The Whirling Princess

How a little rich girl known as Pussy Jones became Edith Wharton, writing her way into the aristocracy of American letters

Edith Wharton by Hermione Lee, Alfred A. Knopf

In the early 1900s, Edith Newbold Jones Wharton and her feckless, somewhat weak-minded husband, Teddy (Edward Robbins Wharton), began to build a summer home in Lenox, Massachusetts, a structure that was, as the biographer Hermione Lee dryly informs us, “by no means a modest house.” In fact, The Mount, as it was eventually called, “had thirty-five rooms, and a hundred windows” (although some of these were “blind windows, made to balance real ones”). Perhaps appropriately, Lee’s new life of Wharton is also far from modest in scale: like The Mount, it has numerous rooms and a bewildering array of windows, most of them looking out on various aspects of the novelist’s complicated career. Tolstoyan in length and scope, Lee’s book is itself a kind of Wharton novel, capturing what the biographer herself calls “the thick enclosing texture of wealthy late-Victorian genteel America” and “the conservative manners and habits of [the novelist’s] provincial tribe”: manners and mores that became central subjects for the writer. Yet like The Mount—and, indeed, like some of the even more massive mansions erected by Wharton’s compatriots in Gilded Age New York—Lee’s biography at times seems bloated. Her research is superb, her readings of Wharton’s novels are often definitive, and her sense of that “thick enclosing texture” is absolutely sure. Nonetheless, as Teddy Wharton reportedly said of Henry James’s Golden Bowl, her book’s “size in all ways is against it. Cut out 1/4 & it would have been” even better than it already is.

To be fair to Lee, Wharton’s achievements were so grand in scale that it’s understandably difficult to explore them in a manageable narrative. The fiercely energetic author of such acerbic masterpieces as The House of Mirth and The Custom of the Country claimed that as a young wife she had suffered for “twelve years” from nausea and “unutterable fatigue,” insisting that this “neurasthenia consumed the best years of my youth.” But she recovered from this lassitude (which was, paradoxically, marked by numerous publications and adventures) to become among the most productive and versatile of modern writers. Lee notes that by 1906, when the publication of The House of Mirth broke whatever neurasthenic spell its author had been under, “it seemed there was nothing Wharton could not do. Novels, novellas, stories, plays, poems, books on Italy and on house-decoration. . . . As she put it, [she had] ‘broken through the chains which had held me so long in a kind of torpor [and] The Land of Letters was henceforth to be my country.’” A decade later, when she was living in Paris, immersed in war work, engaged in a range of literary projects and at the center of an intricate social network that included James, André Gide, Anna de Noailles, and Bernard Berenson, Wharton had become, in effect, the CEO of her own life, which was itself an enormous, ongoing creative enterprise. Lee writes: “A great tide of complex missives about money and legal matters, war-work, property, house moves, book orders, arrangements with tradesmen, furniture, wine, travel, servants, plants and gardens went streaming out from her various addresses throughout her life in France. There was nothing she could not deal with and nothing that got past her.”

Considering Wharton’s deployment of these vast energies, it’s no wonder that James, musing on her proclivity for sweeping him and other friends away on “Motor Flights” through Europe, wittily spoke of her “great globe-rushes [and] vast gyrations” and described her (as her earlier biographer Cynthia Griffin Wolff reported) in a series of comic exaggerations as “the whirling princess . . . the golden eagle, the Fire Bird, the Shining One.” Although he often welcomed the “silver-sounding toot” with which she summoned him to join her in “the wondrous cushioned general Car of your so wondrously india-rubber-tyred [and] deep-cushioned fortune” and was especially impressed by the “heroic tension & valor” with which she threw herself into relief work during the Great War, the more reclusive James—like many others—was frequently exhausted by the intensity, even the violence, of her passion for life and letters. More than such disciples as Percy Lubbock, who “embalm[ed] Wharton as a grand, fussy, imperious Jamesian,” the Master himself surely knew how distinctively different from him she was as a writer, a point that Lee makes with special brilliance throughout her biography.

