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Paperback review: Edith Wharton, By Hermione Lee

Stick to the facts, not fairy stories

As a child, Edith Wharton "despised – even feared – fairy stories." But why? Hermione Lee won't speculate, privileging over guesswork the facts of Edith's early abortive engagement to Henry Leyden Stevens, her parents' wealth in upper-middle class New York, her marriage to the seemingly outgoing Teddy Wharton which would descend into misery as his mental health deteriorated, and the glittering literary career from The House of Mirth to Hudson River Bracketed.

It makes for an authoritative biography that Edith herself would probably have liked. Lee pours cold water on the idea that an early meeting between Walter Berry, a future amour, and Edith pushed her into a bad marriage on the rebound (she warns us not to read back from the letters Berry wrote as a man in his 40s to what he felt in his 20s); doubts Edith's illnesses in her 20s were "a psychosomatic reaction to her marriage" as she also led "a complicated, active, energetic" life while she was depressed; pays much attention to early non-fiction work such as The Decoration of Houses, and the efforts Edith made while living in France during the First World War.

Facts obscure as much as they reveal, and Lee is too smart to be led along false roads. But in her relationship with her troubled husband and lovers, we glimpse the private Edith Wharton; in her friendship with Henry James we see her competitive streak, her worry that she would never be both popular and a critical success. Ultimately, what the young Edith feared about fairy tales is hard to guess without more of this kind of private understanding.