By Hermione Lee
A big fat biography is a planted flag.
It’s a battle ensign, a summit marker, and a boundary sign. And, alas, it’s often all those things before it’s a book. Authors who spend so much time and energy crawling through letters, estate records, deeds of sale, hotel registers, and tertiary lawsuits – and, if they’re feeling industrious, their subject’s collected works – often come to think they have more important things to do than entertain us. They’re much more concerned with having all that tedium amount to something. They’re libidinous to be definitive.
It’s not possible, but shhh, don’t tell them. Some of us quite like big fat biographies and would hate to see the flow dry up.
Not that there’s any chance of that happening. As long as biographers feel the urge to render their subjects right down to their mitochondria, we will always have big fat biographies of all and sundry. And the same cast of subjects will be recalled on a regular basis, recycled, recast, refit for a new age, or a new perspective, or a sudden, new relevance. There will always be new biographies of FDR, but not so much of WHH (that would be William Henry Harrison), and this makes sense: it’s the great who pull our attention and stir our imaginings, and so they will always be revisited.
When it comes to Edith Wharton, one would think the shrewd and penetrating work of R.W.B. Lewis would plant a flag which wouldn’t be moved for a century at least. His work is solid, thorough, and surpassingly intelligent, a book Wharton herself would have thoroughly loathed for its skill in unearthing her secrets.
But no, time and Google searches wait for no man, and so comes Hermione Lee’s gigantic new biography of Wharton. The book comes after Lee’s wonderful, feeling biography of Virginia Woolf, and its flag couldn’t be planted more firmly. This, we are most assuredly meant to ascertain, is the definitive biography of Edith Wharton.
Lee is a naturally felicitous writer, and so her Edith Wharton isn’t the airless museum tour it might otherwise have been. Lee has a good ear for anecdote and an obvious sympathy for her subject, so there’s a vaguely organic wholesome feeling to her book.
Still, there’s an argument to be made that her book is roughly 500 pages too long. Wharton herself had a horror of biographers, and a great deal of her letters and personal effects were destroyed within a year of her death. Any self-respecting biography of hers should be short and incisive, concentrating on the surviving letters and the eternal works of art.
One of those works, her fussy, demonstrative book The Decoration of Houses, has recently been handsomely re-issued, and it reads like every reason in the world not to offer a revision of the reputation of Edith Wharton. The taffeta? The crinoline? The gilded wainscotting? Surely she was a creature of her time who wrote novels deeply conscribed to her times?
Well, we all know that last part isn’t true. Anybody who’s ever read one of Wharton’s masterpieces knows that she’s a genuine immortal, worthy of mention whenever and wherever great writing is discussed. As to the rest, perhaps we as readers want only silence. We’re wary of seeing how the stew is made.
Enter Lee, our indefatigable recipe mistress. She’s been through all the documentation on Edith Wharton, every last scrap of it, relevant or not (indeed, one of the sure-fire diagnostic signs of the big, fat biographers is that they’ve come to consider everything relevant), and this elephantine work is laid out like a gigantic banquet from which nobody is allowed to leave until every last morsel is forced down.
Critics have been mostly reverential of the work in question, but honestly, what choice did they have? Lee wrote a truly great, passionate biography of Virginia Woolf that everybody (including this reviewer) loved for its clarity and insight. This present volume arrives for its debutante ball chaperoned by an impenetrable cordon of matron aunts: Letitia Learning, Prudence Pedigree, and Flora Fluency, all three of them peering over their lorgnettes at any interloper who might dare to find fault with their plump and inexorable charge.
The planted flag says “Top This” and clearly believes no challengers will be forthcoming in the readers’ lifetime. Lewis’ book, with its sensational revelations about love affairs and its publication of a scandalous story-fragment, is not so much passed over in silence as it is buried under a long, steady snowfall of endless detail. Lewis’ volume hovers over this one; Lee has resorted to simply surmounting it by main force.
Which isn’t to say Lee’s volume on Wharton is redundant, far from it. For one thing, Lee can write rings around Lewis (although not around Louis Auchincloss, whose mercifully brief work on Wharton gets scant mention from present day reviewers despite being quite the most artful work yet written on the author); the level of prose here is not only high but luminous, worked to fluidity in every sentence and word choice. For another thing, as more than one critic has pointed out, Lee is superb in talking about and interpreting Wharton’s prose. Her readings of the major works will have you very promptly returning to them; her readings of what are currently considered minor works will have you prowling for them at the Strand. There’s something ultimately quite touching about Lee’s implied belief that even lesser or unformed works are not so much failures as steps along the way. Every major author should be treated with such implicit faith.
