Edith Wharton, by Hermione Lee

The incomplete woman
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The Independent Culture

In 1995, to mark a television version of her unfinished novel The Buccaneers, the BBC gathered together three of Edith Wharton's biographers: RWB Lewis, Cynthia Griffin Wolff and Shari Benstock. They were invited to The Mount, her former home in Lenox, Massachusetts, itself in process of being restored, and joined there by the screenwriter of The Age of Innocence (Jay Cocks) and the director of the film of Ethan Frome (John Madden).

Wharton was, it seemed, in vogue - but there was something odd about this gathering. It could not have happened a decade or so earlier. For over 40 years after her death in 1937, she had been all but invisible. This meeting came less than 20 years after signs of renewed interest, ten after Virago had started reprinting her books, and a bare five after the first volume of the Library of Congress edition of her work.

For much of the first three decades of the 20th century, Wharton was one of America's most popular serious novelists. She outsold Henry James and F Scott Fitzgerald and beat Sinclair Lewis's Main Street to the Pulitzer Prize in 1921. Even in the depths of the Depression, she could command top rates for her short stories. Then it was as though someone had thrown a switch and her work disappeared.

In a fast-moving social and political world, she seemed to many outmoded; fixed, as they assumed her to be, in the New York society of the late 19th century. And it is easy to think of her primarily in terms of the world conjured up in The Age of Innocence, with the New York haute bourgeoisie which had spawned if not nurtured her: affluent, heartless, sealed against human need. Yet this is the woman who also wrote Ethan Frome, set in a bleak Massachusetts countryside in which passion is frozen at source and loyalty another name for failure of will.

Her ironies, it turned out, were no less unrelenting than Hardy's, as her imagination reached out far beyond the world of affluent New York, where lives were sacrificed to the smell of a fine cigar and the scarlet swirl of a ball gown. This, after all, is also the woman who wrote The Custom of the Country and The House of Mirth, both of which featured the new American woman, thrusting, competitive, amoral. She wrote of mistresses, of prostitutes and, in an unpublished work, of incest, the latter a pornographic account of a sexual relationship between father and daughter.

She captured an America on the brink of change, clinging to what only appeared to be fixities. She wrote about characters who mistake custom and convention for morality and as a result sacrifice everything of value. She was interested in power: those who possessed it, desperately sought it, squandered it. No wonder that Martin Scorsese, who directed The Age of Innocence, recognised in her New York quasi-aristocrats close kin to the Mafia .

The story Hermione Lee tells in her biography is in part a familiar one, though she subtly corrects errors in earlier accounts and adds considerable detail about the American years. Her real concern, however, is with Wharton's time in Europe, where effectively she moved in 1907 and stayed until her death in 1937. If she continued to write about America, it was now from the vantage point of another place and also, as with The Age of Innocence, another time.

Wharton knew Europe in general, and France in particular, to an extent that her close friend Henry James (with whose work, to her annoyance, hers was compared) did not. She spoke French, studied its literature, was familiar with its traditions. She was not like Fitzgerald's rich, in Tender is the Night (at the well- named Hotel des Etrangers), for whom France was a playground.

She was no Hemingway, revelling in the strength of the dollar and fetishising the life of the expatriate. James took British citizenship as a sentimental gesture of support during the First World War. By contrast Wharton, typically, set about organising support for refugees. She bought houses as an earnest that she meant to stay. She returned to America to an honorary degree from Yale, but never went home again.

What emerges from Lee's book is a portrait of a woman so confident and competent in public affairs, yet failing at crucial times to intervene in her own life. One proposed marriage never reached the altar. Her actual marriage seems to have given little in the way of sexual or romantic satisfaction. She and her husband lived for years in the 35-room The Mount as he slipped into manic depression and sought mistresses. Her own passionate affair left her momentarily in thrall to a man who finally cared little for her. With one man, Walter Berry, she traded love for friendship and imagined she had the better of the deal. He, by contrast, treasured what seems to have been a moment of passion for 40 years.

As Lee concedes, certain of Wharton's views are not likely to recommend themselves to today's readers. Women, she declared, are made for pleasure and procreation (odd, given how little of the first she gave or received, outside her books, and her own failure to procreate). She could be casually anti-Semitic and occasionally racist. She had no time for the jazz age (though Fitzgerald admired her, despite a disastrous meeting). Josephine Baker represented neither her idea of America or of France. She was sniffy about James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Yet she was generous with new, young writers.

Lee charts in detail her journeys through Europe, her observations about art and architecture. The great strength of a shrewd and elegantly written biography, however, lies not so much in the meticulous account of her European years - adding so much to our knowledge of Wharton - as in the human understanding she brings to bear. The Wharton who emerges is a writer whose work is so much more varied and powerful than for decades it was presumed to be - and Lee's analysis of these works is compelling.

She is also, however, a woman whose public success was always balanced by a sense of incompletion. It is tempting to think that, like Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence, she was ultimately left staring at a life which in some crucial sense she had failed to live. Lee ends her book by describing her attempts to tend to Wharton's overgrown and neglected grave. It was a gesture in keeping with her biography, which offers the same retrospective courtesy.

Christopher Bigsby is professor of American literature at the University of East Anglia