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Edith Wharton


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Hermione Lee is the first woman Goldsmiths' Professor of English at Oxford University. Her books include the internationally acclaimed biography, Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather, and Body Parts: Essays on Life-writing. She is also a well-known critic, and is the Chair of the Judges for the Man Booker Prize, 2006.


Lee (English, Oxford Univ.) has already tackled several prominent women modernists in her scholarly biographies of Virginia Woolf (1997) and Willa Cather (1990). Here, she presents an exhaustively researched and incredibly detailed biography of American writer Edith Wharton (1862-1937). Drawing on previously unavailable sources, Lee succeeds in eclipsing R.W.B. Lewis's excellent eponymous Wharton biography of 1975. Her conscientious research and attunement to her subject render a three-dimensional portrait of this complex woman. Wharton defied the conventions of her time and station in life to live an unusual and productive life, authoring numerous novels and short stories and becoming the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for a novel (The Age of Innocence, 1921). Lee teases out the ways in which Wharton's personal life-her unhappy marriage to a sportsman husband with no intellectual interests; her short, mid-life affair with "frightful bounder" Morton Fullerton; her ambiguous relationship to society-informed her writing, adding to our understanding of both the woman and her literary output. Highly recommended for academic and public libraries.-Alison M. Lewis, Drexel Univ. Lib., Philadelphia Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.

One might think that R.W.B. Lewis's excellent 1975 biography had precluded the need for another book about Edith Wharton. Not so. Reading Lee's superb new biography is akin to comparing a fine watercolor sketch to a vivid masterpiece. Access to previously unrevealed letters, and the same meticulous research for which her Virginia Woolf biography was praised, allow Lee to illuminate many dark corners of Wharton's life and to reinterpret previously accepted opinions. Most important, Lee exhibits an intuitive empathy with her subject (never glossing over her less admirable characteristics) and thus animates Wharton as a fully dimensional figure of complex and contradictory values and impulses-a woman of fierce ambition and lingering self-doubt, of generous friendships and ignoble snobbery and prejudices, with a zest for travel and adventure despite frequent, debilitating ill health. Lee challenges several traditional stereotypes about Wharton, including her literary relationship with Henry James-more peer than acolyte, Lee shows-and with Walter Berry and Bernard Berenson. (Although she provides many instances of Wharton's violent anti-Semitism, Lee does not note the paradox of Wharton's close relationship with Berenson.) In no other biography is there a more perceptive analysis of how Wharton's life was reflected in her work. Her nightmarish marriage and midlife passionate affair with Morton Fullerton, the straitjacket social code that she violated by seeking a divorce were transmogrified in the novels, stories and poetry (some of it erotic). Lee's portrait of Wharton as a strong-willed woman determined to surmount the background she drew on for inspiration, a woman obsessed with "double lives, repression, sexual hypocrisy, hidden longings," is a major achievement. 24 pages of photos. 75,000 first printing. (Apr. 30) Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.

"A remarkable feat. . . . Unquestionably authoritative, impressively exhaustive....Nobody has done Edith Wharton such careful justice as [Hermione] Lee." --Claire Messud, The New York Times Book Review

"Magnificent. . . . By far the most comprehensive study of [Wharton's] full, populous and robust life. . . . Wharton lived a spirited and passionate life, and Lee captures that passion." --Newsday "Thorough and intelligent. . . . This meticulous, generous biography is likely to suffice for a long time." --Diane Johnson, The Washington Post Book World "Richly detailed, carefully nuanced. . . . Edith Wharton is not only the best book on its subject, but one of the finest literary biographies to appear in recent years." --The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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