The House of Mirth, Ethan Frome, The Age of Innocence...these are the novels that drew many of us permanently to Edith Wharton. After all, such crystal-clear, expressive, and careful prose demands attention and awe.
Lee, however, dives beneath the self-consciously dignified, correct narrative mask to show us Edith Wharton, The Flesh-and-Blood Woman. She was proper, she was proud, she had an adulterous affair, she gossiped, she raged, she badgered her publishers and editors. Nevertheless, she was a remarkable person, educating herself in the things she loved most: interior decoration, landscaping, gardening, Italy, France, and most of all, the craft of writing.
It's as if Wharton's life had two beginnings: the first, when she was actually born, up until her divorce from Teddy Wharton; and the second, post-divorce, when she finally identified herself as a Writer, moved to France, and surrounded herself with like-minded literary friends like Henry James. From the time she was young, Wharton felt stories building up in her mind, demanding to get out. She wrote fiction that critiqued and sometimes mocked the world of late-19th century Old New York from which she had emerged. In these novels, Wharton strips away the veneer of lavish wealth and social prestige to reveal the real goings-on: girls raised solely for the "marriage market," men stuck in social and intellectual ruts, marriage and love having little to do with one another.
Lily, Newland, Undine: none of these characters quite "fits" into the role that's been supplied for them. Their attempts to find happiness only mystify or anger the people around them. Only a mind like Wharton's, having thrown off it's shackles of expectation and the status quo, could have brought these characters to life so vividly.
Lee offers us Wharton's story in an engaging, comprehensive biography that never loses sight of its subject. And except for it's sideswipe at the writer Frank Norris, Edith Wharton was a pleasure to read.