Edith Wharton (1862-1937) at the age of 27, posing with her beloved long-hair chihuahuas, Mimi and Miza.
Her eye was keen, her sense of the tragic rich. I think she knew fully she was capturing her age and class in a way no one else could.
At the start of A Backward Glance, her memoir, she describes herself:
“It was on a bright day of midwinter, in New York. The little girl who eventually became me, but as yet was neither me nor anybody else in particular, but merely a soft anonymous morsel of humanity — this little girl, who bore my name, was going for a walk with her father. The episode is literally the first thing I can remember about her, and therefore I date the birth of her identity from that day.”
She goes on to describe almost every article of clothing she had on, she with her perfect ability to capture physical details: her bonnet of gathered white satin, “patterned with a pink and green plaid in raised velvet.” It had “thick ruffles of silky blonde lace under the brim in front” and a “gossamer veil of the finest white Shetland wool.” She wore white woolen mittens.
This was the child who would at least skim every volume in her father’s library before she reached the age of seventeen. Poetry drew her: “Ah, the long music-drunken hours on that library floor, with Isaiah and the Song of Solomon and the Book of Esther, and ‘Modern Painters’, and Augustin Thierry’s Merovingians, and Knight’s ‘Half Hours’, and that rich mine of music, Dana’s ‘Household Book of Poetry.’ Faust, Keats and Shelley guided her to her ambition to be a writer.” Then the gates of the realms of gold swung wide, and from that day to this I don’t believe I was ever again, in my inmost self, wholly lonely or unhappy.
Not that she didn’t have some personal challenges. While she was born into a family of Jones and Rhinelanders and Rensselaers in lap-of-luxury New York (it is her father’s family that is referred to when people say “keeping up with the Joneses”) she suffered over a marriage to mentally unstable Teddy Wharton, whom she eventually divorced. She did not publish her great best-selling novel of manners, The House of Mirth, until 1905 — she was 43. The title came from Ecclesiastes: The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. Every word of that book is brilliant sadness.
Wharton describes the impetus for The House of Mirth in A Backward Glance, saying the question was how to make a meaningful story out of fashionable New York. The answer: “a frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys. Its tragic implication lies in its power of debasing people and ideas. The answer, in short, was my heroine, Lily Bart.”
A 1918 film of The House of Mirth starred debutante/silent actress Katherine Harris Barrymore (married to John Barrymore). In other words, a high-society young woman who could have been portrayed in the book starred in the movie. How strange and delicious, a dramatic detail worthy of Wharton.