Lee’s faith isn’t blind faith, however. She’s alive to her subject’s faults and reports them with an unblinking albeit just that much disloyal thoroughness. Indeed, this warts-and-all approach is quite deliberately fashioned as one of the book’s unique features. As Michael Gorra writes in his TLS review, “It is not her biographer’s fault that some readers, myself among them, will finish this book liking Wharton the woman rather less than before.”
Nevertheless, Lee’s book is wrist-strainingly big and formidably documented, entirely concerned with an author whose best work is not only steeply intelligent but also typically left behind by even intellectual readers after college, in preference to easier and stupider authors working in Wharton’s long shadow.
Faced with this obstacle, this very considerable obstacle, most working reviewers have so far taken one of two paths: write about Edith Wharton, or write about writing about Edith Wharton. Very few choose to review the book itself, and those who do usually choose to chase their own private foxes through the hedgerows of Lee’s index, rather than tackle the work as a whole. The sheer length of the thing seems to invite such approaches.
Take for instance the exhaustive and exhausting review by Ruth Bernard Yeazell in The London Review of Books. To listen to Ms. Yeazell, all Lee’s patient scholarship is reduced to simply standing around with a portable tape-recorder: four times, we’re told “Lee notes,” three times apiece “Lee reports” and “Lee records,” and there’s a smattering of “demonstrates,” “documents,” and “makes clears” in there too. Ninety-five percent of her review is her own recapitulation of the facts of Wharton’s life and times, but when she does get around to talking about Lee’s book itself, she echoes most reviewers by alluding to its size:
Hermione Lee has faithfully travelled with Wharton on her many voyages, but I can’t help wondering if she was not sometimes tempted to jump ship.
William Pritchard of The Boston Globe agrees and expands:
The biographer’s painstakingness, however, comes close to wearing out any reader less than absolutely determined to get all the lowdown on houses, gardens, and travels…. Lee describes everything most fully, names the names and species of every dog Wharton ever owned, every bit of food and drink consumed, and the names and prices of each ordered bottle of wine.
It’s easy to hear the complaint of the deadlined writer in such exaggerations, and that complaint crops up in virtually every major review of the book. John Updike, writing in The New Yorker, puts it this way:
…something slightly heavy and lustreless weighs on the big pages as Lee inventories the many members of Wharton’s extensive acquaintance and tracks her avid travels through the American Northeast and Europe and North Africa; each page begins to loom as a cliff that the reader must scale upside-down, top to bottom.
(Those of you scratching your heads at the slightly weird phrasing and imagery of that quote will appreciate knowing that Updike’s prose continues to reveal him as one of the least gifted of our current literary grandees. His review is studded with such examples, among the worst of which is this little linguistic pretzel:
As Wharton’s reputation gradually emerged, after her death, in 1937, from under the cloud of her late, commercially successful but critically denigrated novels and the impression they reinforced of a facile, popular “lady novelist,” she has not lacked for biographical and critical attention.)
In The New York Times Book Review, Claire Messud makes mention of the “almost alarming” thoroughness of Lee’s book and strikes a note similar to Gorra, noticing a “slight air of unfulfillment, as if for her biographer Wharton were ultimately more an admirable effort than a beloved subject.” She and Updike both point out that this dutiful feeling is entirely absent from Lee’s work on Woolf, and it’s a valid point. Biographers (especially marathoners like Lee) always run the risk of becoming disenchanted with their subjects. The real concern is whether any disenchantment the writer might feel is allowed to distort the account they’re writing.
There’s no hint of this in Lee’s book. It’s scrupulously well-balanced throughout its entire length, presenting everything to its readers and allowing them to draw their own conclusions about Wharton. Lee has over-packed her book with superfluous details, yes, but on her main subject she’s unfailingly sympathetic but not sycophantic. The marvel here is the balance she manages to maintain throughout, presenting in the same lucid, clear light both things that reflect well on Wharton and things that reflect not so well. This judiciousness on Lee’s part is hugely aided by her happy ability to sift for the pitch-perfect little anecdote or incident. The book is full of these disarmingly human little moments, and few are better than the following:
A fine example of [Wharton’s] masterful attention to detail is found in a heated communication dictated in December 1917 – when Wharton had plenty of more important things to concern her – to the owner of an umbrella shop.
