The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton: A Biography. By Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge, Clarion, 184 pp., $20. Ages: See discussion below.
By Janice Harayda
Edith Wharton said that she hoped her biographer would “find the gist of me,” and Connie Wooldridge meets that test in this lively account of the life of one of America’s greatest novelists.
Born Edith Newbold Jones, Wharton came from the elite New York family that inspired the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses.” Her parents and their circle looked on writing anything except poetry as an unworthy profession, especially for women. And Wooldridge rightly credits Wharton with escaping from the social expectations that might have stifled her career while observing those mores closely enough to write The Age of Innocence, the first novel by a woman to win the Pulitzer Prize.
The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton also shows how Wharton defied sexual codes by having an affair with the journalist Morton Fullerton while married to the unstable Teddy Wharton, who was conducting his own adulterous romance. Of Wharton’s marital relations, Wooldridge writes: “The sexual side of her marriage to Teddy was a failure.” This sentence will shock few children at the upper end of the suggested age range for this book. But the line comes across as a gratuitous attempt to justify or at least explain Wharton’s adultery, though Wooldridge doesn’t link her subject’s poor sex life to her infidelity. And young readers who are ready for such material could have handled more information on the great themes of Wharton’s fiction (especially that of the conflict between individual yearnings and the imperatives of a rigid social order), which get less attention than their creator’s fascinating life.
This biography has more than 80 black-and-white photos and illustrations of every stage of Wharton’s life from early childhood through old age, including pictures of her glorious homes in Newport, New York, Paris and Lenox, Massachusetts. And all of these help to make up for the few questionable judgments in the text. One page reproduces mock reviews that young Edith wrote of a novel called Fast and Loose that she began just before her 15th birthday. “A chaos of names apparently all seeking their owners,” Wharton-the-satirist said. She called “the sentiments weak, & the whole thing a fiasco.” Wooldridge need not fear that she will face similar assaults for The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton.
Best line: One of many good quotes from Wharton, in this case about her girlhood: “No children of my own age, and none even among the nearest of my grown-ups, were as close to me as the great voices that spoke to me from books.” The “great voices” included those of Plutarch, Homer and Milton.
Worst line: A caption on page 21 says: “One of Edith’s mock reviews of her first novel.” The book makes clear that Wharton started a novel at the age of 11 and that the mock reviews describe “another novel,” her second, that she began at the age of 15.
Ages: Clarion bills The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton as a book for ages 12 and up, and its mature content justifies the recommendation. But many preteens and teens reject books with the format of this one, which is that of a modified picture book: They want biographies that look like books for adults. So The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton, good as it is, may be a tough sell to strong readers over the age of 9 or so.
Published: August 2010
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