Master and Protégé

As the 150th anniversary of Edith Wharton’s birth arrives tomorrow, we remember her as an author popular in her own age and ours; an interior and landscape designer; an “haute bourgeoisie” New Yorker; after 1911, an American expatriate in France; a self-described “rabid” supporter of French imperialism; and, since September 2010, at least, as a forerunner to the popular British soap opera Downton Abbey.

In 1920, Wharton became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Age of Innocence; the controversy surrounding this decision further sheds light on the society that Wharton famously exposed and subtly critiqued in her novels.

Before she moved permanently to Europe, Wharton traveled there frequently and her path, almost inevitably, intersected with that of Henry James. They didn’t become friends, however, until after he read one of her short stories and wrote to her in praise of it. From the letter:

. . . And I applaud, I mean I value, I egg you on in, your study of the American life that surrounds you. Let yourself go in it & at it – it’s an untouched field, really: the folk who try, over there, don’t come within miles of any civilized, however superficially, any “evolved” life. And use to the full your ironic and satiric gifts; they form a most valuable (I hold) & beneficent engine.

The friendship forged a connection that would lead to an unusual act of generosity undertaken by Wharton in 1912, toward the end of James’s life, an act that biographer Leon Edel, nonetheless, describes as “meddlesome”:

Edith Wharton…entered into a secret correspondence with her publisher in America – who was also Henry James’s. She and Charles Scribner agreed that $8,000 could safely be diverted from her royalties to the Master’s account without arousing suspicion. They could hardly falsify the earnings on the New York Edition. But James’s agent had told Scribner’s that the Master was working on a novel of American life – an allusion to The Ivory Tower, which he had sketched out just before his 1910 illness.

Charles Scribner accordingly wrote to James: “As the publishers of your definitive edition we want another great novel to balance The Golden Bowl and round off the series of books…” If James could begin the book soon, Scribner said, he was prepared to pay him an advance of $8,000 (£1,500). . . James had never received so handsome an offer. . . Mrs. Wharton’s initiative, while meddlesome and not required, helped to give James’s morale a lift at a crucial moment [just as he came down with a nasty case of shingles.]

Nineteen years younger and, by all accounts, more experienced than the celebrated, celibate James, not to mention more direct, Wharton wrote with genius about social class, sex and love, topical subjects in any time.

Only a few months before admiration for Wharton’s story moved James to write to her, he himself had predicted that young women writers would cast off the tight-lipped reserve of the Victorian age, that “the female elbow itself, kept in increasing activity by the play of the pen, [will] smash with final resonance the window all this time most superstitiously closed.”

Happy 150th Birthday, Edith Wharton!

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