“Mrs. Wharton begs to inform Mr. Brigg that about a month ago she took to his shop to be repaired an umbrella which she had bought from him and of which the spring was broken … After waiting eight days … the woman in the shop said it had come back from the workroom but that she had mislaid it. After another delay … it was returned to Mrs. Wharton … [but] on opening it in the rain she found that the repair had not been made, and that the umbrella would not stay open. As it was raining hard and Mrs. Wharton was on foot, she went at once to Mr. Brigg’s shop and … asked for the loan of an umbrella for an hour. The woman replied that she was very sorry but she could not lend an umbrella to Mrs. Wharton as there were none in the shop. Mrs. Wharton mentioned that she had been a client of your house for at least twenty years, and as she saw about 100 umbrellas before her eyes, she could not understand the answer. Thee reply was that it was impossible to lend her a new umbrella for an hour as she might damage it … Mrs. Wharton left the shop taking her broken umbrella away and she now writes to Mr. Brigg in the faith that he would not wish to have a client treated by his representatives with such discourtesy. He is probably aware that there is not a dressmaker or milliner who would not lend a cloak or a hat for an hour to a well-known customer in a similar case …”
This was what Elisina Tyler could call “Edith at her Edithest.”
The inclusion of the anecdote is illuminating in its own right (Lee wishes us to see her subject clearly, the good and the bad, the high-minded and the petty), but it’s Lee’s tone – affectionate but slightly exasperated – that makes it a living brush-stroke in the vast portrait she’s painting. Wharton is presented in all her florid complications. The more personal passion that Lee brought to her work on Virginia Woolf is missing here, but it has been replaced by a magisterial tone that’s not one bit less enjoyable. (Even Wharton’s friends were often forced to admit that the sheer size of her life defied conventional responses; the aforementioned Elisina Tyler once remarked of Wharton: “One must give her rope because she is a full-rigged vessel and cannot manoeuvre in a toilet basin.”)
Edmund White’s review in The New York Review of Books underscores the literary skill Lee brings to her subject:
Hermione Lee’s triumph lies in rendering the dynamism and integrity of this sometimes remote and always willful and stoic woman without leaving out the nuances, the soft exceptions and endearing contradictions
(White is thoroughly delightful to read on Wharton, as in this passage where he expands on those contradictions:
Even in the best of Wharton, I’d hazard, there is always something slightly trashy – not in the sex scenes, which are usually convincing and deeply felt and shockingly intimate, but in the melodramatic plot twists, as though Henry James and Wilkie Collins were always struggling over her soul.)
The most important point to be made about Lee’s book, then, is not about its length or reserve of feeling but rather that it is always interesting. At no point in the book does her enthusiasm for her task wane, and this makes it impossible for ours to wane either. After having quoted a letter Wharton wrote in 1914 (before she took up her charity work in France), Lee bounds back on stage, as eager on page 460 to talk about Edith Wharton as she will be on page 760:
This is Wharton in full spate, intelligent, emphatic, busy, strong-willed, impatient, wanting her own way, slightly condescending to anyone not in the know, and quick to pass judgement: all the qualities she would soon be using on behalf of others, not for herself.
For 869 pages, through letters, estate records, deeds of sale, hotel registers, and tertiary lawsuits, the sharp, precise flair of Lee’s prose, her incessant storytelling and keen appreciation of her subject, keeps the reader turning pages. As Brenda Wineapple puts it in her review in The Nation (the best overall review yet to appear), “This is academic criticism at its best, the sort painfully out of fashion in the academy.”
There will be other biographies of Edith Wharton, and perhaps they will be very, very long and very good. But as Lewis’s book was the best in the 20th century, so it seems likely Lee’s will be the best in the 21st. Future climbers will find this flag well planted.
Steve Donoghue was forced into long-term exile in Rhode Island after being accused by John Winthrop of “infernal and diabolical wizardry.” He has since moved back to his ancestral estate in Massachusetts and is busy redacting his diaries from that time. In addition, he hosts the literary blog Stevereads at www.stevereads.blogspot.com.