in the midst of a great war’.

Hubert Lyautey, c.1920.

Wharton embraced Lyautey’s confident narrative of the benefits of French colonialism. She had long opposed President Wilson, who would soon call for ‘a free, open-minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims’. Wharton made no bones about being, in her own words, ‘a rabid imperialist’.

Wharton had an expansive network of influential friends. Jusserand, the diplomat who eventually wrangled US recognition of the Protectorate from President Wilson’s administration, was among them. He had been one of a select list of guests invited to her apartment in Paris when her cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, visited in April 1910. By 1917, the Republican Party seemed poised to nominate Roosevelt as candidate for the presidential election of 1920 (though his death in 1919 precluded his running). As Roosevelt’s cousin and friend, Wharton could garner the attention not just of US readers but also key policymakers.

Wharton arrived in Tangier on 15 September 1917. Situated eight miles from Spain, Tangier was a bustling port city, with milling factories, department stores and a diverse population. Wharton dismissed it as ‘cosmopolitan, frowsy, familiar’. Instead, she sought what her biographer Hermione Lee calls ‘un-Europeanness’.

Aerial view of Tangier, by Walter Mittelholzer, 1932.

Recognising Wharton’s desire to experience the exotic, French administrators choreographed her trip with care. From Tangier, her handlers drove north to Rabat, where she stayed at the new Hotel La Tour Hassan. Its Moorish keyhole arches, mosaic tiles and sculpted wood evoked the Alhambra in Granada. In Fez and Marrakesh Wharton would stay in the palatial courtyard houses that the French co-opted as local residences, where Lyautey lived and worked.

Colonial officers accompanied Wharton to the most ‘un-European’ sites. Her travelogue includes accounts of the ‘barbaric splendor’ of the souks in Marrakesh. She witnessed atavistic religious rites at a mausoleum in Moulay Idriss. She ambled among Roman ruins in Volubulis and visited an old pirate lair in Salé. ‘Even in the new, thriving French Morocco’, she wrote, ‘the outline of a ruin or a look in a pair of eyes shifts the scene, rends the thin veil of European Illusion, and confronts one with the old grey Moslem reality.’

Marketplace outside Salé, from 'In Morocco', 1920.

France’s Director of Fine Arts and Historic Monuments, Maurice Tranchant du Lunel, accompanied Wharton for much of her trip. As they walked through the complex street network in the walled medina of Fez, he ranted about the bad taste of Moroccan builders during the era just before colonialism, when Moroccans imported marble and the neoclassical style. Tranchant du Lunel did not perceive urban facelifts in Fez as improvements. Instead, he complained, ‘their architects borrowed European styles that were often boorish’. Clearly, he swayed Wharton, who dismissed ‘the indignity of European improvements’.

Wharton did not wish to see evidence of modernity in Morocco. Her travelogue does not mention her stay in Casablanca, which impressed her travelling companion Walter Berry. President of the American Chamber of Commerce in Paris, Berry described Casablanca as ‘“a boom city” of the Far-West, with its warehouses and factories, its department stores, and its housing developments’. This dynamic city, he concluded, ‘seems to grow while you wait … palpitating with life, a metropolis of a hundred thousand souls, with commerce running into the hundred millions’. Wharton, in contrast, imagined being ‘as remote from Europe as any mediaeval adventurer’.

Interior court of the Medersa of the Oudayas, Rabat, from 'In Morocco', 1920.

Scribner’s published In Morocco in October 1920, a month before that year’s presidential election, fought between the Republican Warren Harding and the Democrat James Cox. Reflecting on the global role of the US, Americans considered a variety of questions: should the US engage in activist foreign policies? Should it curb the growing influence of Europe in the Arab provinces of the defunct Ottoman Empire? Or should it retreat from what one historian calls ‘the Wilsonian Moment’? Wharton’s travelogue unabashedly promoted imperialism.

Some reviewers disagreed with her and In Morocco prompted political debate. ‘All the properties of an Arabian Nights tale are here’, wrote Irita Van Doren in the Nation, noting ‘camels and donkeys, white-draped riders, palmetto deserts, camel’s hair tents, and veiled women’. However, she cautioned, Wharton ‘accepts without question the general theory of imperialism’. Wharton did not invent Moroccan clichés, but her high profile and the concurrent growth of US power rendered their use political in a new way. Her descriptions of a backward land called for Western intervention in the Arab world.

Stacy E. Holden is Associate Professor of History at Purdue University and the author of The Politics of Food in Modern Morocco (University Press of Florida, 2015).

Biography of Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones on January 24, 1862 in New York City. Her parents, George and Lucretia Jones, had roots in aristocracy dating back three centuries. As a daughter of society, Edith was expected to learn the mannerisms and rituals that were appropriate to her social class. She would later rebel against this role when she became a celebrated author. Rather than the limited scope of her schoolwork, Wharton based her books on research she did in her her father's library and lessons she learned from her governesses at home and in Europe.

In 1885, Edith married Teddy Wharton, who was twelve years older than her and hailed from a similar social background. They lived a relatively comfortable life with homes in New York, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. Slowly, Wharton grew dissatisfied with her limited role of wife and society matron, compounded by Teddy's inability to match her wit and creative spirit. Her restlessness and anxiety likely contributed to her depression. She was treated throughout the 1890s and her condition prevented her from publishing her work until she was 36. By 1908, Wharton had begun an affair with Morton Fullerton, a journalist for the London Times living in Paris. She recorded all the details of their deeply intellectual and passionate relationship in her personal diaries. She eventually divorced Teddy Wharton in 1913.

Between 1900 and 1938, Wharton wrote over 40 books, both novels and short stories. Widespread public recognition of Wharton's talent began after the House of Mirth was published in 1905. The fictional novel was based on an in-depth exploration of American society. After that, Wharton became increasingly prolific. Ethan Frome was published in 1911 and in 1921, she won the Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence, which many scholars and critics consider to be her best work.

Wharton's life changed when World War I began. She traveled extensively by motorcar through Europe, opening schools and hostels for refugees in northern France and Belgium. She also wrote reports for American publications, supporting American involvement in the war. After the war, Wharton only returned to the United States once in her lifetime (to accept her Pulitzer prize).

Throughout her life, Wharton frequently held salon, hosting gatherings where the most gifted intellectuals of her time could share thoughts and discuss ideas. Teddy Roosevelt, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway were all Wharton's guests at one time or another. Besides these salons, Wharton's friendship with Henry James had an immense influence on her work. Wharton continued writing voraciously until her death at age 75 in France. She is buried in the American Cemetery at Versailles.