Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton

The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton
by Connie Nordheilm Wooldridge
184 pages
published by Clarion Books

Publisher's description:
Edith Wharton, author of Ethan Frome, The House of Mirth, and other acclaimed novels, was born into a wealthy family. Beginning in childhood, Edith found ways to escape from society's and her family's expectations and follow an unconventional, creative path. Unhappily married and eventually divorced, she surrounded herself with male friends. She spent much of her life in Paris and was recognized by the French government for her generosity and hard work during World War I. Her literary and personal life, her witty and incisive correspondence, her fondness for automobiles and small dogs--all are detailed in this warm and sparkling account of a woman well ahead of her time.

My comments:
I must confess that (having never been required to read any of Edith Wharton's books as a student and not being inclined to pick them up on my own) I knew almost nothing about her before picking up this biography. I thought that maybe the "brave escape" the title referred to might mean that Wharton would abandon the life of wealth and privilege she was born into to live as a pennliess writer, and at first I was a little disappointed that she merely gave up the stuffy old-money social circle of her parents while managing to hold on to the wealth and privilege.

Eventually I came to see that rejecting her parents' ideals and aspirations is nothing to sniff at, though. Her actions are ones that any independent or rebellious teen can admire. Wharton also had the courage to pursue a career as a writer at a time when it was not respectable for a woman to write. By winning a Pulitzer for The Age of Innocence, she made the writing profession a respectable one for women to pursue.

I found Wooldridge's writing to be clear and engaging. It's clear that she respects Wharton, imperfections and all. The many photographs of her and her beloved bachelor friends and dogs are interesting, and well-captioned. There's nothing fancy about the design of the book, but the paper is high quality, the fonts look nice, and it's just the right size (not too big, not too small).

The book is well-researched, drawing from university archives, Wharton's body of work, and other biographies. The back end materials include source notes, a bibliography, a list of Wharton's works, and an index. I found the index to be very helpful whenever I needed to refresh myself on one of Wharton's many bachelor friends. The abbreviations used in the source notes confused me at first. It seems like there should have been an easier way to keep the length of the note citations manageable without resorting to two pages of abbreviations. The arrangement works well enough, but is a bit clunky.

I think the highest praise I can give The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton is that I'm actually interested, for the first time in my life, in reading Wharton for myself.

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