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Hermione Lee on
Edith Wharton

Books & Editions

Edith Wharton. Chatto & Windus, 2007 (hardback).

Edith Wharton. Alfred A. Knopf, 2007 (hardback).

Edith Wharton. Vintage, January 2008 (paperback).

Edith Wharton will be reissued in June 2013. Details forthcoming.


About the biography:

A rich new life of a great novelist. The first biography of Edith Wharton by a British woman writer, it challenges the accepted view, showing Wharton's lifelong ties to Europe and displaying her as a tough, erotically brave, startlingly modern writer and woman.

The name 'Edith Wharton' conjures up 'Gilded Age' New York, in all its snobbery and ruthlessness - the world of The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth. This major new biography upsets the stereotype. This Edith Wharton is not the genteel, nostalgic chronicler of a vanished age but a fiercely modern author, writing of sex, love, money and war - a woman of strong convictions and conflicting ambitions and desires.

Born in 1862 during the Civil War, Wharton broke away from her wealthy background and travelled extensively and adventurously in Europe, eventually settling in Paris. During the First World War she committed herself heroically to war-work and lived in France, her 'second country', until her death in 1937. She created fabulous homes in New England and France, and her life was filled with remarkable friends, including Henry James, Bernard Berenson, Aldous Huxley and Kenneth Clark. She ran her professional life with energy, writing on her travels and on Italian villas and gardens, and publishing poetry, plays, essays and short stories as well as her powerful novels. But Wharton had her secrets, including a passionate secret mid-life love affair. She was unhappily married, childless and divorced, and knew loneliness and anguish. Her brilliant, disturbing fiction shows her deep understanding of the longing and struggle in women's lives.

This masterly biography delves into every aspect of Wharton's extraordinary life-story. It shifts the emphasis towards Europe and places her more clearly than ever before in her social context and her history. In particular, it shows in fascinating detail how she worked and what lies at the heart of her magnificent and subtle books.

Reviews of Hermione Lee's Edith Wharton

'Grand Dame.' The Economist, 27 January 2007 [Quote: "Hermione Lee has written a fascinating portrait of a brilliant writer"].

Tóibín, Colm. 'Doyenne of Disappointment.' The Irish Times, 27 January 2007: 10 [Quote: "[Lee's] subtle and painstaking ability to illuminate the work with the life, and to make the life itself so interesting makes this a superb biography"].

Shilling, Jane. 'A Late and Lonely Flowering.' The Times (London), 27 January 2007 [Quote: "Epic and definitive"].

Bostridge, Mark. Independent on Sunday, 28 January 2007 [Quote: "Edith Wharton..could scarcely have failed to be impressed by its artistic sympathy, its sonorous depths, and its soaring conception. This is a glorious biography"].

Kemp, Peter. 'The Edge of Innocence'. Sunday Times Books, 28 January 2007: 49 [Quote: "Adding impressive depth and nuance to the received portrait of Wharton, Lee's biography excels in its discussions of her writing. There are superbly acute appreciations of works such as The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence"].

Moore, Caroline. Sunday Telegraph, 28 January 2007: 43 [Quote: "Excellent...deals superbly with the many strands of Wharton’s life...A magnificent and subtle biography of a magnificent and subtle writer"].

Publishers Weekly, 29 January 2007 [Starred Review; Quote: "Superb new biography...a vivid masterpiece...meticulous research...Lee exhibits an intuitive empathy with her subject....and thus animates Wharton as a fully dimensional figure of complex and contradictory values and impulses...a major achievement"].

Boddy, Kasia. 'A Lady Who Consumed Worlds'. Daily Telegraph, 4 February 2007 [Quote: "Painstaking and elegant...Her method is itself very Whartonian...One of this book’s great pleasures is Lee’s discussion of Wharton’s work"].

Gorra, Michael. 'Edith Wharton's Passionate Realism'. Times Literary Supplement, 7 February 2007 [Quote: "Lee’s portraiture at its best seems Proustian. Time passes, but we glide forward without seeming to"].

Sutherland, John. 'Because She's Worth It'. Financial Times, 9 February 2007 [Quote: "Lee reconstructs Wharton’s physical world (notably her houses), her intellectual cultural world, and her social world(s) in fine detail. It is done brilliantly. Anyone embarking on a reading of Wharton will deny themselves full appreciation if they do not consult Lee, whose biography is now the necessary accompaniment"]

Showalter, Elaine. 'Untidying the Drawing-room'. The Guardian, 10 February 2007 [Quote: "Monumentally conceived and impressively executed...comprehensive and insightful...Lee is out to understand Wharton, not to vilify or sanctify her...Neither Wharton nor the reader should have cause for complaint"].

Spurling, Hilary. 'The Grandest Grande Dame'. The Observer, 11 February 2007 [Quote: "Moving...monumental and exhaustive"].

Anderson, Hephzhibah. Vogue, 2007 [Quote: "Gracious and judicious...In its contagious love of Wharton’s tremendous oeuvre, Lee’s portrait blossoms into a thing of beauty in its own right"].

Johnson, Susan. 'Out of the Shadows'. Sydney Morning Herald, 24 February 2007 [Profile and interview with Hermione Lee with statements by Julian Barnes].

Bolick, Kate. 'Q&A with Hermione Lee'. Boston Globe, 1 April 2007: E3.

Simon, Linda. 'A Pillar of Society.' Newsday, 15 April 2007: C27.

Updike, John. 'The Changeling'. New Yorker 83.8 (16 April 2007): 154-157.

Pritchard, William H. 'Despite her close ties to Europe, Edith Wharton remained a writer focused on America and Americans'. Boston Globe, 22 April 2007: E6.

