A Feast of Words: The Triumph of Edith Wharton

Oxford, $15.95

Although Edith Wharton led a life of consummate opulence, it was hardly adequate compensation for the inner deprivation she suffered. Born into a wealthy New York society family, she spent a lonely childhood learning to repress her love for her father and her resentment of her unresponsive mother. Her marriage to Teddy Wharton, a rich, amiable, and thoroughly suitable young man, turned out to be unexpectedly chaste and led to her nervous breakdown; the collapse was followed by the publication of the first of the ironic portayals of American social life which established Edith Wharton as a major novelist.
The recurrent theme in this story is emotional resilience, and that is the theme as well of Cynthia Griffin Wolff’s sympathetic study of Wharton’s creative life. Through a close reading of the fiction and autobiographical writings, Wolff examines the author’s efforts to reconcile her chaotic feelings with the expectations of a society that regarded women as charming, decorative, and totally passionless. A chronological treatment of the works reveals Wharton’s increasing ability to understand her own ambivalence and recast it in fictional terms, from the visionary desolation of Ethan Frame to the extraordinary (though artless) “Beatrice Palmato" fragment, a pornographic scene of incestuous love which Wolff attributes to Wharton’s resolution of her repressed Electra conflict.
It is too bad that Wolffs psychosexual approach limits her speculations to the early traumas; it would be interesting to know more about the impact of that unconventional marriage. A Feast of Words is, however, a lively and intelligent exploration of the relationship between a novelist’s life and art.
—E. S. Duvall