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Edith Wharton Hardcover – Deckle Edge, April 10, 2007

4.4 out of 5 stars 23 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

The definitive biography of one of America’s greatest writers, from the author of the acclaimed masterpiece Virginia Woolf.

Delving into heretofore untapped sources, Hermione Lee does away with the image of the snobbish bluestocking and gives us a new Edith Wharton--tough, startlingly modern, as brilliant and complex as her fiction.

Born in 1862, Wharton escaped the suffocating fate of the well-born female, traveled adventurously in Europe and eventually settled in France. After tentative beginnings, she developed a forceful literary professionalism and thrived in a luminous society that included Bernard Berenson, Aldous Huxley and most famously Henry James, who here emerges more as peer than as master. Wharton's life was fed by nonliterary enthusiasms as well: her fabled houses and gardens, her heroic relief efforts during the Great War, the culture of the Old World, which she never tired of absorbing. Yet intimacy eluded her: unhappily married and childless, her one brush with passion came and went in midlife, an affair vividly, intimately recounted here.

With profound empathy and insight, Lee brilliantly interweaves Wharton's life with the evolution of her writing, the full scope of which shows her far to be more daring than her stereotype as lapidarian chronicler of the Gilded Age. In its revelation of both the woman and the writer, Edith Wharton is a landmark biography.

Hermione Lee's Reading Guide to Edith Wharton

Hermione Lee, about whose Virginia Woolf the Amazon.com reviewer wrote, "Biographies don't get much better than this," has turned for her next major subject to Edith Wharton. Wharton's classics, including The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence, and Ethan Frome, are known to many readers, but Lee has prepared exclusively for us a Reading Guide to Edith Wharton that goes beyond those familiar titles to unearth lesser-known gems among her remarkable stories and novels, from the story "After Holbein," "a masterpiece of ghoulish, chilling satire," to The Custom of the Country, her "most ruthless, powerful, and savage novel."

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. One might think that R.W.B. Lewis's excellent 1975 biography had precluded the need for another book about Edith Wharton. Not so. Reading Lee's superb new biography is akin to comparing a fine watercolor sketch to a vivid masterpiece. Access to previously unrevealed letters, and the same meticulous research for which her Virginia Woolf biography was praised, allow Lee to illuminate many dark corners of Wharton's life and to reinterpret previously accepted opinions. Most important, Lee exhibits an intuitive empathy with her subject (never glossing over her less admirable characteristics) and thus animates Wharton as a fully dimensional figure of complex and contradictory values and impulses—a woman of fierce ambition and lingering self-doubt, of generous friendships and ignoble snobbery and prejudices, with a zest for travel and adventure despite frequent, debilitating ill health. Lee challenges several traditional stereotypes about Wharton, including her literary relationship with Henry James—more peer than acolyte, Lee shows—and with Walter Berry and Bernard Berenson. (Although she provides many instances of Wharton's violent anti-Semitism, Lee does not note the paradox of Wharton's close relationship with Berenson.) In no other biography is there a more perceptive analysis of how Wharton's life was reflected in her work. Her nightmarish marriage and midlife passionate affair with Morton Fullerton, the straitjacket social code that she violated by seeking a divorce were transmogrified in the novels, stories and poetry (some of it erotic). Lee's portrait of Wharton as a strong-willed woman determined to surmount the background she drew on for inspiration, a woman obsessed with "double lives, repression, sexual hypocrisy, hidden longings," is a major achievement. 24 pages of photos. 75,000 first printing. (Apr. 30)
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This Book Is Bound with "Deckle Edge" Paper
You may have noticed that some of our books are identified as "deckle edge" in the title. Deckle edge books are bound with pages that are made to resemble handmade paper by applying a frayed texture to the edges. Deckle edge is an ornamental feature designed to set certain titles apart from books with machine-cut pages. See a larger image.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 880 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (April 10, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375400044
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375400049
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 2.1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.9 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #406,652 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Kyle P. Wagner on May 25, 2007
Format: Hardcover
I just finished Hermione Lee's biography, which took me roughly a month to finish (I usually don't spend more than a few days on a book.), and its girth occasionally hurt my back. (That's a joke...) I have not read other biographies Lee has written (though I do own "Virginia Woolf", and was impressed with Lee's insight of Woolf on the DVD of "The Hours"), so I can't compare, but I gather the Virginia Woolf biography is very good. I have read other biographies of Edith Wharton; R.W.B. Lewis', and Cynthia Griffin Woolf's excellent "A Feast of Words", and Lee's is an exhaustive reiteration of much that has come before, with some subtle additions and revisions of thought. I have a new vision of Wharton during her "Neurasthenic" period, which struck her early in marriage. She gardened, wrote and traveled extensively, whereas I had the impression she was bed-ridden and slightly invalid. The life force of Edith Wharton appears to have been astonishing and exhausting. Very few of us would pass her formidable "muster", and I understand completely why Henry James labeled her "The Angel of Devastation" (Disappointing discovery that James was virulently anti-suffrage).

