Edith Wharton's satiric anatomy of American society in the first decade of the twentieth century appeared in 1913; it both appalled and fascinated its first reviewers, and established her as a major velist. The Saturday Review wrote that she had 'assembled as many detestable people as it is possible to pack between the covers of a six-hundred page vel', but concluded that the book was 'brilliantly written', and 'should be read as a parable'. It follows the career of Undine Spragg, recently arrived in New York from the Midwest and determined to conquer high society. Glamorous, selfish, mercenary, and manipulative, her principal assets are her striking beauty, her tenacity, and her father's money. With her sights set on an advantageous marriage, Undine pursues her schemes in a world of shifting values, where triumph is swiftly followed by disillusion. Wharton was re-creating an environment she knew intimately, and Undine's education for social success is chronicled in meticulous detail. The vel superbly captures the world of post-Civil War America, as ruthless in its social ambitions as in its business and politics.
The upper stratum of New York society into which Edith Wharton was born in 1862 provided her with an abundance of material as a novelist but did not encourage her growth as an artist. Educated by tutors and governesses, she was raised for only one career: marriage. But her marriage, in 1885, to Edward Wharton was an emotional disappointment, if not a disaster. She suffered the first of a series of nervous breakdowns in 1894. In spite of the strain of her marriage, or perhaps because of it, she began to write fiction and published her first story in 1889. Her first published book was a guide to interior decorating, but this was followed by several novels and story collections. They were written while the Whartons lived in Newport and New York, traveled in Europe, and built their grand home, The Mount, in Lenox, Massachusetts. In Europe, she met Henry James, who became her good friend, traveling companion, and the sternest but most careful critic of her fiction. The House of Mirth (1905) was both a resounding critical success and a bestseller, as was Ethan Frome (1911). In 1913 the Whartons were divorced, and Edith took up permanent residence in France. Her subject, however, remained America, especially the moneyed New York of her youth. Her great satiric novel, The Custom of the Country was published in 1913 and The Age of Innocence won her the Pulitzer Prize in 1921. In her later years, she enjoyed the admiration of a new generation of writers, including Sinclair Lewis and F. Scott Fitzgerald. In all, she wrote some thirty books, including an autobiography. A Backwards Glance (1934). She died at her villa near Paris in 1937.
Random House USA Inc
Date of Publication
General & Literary Fiction
Place of Publication
Country of Publication
Bantam Dell Publishing Group, Div of Random House, Inc