Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton (1862-1937) was one of America's leading novelists of the early 1900s and was the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (for The Age of Innocence, 1921).

Edith Wharton, née Edith Newbold Jones, was born to an affluent New York family. She was not fond of the upper-class society into which she was born, but she wrote insighfully of its people, places, and social rituals.

Edith Wharton was one of the intellectual elite who summered in Newport during the Gilded Age. From the 1860s to the 1880s, she lived with her mother, father, and two older brothers at Pencraig, a gabled, Tudor-style home. After her marriage to Edward R. (Teddy) Wharton in 1885, she moved to Pencraig Cottage, across Harrison Avenue from her parents' estate. [1]

In her autobiography, A Backward Glance, Wharton recalled her early years at Pencraig:

"Every room in our house was always full in summer, and I remember jolly bathing parties from the floating boat-landing at the foot of the lawn, mackerel-fishing, races in rival "cat-boats," and an occasional excursion up the bay, or out to sea when the weather was calm enough, on one of the pretty white steam-yachts which were beginning to be the favourite toys of the rich." [2]

The Whartons were active members of Newport society. In 1888, they joined fellow Newporter James J. Van Alen on a four-month Mediterranean cruise aboard The Vanadis. Wharton's travel diary was later published as The Cruise of the Vanadis.

In 1893, Wharton purchased an oceanfront estate called Land's End at the end of Bellevue Avenue. Wharton hired Boston architect Ogden Codman Jr. to design the interior. They collaborated on one of the earliest books on American interior decoration, The Decoration of Houses. Wharton helped Codman obtain a commission to design upstairs rooms in Cornelius Vanderbilt II's The Breakers. Wharton entertained French author Paul Bourget and his wife Minnie at Land's End in 1893. [3]

In her autobiography, Wharton described the conspicuous leisure of Newport's upper-class summer residents:

"The regular afternoon diversion at Newport was a drive. Every day all the elderly ladies, leaning back in victoria or barouche, or the new-fangled vis-à-vis, a four-seated carriage with a rumble for the footman, drove down the whole length of Bellevue Avenue, where the most fashionable villas then stood, and around the newly laid out 'Ocean Drive,' which skirted for several miles the wild rocky region between Naragansett Bay and the Atlantic. For this drive it was customary to dress as elegantly as for a race-meeting at Auteuil or Ascot. A brocaded or satin-striped dress, powerfully whale-boned, a small flower-trimmed bonnet tied with a large tulle bow under the chin, a dotted tulle veil and a fringed silk or velvet sunshade, sometimes with a jointed handle or elaborately carved ivory, composed what was thought a suitable toilet for this daily circuit between wilderness and waves.

If these occupations seem to us inefficient to fill a day, it must be remembered that the onerous and endless business of 'calling' took up every spare hour. I can hardly picture a lady of my mother's generation without her card-case in her hand. Calling was then a formidable affair, since many ladies had weekly 'days' from which there was no possible escape, and others cultivated an exasperating habit of being at home on the very afternoon when, according to every reasonable calculation, one might have expected them to be at Polo, or at Mrs. Belmont's archery party, or abroad on their own sempiturnal card-leaving. By the time I grew up the younger married women had emancipated themselves, and simply drove from house to house depositing their cards, duly turned down in the upper left-hand corner, to the indignation of stay-at-home hostesses, many of whom made their servants keep a list of the callers who 'did not ask,' so that these might be struck off the next season's invitation list—a punishment borne by the young and gay with perfect equanimity, as it was only the dull hostesses who inflicted it." [4]

Wharton eventually tired of Newport life. In 1901 she purchased 113 acres in Lenox, Massachusetts, and built a summer estate called The Mount. At The Mount she wrote her first best-seller, The House of Mirth, about Gilded Age New York. Wharton settled permanently in France in 1911 and divorced in 1913.

Kay Davis, University of Virginia, ©2001-2003