Biography of Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones on January 24, 1862 in New York City. Her parents, George and Lucretia Jones, had roots in aristocracy dating back three centuries. As a daughter of society, Edith was expected to learn the mannerisms and rituals that were appropriate to her social class. She would later rebel against this role when she became a celebrated author. Rather than the limited scope of her schoolwork, Wharton based her books on research she did in her her father's library and lessons she learned from her governesses at home and in Europe.

In 1885, Edith married Teddy Wharton, who was twelve years older than her and hailed from a similar social background. They lived a relatively comfortable life with homes in New York, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. Slowly, Wharton grew dissatisfied with her limited role of wife and society matron, compounded by Teddy's inability to match her wit and creative spirit. Her restlessness and anxiety likely contributed to her depression. She was treated throughout the 1890s and her condition prevented her from publishing her work until she was 36. By 1908, Wharton had begun an affair with Morton Fullerton, a journalist for the London Times living in Paris. She recorded all the details of their deeply intellectual and passionate relationship in her personal diaries. She eventually divorced Teddy Wharton in 1913.

Between 1900 and 1938, Wharton wrote over 40 books, both novels and short stories. Widespread public recognition of Wharton's talent began after the House of Mirth was published in 1905. The fictional novel was based on an in-depth exploration of American society. After that, Wharton became increasingly prolific. Ethan Frome was published in 1911 and in 1921, she won the Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence, which many scholars and critics consider to be her best work.

Wharton's life changed when World War I began. She traveled extensively by motorcar through Europe, opening schools and hostels for refugees in northern France and Belgium. She also wrote reports for American publications, supporting American involvement in the war. After the war, Wharton only returned to the United States once in her lifetime (to accept her Pulitzer prize).

Throughout her life, Wharton frequently held salon, hosting gatherings where the most gifted intellectuals of her time could share thoughts and discuss ideas. Teddy Roosevelt, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway were all Wharton's guests at one time or another. Besides these salons, Wharton's friendship with Henry James had an immense influence on her work. Wharton continued writing voraciously until her death at age 75 in France. She is buried in the American Cemetery at Versailles.


Study Guides on Works by Edith Wharton

Ethan Frome was published in 1911, when Wharton was already an established and successful writer. She lived primarily in Paris between 1905 and the outbreak of World War II, and these years were productive. She was growing more self-assured in her...

The House of Mirth was published in 1905 when Edith Wharton was forty-three. She had done very little fiction writing up to that point but had some practice with volumes of short stories and an historical "romantic chronicle" called The...