24 January 2012

Happy Birthday Edith

Today is the 150th anniversary of the birth of one of my favourite writers—Edith Wharton. A chronicler of New York’s Gilded Age, Wharton wrote exquisite stories that gave readers a behind the scenes look at how the upper class really lived and created some of the most heartbreaking tales in American literature. Her more than 40 books cover a wide territory from novels set not just in New York but in Venice and working class New England to nonfiction works on travel, interior design, and gardening. And don't forget her ghost stories. This amazing writer's talent was finally awarded in 1921 when she became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for literature for her novel The Age of Innocence (1920).

Edith Wharton with some of her wee dogs.

She was born Edith Newbold Jones in New York on January 24, 1862. Her family were reportedly the Joneses of “keeping up with the Joneses” fame. She was plain looking but bright and loved books and dogs from an early age. At 23 she married Edward “Teddy” Robbins Wharton who shared her love of travel but little else. Theirs was an unhappy marriage. When Teddy began to suffer from manic depression, they settled down at the Mount, the beautiful home she designed in Lenox, Massachusetts. There Wharton wrote some of her finest work including Ethan Frome (1911) and my favourite, The House of Mirth (1905). In the mornings she would write in bed, flinging pages to the floor when done. Later in the afternoon, she would greet guests in the foyer with champagne. The Mount also allowed Wharton the chance to indulge in her love of interior design, which was the topic of her first book—The Decoration of Houses (1897)—co-written with Ogden Codman.

After divorcing Teddy in 1913 she moved to France, a country where she had always felt at home. During World War I, Wharton devoted her time to working with refugees and later received the Chevalier of the Legion of Honor for her efforts. After the war, she returned to America only once, in 1923, to receive an honorary degree from Yale. Dividing her time between homes in Paris and Hyères, Provence, Wharton continued to write up until the end, passing away on August 11, 1937.

To celebrate Wharton’s birthday, a marathon reading of The House of Mirth is being held at the Center for Fiction here in New York on January 26, the proceeds of which will go to support the Mount. I’m looking forward to attending and hearing a variety of women writers read the sad tale of Lily Bart. For more details about the event, visit here.

You can also check out the website for the Mount here to learn about other birthday celebrations and about the great home she loved (I've been there and it's gorgeous). Or pick up one her many books, perhaps the best way to honour this wonderful writer. Happy Birthday Edith.

Photos from the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscripts Library.

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