Edith Wharton: Harmonic Pretense

DATELINE: America’s Great Woman Writer

edith & dogs

Wharton also Wrote about Ghostly Dogs!

Like Henry James, one of the great American writers is a person who lived too long in foreign places.

Edith Wharton is presented in a documentary called The Sense of Harmony, which presents in somewhat disjointed form, her odd life. She was from the New York self-ordained aristocracy, socializing with a world alien from the real America of the 19th century. She is certainly at the polar opposite of Calamity Jane.

Wharton crossed the Atlantic on steamship 66 times in her life. Though she never gave up her American citizenship, and her greatest fictions were set in the United States, she lived mostly abroad in France.

You likely know her from the stories made into movies over decades:  Ethan Frome, Age of Innocence, The Old Maid, House of Mirth, all presenting scandal under the veneer of well-appointed homes.

Indeed, she began writing with an architect about interior design of houses. Though her novels sold and made money, she really had no need of it—except to live the way she wanted.

There was only a hint of scandal in her own life, though she often wrote about its corrosive secrets. She divorced and had one affair with a protégé of Henry James.

She also was the first woman to go to the front at Verdun in World War I and write about it. France considered her a war hero for tireless volunteering to help refugees and children.

Wharton famously has a haunted mansion in Lenox, Massachusetts, where she spent surprisingly little time. Perhaps ghosts frightened her, though she wrote many short stories about the paranormal. Her most famous tale, “Roman Fever,” again focused on upper-crust society.

She loved a good tale, well-told, and was planning a short story on a horror anecdote about the Titanic she had learned, but never actually finished. You might be driven to check out her less well-known tales from watching this documentary.