The product of weathy, aristocratic New York City society, of people who could trace their ancestry to old Dutch and English settlers and who considered themselves above the masses, Edith Wharton was born Edith Jones in 1862. Her father lived on inherited wealth and her mother valued social standing above all else. Little girls in Edith's social class did not go to school, so Edith was given her lessons by a governess. She spent her early years in Europe where she learned French and three other languages and where she was introduced to art, architecture and literature. Her family returned to New York in 1872 and Edith was given the run of her father's extensive library. She read all the classics and spent many happy hours in the library. At the age of 16 her poems "Verses" was published privately. She and others girls her age attended balls both in New York and Newport, always with people in her same privileged social class. Still unmarried at age 23, she was in danger of becoming "an old maid." Such was the restrictive view of women held by her social circle. In 1885 she married Edward Wharton and became Mrs. Edith Wharton, a married woman who was expected to be content to attend parties, have tea with other women and produce children. The marriage was not a happy one. Her husband was not her intellectual equal and was not interested in literature, art and architecture. They had little in common, except travel, houses, gardens and dogs--that was not enough to sustain a marriage, especially when Edward started to exhibit strange behavior. Doctors determined that he was suffering from an incurable depression ( Edith also eventually discovered that he was taking money from her inheritance). Despite these personal difficulties, Edith co-authored a major book on design and architecture in 1897--"The Decoration of Houses."
In 1901 Edith, on her own, bought over 100 acres of land in Lenox, in the Berkshire mountains. She designed and built a beautiful home, "The Mount," The gardens, interior design and architecture were all carefully planned. The home can be visited today and people who come can walk through the gardens and tour the house.
Despite her marital difficulties, Wharton began publishing books of fiction at the age of 36. Her family never fully approved of her profession--only one relative over all the years she was writing asked her about her work. In 1905 Wharton published her first successful novel-"The House of Mirth." She continued to write when she sold her home in the Berkshires in 1911 and moved to France. Also in 1911 she published "Ethan Frome" one of her most important novels. While still married, she began an affair with Morton Fullerton, a journalist for the "London Times." She finally divorced her husband in 1913 and decided to live permanently in France. She would make few trips back to the United States. One was in 1923 ( the final trip) to receive an honorary doctorate from Yale, the first woman to receive such a degree.
Wharton loved France and made many friends there: writers, artists and other intellectuals. When World War I started in 1914, Wharton did not return to the United States. Rather she stayed in Paris and worked to create many charitable organizations. She established workrooms for unemployed skilled women and made certain they were paid. She started convalescent homes, hostels for refugees and schools for children fleeing Belgium. She went to the Front with a close friend, Walter Berry, and soldiers. Her efforts earned her the French Legion of Honor in 1916.
After the war, Wharton moved out of Paris to a suburban villa where she lived during the summer and to another home in the south of France during the winter. In 1921 she published "The Age of Innocence" for which she won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Always productive, she continuesd to write. All told Wharton published over 35 books and short stories. She was a product of "Old New York" and its wealth, She knew the culture of this long ago time and was an acute critic and observer of people caught up in social conventions and bad relationships. She was critical of the obstacles women faced--but also of the restrictions men faced who believed they had to conform to certain norms of behavior. She was made a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters and in 1934 was elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She was a person of great charm,energy, and intellect who enjoyed life. She died on August 11, 1937 at the age of 75 and is buried in the Protestant cemetery in Versailles, close to her dear friend, Walter Berry.