The book is at times, dispassionately academic. It has moments, and at its best one has the sense that Lee is weaving, or knitting, a complete picture of who Edith Wharton might actually have been. Yes, there are some things we will never know, but I get the idea. Some chapters moved along briskly, other didn't (for me). The chapter called "Italian Backgrounds" is loaded with minute detail about those kinds of gardens and Wharton's interest in them (as you would guess from the title). I'm not a gardener, however, and found myself losing interest - there is A LOT of description of Italian Gardens. Illustrations would have helped (me).
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Format: Hardcover
At 880 pages, with illustrations,this weighty tome is in my opinion the best biography of Edith Wharton. Hermione Lee who also gave us "Virginia Woolf" [another wonderful biography] is dedicated to research and detail, and manages to thoroughly flesh out her subjects. Given the complex life and character of Edith Wharton, the task of dissecting her life and accomplishments seems like a herculean task that Ms Lee does excellently. We learn of Ms Wharton's accomplishments not only as a great writer, having authored novels that have tackled the delicate issues of human frailty and desires [Custom of the Country, House of Mirth, and Age of Innocence, among others], but also her talents in designing, gardening & her philanthropical pursuits. Ms Wharton was also a prolific traveler, and this biography truly showcases her many talents besides writing. We learn of Ms Wharton's early marriage to a much older man, a union that was not successful and led to a divorce many years later. We also discover Ms Wharton's late blooming as an author [she was almost 40] and her affair with an American journalist and close friendships [mainly with the opposite sex]. The biography also gives us insight into Wharton's inspiration for her writing [drawn heavily from events in her own life], and all in all, it is a laudable effort at giving us tremendous insight into the life of a talented and complicated author.
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Format: Hardcover
I have read a small smattering of Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence and Ethan Frome. I HAVE read Hermione Lee's biographies of Willa Cather and Virginia Woolf. Her previous biographies were so enlightening that I immediately read all of Cather's works (some I reread) and Woolf's works (I had only read two of her works). This biography however, does not make me want to run out and read more Wharton because I got so drowned in her critiques of her writing that I found all these details overwhelming. Lee also includes details of daily living that become burdensome at times for the reader. Wharton was a prolific writer and her own life certainly would have made an interesting novel. When Lee sticks to the details of Wharton's life without delving into every written Wharton word and how each work is autobiographical, or compares to some event of her life, or doesn't compare, the reader will find Lee writes so well that you can't wait to find out what happens next. Unless I have gone brain dead, I don't recall this much discussion from Lee in her previous works on Woolf and Cather. The parallels she drew in those previous works to the authors' lives is what prompted me to read everything they wrote! I felt I understood Cather and Woolf after reading Lee's biographies, but I still don't understand Wharton. Maybe I understand her better than I did, but she still remains a mystery to me overall.

Lee does speculate on some matters, and maybe my problem is more with the subject of Wharton than what Lee wrote. Edith Wharton buried and hid so much of her life that it may never be known what made her tick.

I just wish I didn't have to spend so much time reading this book to find that out, as it's very lengthy, and "drowning" in details.
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Format: Hardcover
This massive, nearly 900 page biography of Edith Wharton will be considered the definitive account of her life. Ms. Lee performed extensive research to flesh out this writer of conventional social graces and of the inner emotional life (see "The Age of Innocence"). Of interested is the thwarted life of Edith Wharton, trapped in a loveless marriage and embarking upon a mid-life affair with a confused American.

A writer of short stories, poems and novels, she wrote of ghost stories, decorating, social satires of New York, and war correspondence from the Great War. Edith Wharton was a woman of many talents who will keep the reader entralled long after the biography ends.
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