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The House of Mirth | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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Edith Wharton | Biography


Edith Wharton was born on January 24, 1862, into a family of old-money business people and New York aristocrats. She spent her childhood years in France, Italy, Germany, and Spain learning French, Italian, and German. Precociously literate, at age 15 Wharton wrote a 30,000-word novel mocking the manners of New York society. She published several poems and short stories, sometimes under pseudonyms, before she made her society debut in 1879.

Worried about their bookish daughter, her parents encouraged Wharton in 1885 to marry socially suitable Edward "Teddy" Wharton. A banker who was not Wharton's intellectual equal, he nonetheless shared Wharton's love of travel.

Keenly interested in design, Wharton co-authored her first book, The Decoration of Houses (1897), with Ogden Codman Jr. and followed it with several short story collections and the novella The Touchstone (1900). In 1902 she designed and oversaw the building of her home with her husband, a mansion called the Mount, in Lenox, Massachusetts.

Wharton continued to write, publishing The Valley of Decision (1902) and Sanctuary (1903) before deciding to write a novel of manners that reflected the upper-class New York society she knew well. She wrote most of The House of Mirth in New York and at the Mount in the winter of 1904. It was serialized in Scribner's Magazine beginning in January 1905 and was published in book form in October of that year. By the end of 1905, the book was a best seller with 140,000 copies in print.

She continued writing novels that included Ethan Frome (1911), a harsh romance set in Maine that was inspired by a sledding accident in Lenox. In 1913 she divorced Edward Wharton, who suffered from mental illness. She had already begun an affair with journalist Morton Fullerton. After her divorce and her break with Fullerton, Wharton moved to France. During World War I she reported from battlefields and helped war refugees. For this work she became the first woman to receive the French Legion of Honor (1916). In 1921 she won the Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence, and in 1923 she became the first woman to be awarded the Honorary Doctorate of Letters from Yale University.

Wharton wrote until her death from a stroke at age 75 on August 11, 1937, having completed 22 novels, 11 short story collections, and 14 memoir, poetry, and essay collections. In addition to her satirical novels about New York high society, she wrote ghost stories, erotica, and nonfiction about architecture, travel, interior decoration, and war.

Wharton's reputation rests primarily upon The House of Mirth, Ethan Frome, and The Age of Innocence. A major theme in her works is the conflict between the conventions of society and personal happiness.

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