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BACKGROUND INFORMATION - BIOGRAPHY
Author Information - Edith Wharton
Edith Newbold Jones was born in New York City in 1862; she had two older brothers. Her elite family belonged to "old New York," lived in a large and fancy brownstone, and often visited the aristocratic countryside and Europe. As a child, Edith was educated by tutors and became an eager student. She was taught French, German, Italian, and classic literature. Although she was shy, she was raised to be a lady and forced to become a debutante. In 1885 she married Edward Wharton, a wealthy Bostonian who lived off his large inheritance. The couple resided in New York amongst the elite society and traveled regularly to Newport and Europe. Edith, however, found the social scene harrowing and hypocritical. As a result, most of her fiction is about New York society and the crushing hypocrisy of its conventions. Her sharp wit and biting satire attracted the reading public.
Edith was always an author, writing in her youth, throughout her marriage, and during the nervous illnesses that haunted both her husband and herself. At sixteen, she had privately published a first book of poems. Her first full-length book, The Decoration of Houses, was a collaborative effort published in 1897. Two years later, she published a volume of short stories called The Greater Inclination. Her first significant novel, The Valley of Decision, was published in 1902. The House of Mirth (1905) chronicles the social misfortunes of Lily Bart and is said to be Wharton's most autobiographical work; it met with popular success.
Edith's popularity put a strain on her marriage, for her husband did not like being in the background. His emotional and physical health deteriorated, and the couple spent long periods in Europe, where Edward underwent therapy. Finally in 1907, the Whartons moved to Paris, where he had a complete nervous breakdown three years later. In 1913, Edith divorced Edward and continued to live in Europe, where she became friends with the novelist Henry James.
In spite of Edward's failing health and her marital problems, Edith continued to write and publish; her works included essays, travel books, novels, and collections of short stories and verse. In 1907, she published The Fruit of the Tree, whose plot and characters foreshadow Ethan Frome, which was published in 1911. When World War I broke out in 1914, Edith, still living in France, was an active volunteer for various efforts helping the wounded and the orphans. For her contributions, she was awarded the French Legion of Honor. After the war, Edith made France her permanent home. To support her expensive lifestyle there, she published several novels in serial form for popular magazines; these included The Mother's Recompense (1925) and Twilight Sleep (1927).
Wharton's novel, The Age of Innocence, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921. In 1923, she was given an honorary degree from Yale University. In the 1930s she was elected to both the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She continued to write and publish throughout this period. When she died in 1937 from a stroke, she was in the process of writing The Buccaneers, which was published after her death. Edith Wharton is now judged to be a powerful writer who successfully captured and criticized the nature of the stodgy upper class of society.
Ethan Frome, published in 1911, was written in one of the tragic periods of Wharton's life. She was living in Paris and watching her husband deteriorate into total mental illness. It is no small wonder that the novel is so bleak. It is also quite a departure for Edith Wharton, except for the fact that it portrays marriage as a tragic imprisonment. The main characters of this story are poor rural New Englanders, not her usual New York socialites. In another bold departure from her standard style, Edith Wharton wrote an introduction for the book, wherein she explains her authorial choices. She wanted to write about New England as she saw it, "harsh and beautiful." Most of her comments, however, address the structure of the story and how she decided to write the plot as a set of revealed bits of gossip in the outer frame, juxtaposed with the more standard central story. She thought of the tale as "stark" (hence the fictional "Starkfield") and created her subjects as scarcely articulate and given to long silences.
She also felt that Ethan Frome presented "the first subject I ever approached with full confidence in its value," even though many of her friends doubted the project. Ethan Frome is considered one of Wharton's major works; it was praised as a counterbalance to the traditional New England "local color" books of the nineteenth century, which were pastoral, sentimental, and did not address the mental isolation and tragedy of the rural poor.
The novel was actually started several years before its publication; it was a writing project, assigned by her French tutor, but its structure, characters, and theme were very different. When Edith took up the novel again to publish it, she made dramatic modifications, adding the narrator as a character and changing Ethan into a much more mature personality. When completed, the novel first appeared in serial form in "Scribner's Magazine," running from August to October, 1911. It was published in book form at the end of the year. It was immediately popular with the critics and the public. It also proved that Edith Wharton could write about something beyond New York high society.