Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Women of . . . Wednesday - Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones in 1862, and if you’ve ever heard of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ it is supposedly her grandparents that people were talking about. She grew up one of the idle rich in New York towards the end of the Gilded Age, a time when ‘old money’ looked down their noses at ‘new money’ - people who made their millions by (shudder) working for it.

Edith was a born writer. She was creating stories, which she called ‘making up,’ before she could even read. By the time she was 15, she had written her first novella, Fast and Loose, about a young woman who was - fast and loose. Her family did not appreciate the content, nor the fact that she was writing. It was not something people of her class ‘did.’

Edith didn’t care. She continued to write, selling poems to the Atlantic Monthly and the New York World. But her mother did care. People were talking about Edith, saying how strange she was, and how she always had her head in a book. Mrs. Jones decided to do something about it. She insisted Edith get out more and attend parties. She introduced Edith to ‘the right people,’ and it seemed to work. Edith was soon engaged.

But when one lived in ‘society,’ one had to put up with being mentioned in the gossip columns, and Edith was mentioned. It was said that her intellectualism was hardly a good trait in a woman, and her ambition to be a writer was a ‘grievous fault.’ Her fiancé’s mother insisted the engagement be broken.

Edith went on to marry her older brother’s best friend Teddy Wharton. They had nothing in common and spent little time together. Even when they traveled together, each went their own way. Teddy went off hunting or played sports, and Edith spent time with other writers, philosophers and artists.

Teddy soon began to show signs of mental illness. Edith stuck with him, nursing him and taking him for ‘cures’ in Europe. She even overlooked his theft of $50,000 from her trust fund, which he used to set up a mistress in Boston, and which he eventually paid back. But when he sold their family home in Lenox, Massachusetts without her knowledge, she divorced him.

By then, Edith was a well-known and well respected writer. She moved to France and spent her days writing or driving around the countryside looking at architecture. She hobnobbed with people like Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and two of her closest friends were Henry James and Teddy Roosevelt.

When World War I broke out, she put her time, effort and money into the war. She found homes for Belgian children and the elderly. She set up a dispensary for the sick and war wounded, she opened a tuberculosis clinic, and she set up workrooms for French women to make bandages as a way for them to earn money to feed themselves and their children. But it wasn’t enough for Edith.

Edith knew the war could not be won without America’s help, and she thought if Americans knew how bad things really were in Europe, they might pressure the US government to get involved. She used her connections to get herself to the front lines where she observed the war first hand. She then wrote about what she saw and sent her work off to Scribner’s Magazine. Although there is no way to know if Edith’s articles played any part in getting America into the war, we did get involved and the conflict was won.

Edith wrote over forty books in her lifetime, mostly about what she knew - the rich and idle. She was not only the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (The Age of Innocence) but she was also made a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor, and she received the Belgian Medaille Reine Elisabeth (Queen Elizabeth’s Medal) for her aid to Belgian refugees during the war. She died of a heart attack in 1937.

1 comment:

I'm Jet . . . said...

I'm heading out to the library today to pick up The Age of Innocence.

Teddy was mentally ill, but still able to hook up with a mistress and steal from Edith's trust fund? Fascinating!