Messud, Claire. 'Portrait of a Lady'. New York Times Book Review, 29 April 2007

Additional works on Wharton

Lecture on Edith Wharton
(New York Society Library, 27 March 2012)


Edith Wharton. The Mother's Recompense. Virago, 1995.

Edith Wharton's Library: A Catalogue. Compiled by George Ramsden. Settrington: Stone Trough Books, 1999.

Writings on Wharton

'A Great House Full of Rooms'. Lives for Sale: Biographers' Tales. Ed. Mark Bostridge. London: Continuum, 2004. pp. 31-37.

'An American in Paris.' Guardian Review, 20 January 2007 [On Wharton's admiration for 'French civilisation' and her shame at US foreign policy].

Review Articles

'Wooing the Master'. Times Literary Supplement 4547 (25-31 May 1990): 547-548.

'The Unknown Edith Wharton'. New York Review of Books 48.15 (4 October 2001): 19 [Rev. of Edith Wharton: Collected Stories, 1891-1910 and Edith Wharton: Collected Stories, 1911-1937, selected and with notes by Maureen Howard. Published by the Library of America].

'Passionate Pilgrim'. New York Review of Books 51.17 (4 November 2004): 42-43 [Rev. of The Cruise of the Vanadis, by Edith Wharton].


'Work in Progress'. BBC Radio 3, January 2002 [Five short programmes on Wharton].

'The Proper Vehicle of Passion' [with Julian Barnes]. BBC Radio 4 [Two-part journey in the footsteps fo Edith Wharton and Henry James. Episode One: 'A Cathedral Surrounded by a Blur'. 29 April 2004. Episode Two: 'Pigging It'. 6 May 2004].

Praise for Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton has been short listed for the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography.

Edith Wharton was selected as one of the Washington Post and The Economist's 10 best books of 2007.

Edith Wharton was selected as one of the NYTBR and Publishers' Weekly 100 best books of 2007.

“Lively ... Insightful ... Thorough and intelligent ...This meticulous, generous biography is likely to suffice for a long time ... One can at last grasp the full range of Wharton’s writing and the full power of her energy.”
– Diane Johnson, Washington Post Book World

“A splendid biography, extremely rich in social and historical detail, a telling picture of the many years Wharton’s life spanned ... Biography is usually the revenge of little people on big people ...but Lee is subtle and big-hearted enough to understand her subject ... Lee never reduces Wharton’s books to veiled autobiography, just as she is never reluctant to interpret them in the light of Wharton’s life ... A sophisticated, finely written portrait ... Edith Wharton would have been horrified by the ‘indiscretions’ in this biography, but it is the balanced, richly detailed, and researched portrait she deserves.”
– Edmund White, The New York Review of Books

“A rich tapestry. There is so much here ... Edith Wharton shimmers with details about a vanished world, and Lee ... brings it to vivid life.”
– Jacqueline Blais, USA Today

“A remarkable feat ... Nobody has done Edith Wharton such careful justice as Lee.”
– Claire Messud, New York Times Book Review

“Magnificent ... Unsurpassable in scope and surely in sensitivity ... Filled to bursting with the friends, travels, projects and writings that engaged Wharton’s attention and energies.”
– Linda Simon, Newsday

“Groundbreaking ... A sophisticated, persuasive, powerfully intelligent masterwork.”
– Lisa Shea, Elle

“Enables readers to feel they have known Mrs. W. all their lives.”
– Barbara Amiel, Wall Street Journal

“Stunning ... Rich ... Wonderfully humanizing.”
– Megan O’Grady, Vogue

“Rich ... Fine ... Much more than a literary study.”
– Bruce Allen, The Washington Times

“Elegant ... not only the best book on its subject, but one of the finest literary biographies to appear in recent years.”
– Greg Johnson, Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“A fascinating portrait of a brilliant writer.”
The Economist

“Absorbing ... An exemplary biography ... Sure to be the standard work on Wharton for years to come.”

“A major achievement ... In no other biography is there a more perceptive analysis of how Wharton’s life was reflected in her work.”
Publishers Weekly

“Tremendous ... Enlightening ... Rises to landmark status ... The formidable Mrs. Wharton is given great humanity here.”

“The fullest biography of Wharton to date ... Superb in using the fiction as a way to read the life, defining their relation in a way that is at once seamless but never simplified ... Lee’s portraiture at its best seems Proustian.”
– Michael Gorra, Times Literary Supplement (London)

“Monumentally conceived and impressively executed ... Lee is out to understand Wharton, not to vilify or sanctify her ... She is a discriminating and generous critic who offers full, fresh and incisive discussions of all the novels and scores of the short stories.”
– Elaine Showalter, The Guardian (London)

“Epic and definitive ... Lee is a confident and vivid critic.”
– Jane Shilling, The Times (London)

“This is a glorious biography ... The time is ripe for a new biography of Edith Wharton of this intimacy and on this scale ... Lee the biographer pursues her subject down every winding corridor, into every hidden passage and dark corner ... Her critical exploration of Edith Wharton’s work is dazzlingly assured ... A feat of exhaustive research, and finely tuned to Wharton’s creative achievement at the same time ... [Wharton] could scarcely have failed to be impressed by ... its artistic sympathy, its sonorous depths, and its soaring conception.”
– Mark Bostridge, The Independent on Sunday (London)

“Excellent ... Particularly masterful in her discussion of Wharton’s fiction ... A magnificent and subtle biography of a magnificent and subtle writer.”
– Caroline Moore, Sunday Telegraph (London)

“Lee’s subtle and painstaking ability to illuminate the work with the life, and to make the life itself so interesting makes this a superb biography.”
– Colm Tóibín, The Irish Times


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Last update: 4 June 2013

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