Sunday, January 24, 2016

Today in History

Edith Wharton as a young girl (painting by Edward Harrison May)
Edith as painted by Edward Harrison May (1870)

Edith Wharton was born

On this day in 1862, Edith Wharton* was born as Edith Newbold Jones in New York City. She was born to wealthy socialites, George Frederic Jones and Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander. If you've heard the phrase "keeping up with the Jones" - her father's family were those Jones, literally. Edith had two older brothers, Frederic Rhinelander and Henry Edward.

Edith spent much of her childhood traveling in Europe with her family, where she learned French, German, and Italian. She was educated by tutors and spent much time reading. She wrote poetry and fiction, starting her first novel at age eleven. Writing professionally was not considered socially acceptable for women of her class ("the only time a lady's name should appear in print is when she is born, when she is married, and when she dies"), so she did much of her writing anonymously. Her first publication, for example, was published under the name of her friend's father, E. A. Washburn, who encouraged her write.

At age 23 she married fellow socialite Edward Wharton, who shared her love of travel. The match was not a happy one, and the couple divorced in 1913. It was at this point that she returned to writing, mainly concerned with the theme of upper-classes dealing with unhappy marriages and families.
Edith Wharton's most famous works are House of Mirth, which was a best-seller when published in 1905, the novella Ethan Frome, and the 1920 novel Age of Innocence, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1921. She was the first woman to receive the Pulitzer. She was also nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1927, 1928, and 1930.

Edith was in Paris when World War I broke out. She remained there and was big supporter of France's war effort, doing charity work for refugees and traveling to the front lines. For her efforts, she was awarded Chevalier of the Legion of Honour, France's highest award, in 1916. She loved France and remained there until her death, from a stroke following a heart attack, in 1937.

Personally I have found Wharton's books to be engrossing but terribly sad. There have been excellent screen adaptations of her works.

*Links go to Amazon

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