Edith Newbold Jones was born January 24, 1862, into such wealth and privilege that her family inspired the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses.” The youngest of three children, Edith spent her early years touring Europe with her parents and, upon the family’s return to the United States, enjoyed a privileged childhood in New York and Newport, Rhode Island. Edith’s creativity and talent soon became obvious: By the age of eighteen she had written a novella, Fast and Loose (as well as witty reviews of it), and published poetry in the Atlantic Monthly.
After a failed engagement, Edith married a wealthy sportsman, Edward Wharton. Despite similar backgrounds and a shared taste for travel, the marriage was not a success. Many of Wharton’s novels chronicle unhappy marriages, in which the demands of love and vocation often conflict with the expectations of society. Wharton’s first major novel, The House of Mirth, published in 1905, enjoyed considerable literary success. Ethan Frome appeared six years later, solidifying Wharton’s reputation as an important novelist. Often in the company of her close friend Henry James, Wharton mingled with some of the most famous writers and artists of the day, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, André Gide, Sinclair Lewis, Jean Cocteau, and Jack London.
In 1913 Edith divorced Edward. She lived mostly in France for the remainder of her life. When World War I broke out, she organized hostels for refugees, worked as a fund-raiser, and wrote for American publications from battlefield frontlines. She was awarded the French Legion of Honor for her courage and distinguished work.
The Age of Innocence, a novel about New York in the 1870s, earned Wharton the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1921—the first time the award had been bestowed on a woman. Wharton traveled throughout Europe to encourage young authors. She also continued to write, lying in her bed every morning, as she had always done, dropping each newly penned page on the floor to be collected and arranged when she was finished. Wharton suffered a stroke and died on August 11, 1937. She is buried in the American Cemetery in Versailles, France.
THE WORLD OF EDITH WHARTON AND ETHAN FROME
1862 Edith Newbold Jones is born January 24 in New York City, the last of three children. Her parents are wealthy and socially well-connected.
1866 The Jones family leaves for Europe, where they will live for the next six years.
1870 In Germany, Edith falls ill with typhoid fever and for a time hovers between life and death. When she recovers, the family moves to Florence. Edith begins writing stories, which she recites to her family.
1872 The Joneses return to America, where they live in New York City and Newport, Rhode Island.
1877 Edith finishes a novella, Fast and Loose, which will be published a century later, in 1977. Henry James’s novel The American appears.
1878 Edith’s mother pays to publish a collection of Edith’s poems, Verses.
1879 Edith is presented to society in New York City.
1880 A wealthy young man, Henry Leyden Stevens, proposes to Wharton. The Atlantic Monthly magazine publishes five of Wharton’s poems.
1881 Henry James’s novel Portrait of a Lady appears.
1882 Edith’s father dies in the south of France. Edith and her mother return to the United States to find that Henry Stevens’s mother disapproves of the engagement. It is broken off, and the Jones women return to France.
1883 While summering in Bar Harbor, Maine, Edith agrees to marry Edward Wharton, an independently wealthy sports man from Massachusetts.
1885 Edith and Edward wed and over the next several years divide their time between Europe, New York, and Newport.
1889 Wharton’s poems appear in Scribner’s Magazine and the Atlantic Monthly.
1891 Wharton’s first published story, “Mrs. Manstey’s View,” appears in Scribner’s Magazine.
1897 The Decoration of Houses appears; it is a nonfiction work on interior design written by Wharton and architect Ogden Codman, Jr.
1898 Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw is published.
1901 The Whartons begin to build The Mount, their summer home near Lenox, Massachusetts. Edith’s mother dies in Paris.
1905 The House of Mirth is published. The novel quickly becomes one of the best-selling books of the year; its popularity solid ifies Wharton’s reputation as a major novelist. Wharton and Henry James develop a close friendship. George Bernard Shaw’s play Major Barbara is performed in London.
1908 Wharton publishes A Motor-Flight through France, in which she recounts her travels with her husband, Edward, and Henry James. She meets Morton Fullerton, an American journalist living in London who is a friend of Henry James, and the two begin a passionate though short-lived love affair.