This summer biographies have taken over my study. I have been reading about some very inspiring women: Vita Sackville-West, Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton, to name a few. Their stories are as thrilling as any of their novels. They were visionaries and adventurers, original thinkers and risk-takers. Recently I have been reading about one of the most fascinating: Edith Wharton. Her intellect, energy, and lifelong curiosity were legendary. She was a master storyteller, chronicler of American society, and a supremely gifted writer. This woman was a force to be reckoned with.
Here are some of the highlights:
1866: At age four, the American writer Edith Wharton was taken by her parents for an extended visit to Europe where they stayed until 1872. By the time she was 18 she had lived half her life in Europe and could speak four languages.
1897: Her first book, The Decoration of Houses, written with the Boston architect Ogden Codman, was published by Scribners. Wharton was as passionate and knowledgeable about architecture and interior design as she was about writing novels. Hugely successful, this book had a major impact on interior design both in America and Europe.
1901: Edith purchased a 113-acre property in Lenox, Mass. and began building The Mount, a classical estate modeled after Belton House in England. Edith designed and supervised the building of the house and gardens, using what she had learned from her years of living in Europe. She lived there from 1902-1911. During that time, she entertained many prominent writers, artists and politicians including President Theodore Roosevelt, writer Henry James, diplomat Walter Berry, landscape designer Beatrix Ferrand and sculptor Daniel French. And it is where she wrote The House of Mirth.
1904: Her book Italian Villas and Their Gardens was published. This was a series of articles on Italian architecture and gardens commissioned by Century Magazine. She traveled to Italy and drove all around the countryside looking at villas and doing extensive research. The articles came out in book form with illustrations by her friend the artist Maxfield Parrish.
1905: Her novel The House of Mirth was published in serial form. When it came out in book form, it was an instant bestseller and stayed on the bestseller list until 1906. It established Edith Wharton as America's most admired writer.
1911: She left the Mount for good and moved to France where she lived for the rest of her life. When World War I broke out, Edith put aside her writing and became involved in the war efforts.
1915: She organized the Children of Flanders Rescue Committee to aid Belgian orphans during the war. She also worked to aid tubercular soldiers and visited front lines and battle areas with her lifelong friend Walter Berry.
1916: She was recognized by France for her war efforts and made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, the highest honor that France could award any civilian. She was recognized for "having given all possible assistance to refugees from those areas of France and Belgium invaded by the enemy."
1920: Her 12th novel The Age of Innocence was published and awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
1923: She was the first woman to be awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Letters by Yale University
1937: By the time of her death she had written over a dozen works of non-fiction (design, architecture, travel, memoirs) as well as at least 40 books of fiction (novels, novellas, and short stories). Some of the most famous are: The House of Mirth, Age of Innocence, Ethan Frome, The Custom of the Country, Summer, The Buccaneers, and Old New York.
At age 74 she called herself "an incorrigible life-lover and life-wanderer and adventurer."
She mused about "this wonderful adventure of living."
She wrote in her memoir:
"Life is the saddest thing there is, next to death; and yet there are always new countries to see, new books to read, a thousand little daily wonders to marvel at and rejoice in..."
FASCINATING DETAIL: She spent the mornings writing in bed, tossing the pages onto the floor for her secretary Anna Bahlmann to type.
LOVE OF HER LIFE: Walter Berry. Although she had a short love affair with Morton Fullerton during the final years of her marriage to Teddy Wharton, she called Walter Berry "the love of all my life."
Curious and always interested in the world, Edith Wharton lived a full life. She was an adventurer, brilliant and bold, unafraid to take risks and tackle big projects. Luckily for us, she wrote many literary masterpieces that will live on forever. They speak to us because she was so wise about the human heart. Everyone can relate to the heartbreak she describes. She also built The Mount, another creation that will live on forever and a place we can visit and feel her presence. If you haven't been and find yourself in Lenox, Massachusetts, be sure to visit! Go here to find out more.
Now I need to find out about Walter Berry, the "love of all her life"?!! Who exactly was he?
I would love to know which women writers inspire you?