A carefully nurtured scion of Old New York, Edith Newbold Jones clearly wasn’t raised to become the sort of literary Wonder Woman she turned into. The household into which she was born, ruled by the indomitably proper Lucretia Jones, her mother, was marked by snobbery, wealth, and a perniciously stuffy decorum. Some of that snobbery—along with corollary racist, anti-feminist, and anti-Semitic impulses—was to stay with Wharton throughout her life: at one point, for instance, she defined the great biographer André Maurois as “a bright little Jew . . . as well fitted for lecturing on English poetry to the English as one of my Pekes”; on another occasion, she dismissively declared that she was not “interested in scholarships for female Yids.” Yet at her best she sardonically dissected—and severely rejected—the smugness and arbitrary arrogance of the class in which she had been raised. As a child, the novelist remembered, she “was never free from the oppressive sense that I had two absolutely inscrutable beings to please—God and my mother.” But “God’s standard of truthfulness” was incompatible with her mother’s emphasis on “the obligation to be polite.” Nevertheless, this little girl, so hemmed in by weighty moral and social imperatives, “was enthralled by words. . . . Wherever I went, they sang to me like the birds in an enchanted forest.” Yet, she noted, “In the eyes of our provincial society authorship was still regarded as something between a black art and a form of manual labor.” The fortitude and ferocity required to break free from such constraints may have been determined in part by genetically shaped inner resources and in part by the enthralling words that sang all around “Pussy Jones,” as the young writer-to-be was called by family and friends. But her strength may also have come from what Lee defines as “the aesthetic shock of moving early between Europe and America,” from her sensing as a child “the incompatibility between her parents” (Wharton’s father was far more learned and literary than her mother), and from her growing conviction that her deepest self was somehow “at odds with her upbringing.”

Certainly central to the transformation of the young socialite Pussy Jones into the mature Edith Wharton was the writer’s increasing revulsion against the vulgarity, pretentiousness, and just plain ignorance that she associated with her homeland. On returning from Europe, she recorded the distress she felt at “the wild, disheveled backwoods look of everything.” She saw herself as one among a group who are “none of us Americans, we don’t think or feel as Americans do, we are the wretched exotics produced in a European glass-house.” And she lamented the failings of a “whole nation developing without the sense of beauty and eating bananas for breakfast.” Her marriage to the Bostonian Teddy Wharton was neither intellectually nor sexually fulfilling and left her feeling even more alienated. (She joked that in Boston she was thought “too fashionable to be intelligent” and in New York “too intelligent to be fashionable.” Nor did her now much-studied midlife affair with the debonair Morton Fullerton (himself as feckless in his way as her increasingly manic husband) bring her more than momentary pleasure. Ultimately, therefore, it was her own indefatigable commitment to art that liberated her into the Land of Letters, transforming her into a devastating social analyst, each of whose works was, in her own phrase, “a shaft driven straight into the heart of experience.” It may be true that James applied such phrases as “whirling princess” and “Fire Bird” to Wharton because of the energy with which she traveled and entertained. Yet, despite their sometimes coolly ironic surfaces, such novels as The House of Mirth, Ethan Frome, Summer, The Custom of the Country, and The Age of Innocence have a searingly subversive force that more than justifies his phrases.

Although Hermione Lee’s biography features incisive explications de texte that beautifully celebrate the achievements of these works, its narrative line is sometimes both too slow and too thickly textured to illuminate Wharton’s development from childish Pussy to adult Fire Bird with the clarity that a reader might want. As if strolling room by room through The Mount, Lee organizes her book chronologically and topically—but on the whole more the latter than the former—devoting, say, a chapter to the Wharton-James friendship, a chapter to the Fullerton affair, a chapter to the divorce from Teddy, and so on. But such an organization necessarily sacrifices the simultaneity of events that shaped the writer’s life and art. The novelist’s friendship with James was intensifying while she was involved with Fullerton, and in Teddy’s mental deterioration—leading to the divorce—was a crisis she had to confront at the same time, so one would wish for a structure that does more justice to the interweaving of these plots and subplots in the writer’s life. This caveat aside, however, I should admit that my yearning for a cleaner “story” is itself a function of the magisterial skill with which Lee has assembled her materials here. Her biography will surely be the definitive life of Wharton for some time to come. In its skillful bridging of the author’s American and European settings, it presents us with a heroine who might herself be described with the words that James used to characterize The Mount: a “French chateau mirrored in a Massachusetts pond.”

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Sandra M. Gilbert is the author of nine books of poetry and of Rereading Women: Thirty Years of Exploring Our Literary Traditions. With Susan Gubar, she wrote The Madwoman in the Attic and Still Mad: American Women Writers and the Feminist Imagination, 1950-2020.


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