BOOK REVIEW / What Edith did, or knew: No gifts from Chance: A Biography of Edith Wharton - Shari Benstock: Hamish Hamilton, pounds 20

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The Independent Culture
Edith Wharton not only made a great deal of money with best-selling novels such as The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence; she also received great literary acclaim for them. Many contemporaries thought her world better than that of Henry James, whereas today he's commonly seen as her master.

Wharton's star is rising again. Though publishers like Penguin and Virago have kept the novels in print as classics worthy to be re-read, they're now reaching an even wider audience again, with the additional help of the cinema.

Part of Wharton's appeal as a writer is her sharp psychological insight into character, which helps make her plots satisfying and convincing. Her prose style is honed to simplicity and accessibility. Where Henry James's sentences form complex byzantine bridges from 19th-century realism into early modernism, Edith Wharton's retain the clarity and directness of the French writers like Balzac whom she so admired. James's characters are constantly dissolving into pure language, whereas Wharton's retain their outlines. The content of her books might be shocking and immoral, but this did not diminish her popularity with readers who wanted novels that were not too difficult to understand. Poor Henry James floundered in self-doubt and poverty while Wharton became internationally famous. She remained vulnerable to criticism that his work over-influenced hers and to comment that her wealthy background narrowed her literary scope: 'the continued cry that I am an echo of Mr James (whose books of the last ten years I can't read, much as I delight in the man), and the assumption that the people I write about are not 'real' because they are not navvies and charwomen, makes me feel rather hopeless. I write about what I see, what I happen to be nearest to, which is surely better than doing cowboys de chic.'

While it's true that Wharton didn't simply reproduce the glossy surfaces of high society but probed the hypocrisy, corruption, cynicism and coldheartedness that lay just underneath, she herself was indeed so wealthy, by birth and later inheritance, as never to know the desperate financial insecurity suffered by most writers then and now. Having grown even richer on the proceeds of her first big success, The House of Mirth, she was able to sail to France, with her husband Teddy, in the comfort of a stateroom 'hung in vieux-rose silk and appointed with a Louis XVI writing desk on which sat a telephone (that never rang)'. Her life depended on the droves of servants who ran her various houses in America and France. While being sensitive to the suffering of others and giving generously to charities she helped to found, she couldn't escape the values of her class: she thought old money was better than new, that the old families had a sense of responsibility lacked by the more blatantly capitalistic ones, and that working-class people were poor because they weren't terribly bright.

The money gave her the freedom to travel frequently and extensively in Europe, particularly in France and Italy, to have the time to write, and to have her friends to stay in comfort. Yet she seems to have been unhappy and lonely withal. A childhood marked by severe illness and nightmare terrors all too swiftly ended in a marriage doomed to unhappiness. Teddy Wharton turned out to be a chronic invalid, suffering from manic depression, rather than a lover or a companion. Eventually Edith allowed herself a brief, tortured affair with the American journalist William Morton Fullerton, who apparently used his bisexuality to avoid commitment to his lovers of both sexes. Edith's close relationships with several men like Walter Berry, and Henry James himself, sustained her all her life. She had no children.

Shari Benstock hardly discusses these aspects of Wharton's life, presumably out of reverence for her subject, a disinclination for voyeuristic prying.

Edith is rarely presented in psychological close-up. Her personality does not come alive. Benstock's method, in this extremely long and detailed biography, is meticulously to chart the events, week by week, of Wharton's life - What Edith Did as opposed to What Edith Knew - and to avoid analysis.

The book is severely weakened by being so badly written. Benstock's faulty grammar, particularly imprecise and incorrect use of verbs, wraps her text in vagueness. She is fond of cliches: chairs stand 'like sentinels'; five-year-old Edith 'appears as a Renaissance child whose soft eyes and gentle smile might have engaged a court painter'. Sentimentality and snobbery add to the effect of blurriness: Walter Berry was 'a perpetual bachelor, squiring beautiful women around Washington, New York and Paris'; the Vanderbilt apartment in Paris 'was furnished in the impeccable taste of an art connoisseur'; Madame de Sevigne 'created in her Paris salon an order of cultured brilliance unsurpassed in French history'. Phrases like 'a noble lord' and 'sylvan spaces' keep popping up. To blandness is added fussiness; in this book rooms are usually appointed rather than furnished; house-guests don't write letters but pen them; Henry James is not in his prime but in the last stage of his artistic apotheosis. Quotations from Wharton come only in tiny two-word snippets, most of the time; a great pity.