Garrison Keillor writes today in his online “A Writer’s Almanac”:


It’s the birthday of novelist Edith Wharton (books by this author), born Edith Newbold Jones in New York City (1862). She grew up in a rich, socially prominent family with old money — the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” is said to be a reference to them. In a family of beautiful women, she was not a beautiful girl, often teased about her big feet and hands, and her red hair. Her parents — especially her mother — strongly disapproved of her storytelling and writing. She said: “I was never free from the oppressive sense that I had two absolutely inscrutable beings to please — God & my mother […] and my mother was the most inscrutable of the two.” Her parents refused to give her writing paper, so she had to steal pieces of brown wrapping paper for her stories. She wrote her first novella at age 14, but her mother had only critical feedback; Wharton said, “This was so crushing to a would-be novelist of manners that it shook me rudely out of my dream of writing fiction.”

It was many years before she returned to fiction. In the meantime, she was married, finally, at the age of 23 — her mother had brought her into society and had been trying to find her a husband since she was 17. Her husband, Teddy Wharton, was a friend of her brother’s, and they were a terrible match. Teddy Wharton was pleasant but completely uninterested in the intellectual world that his wife craved; and as their marriage progressed, he descended into mental illness. She had a stretch of difficult years, feeling constantly nauseated and exhausted.

During these years, she continued to write poetry and short stories, and published here and there. Despite her unsatisfying marriage, she enjoyed being in charge of her own home. In 1897, she published her first book, The Decoration of Houses, which she co-wrote with an architect friend.

In 1902, the Whartons built a 35-room mansion called The Mount in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. Edith and Teddy each had a bedroom — his was smaller, as was his den — and it was in her bedroom that Edith did most of her writing. She would wake up early in the morning and write by hand in bed, dropping the pages on the floor as she completed them. Sometimes she had coffee and rolls while she wrote. By late morning, she would turn her attention to seeing to the grounds and attending to her guests. Her secretary would take the pages and type them up, and then Wharton would make changes and have them retyped; the process repeated until she was satisfied. At The Mount, she wrote her first major novel, The House of Mirth (1905), which was a best-seller and made Wharton famous. She wrote to her lover, Morton Fullerton, about her work on the house and property of The Mount: “I am amazed at the success of my efforts. Decidedly, I’m a better landscape gardener than novelist, and this place, every line of which is my own work, far surpasses The House of Mirth.”

She wrote: “I have sometimes thought that a woman’s nature is like a great house full of rooms: there is the hall, through which everyone passes in going in and out; the drawing-room, where one receives formal visits; the sitting-room, where the members of the family come and go as they list; but beyond that, far beyond, are other rooms, the handles of whose doors perhaps are never turned; […] and in the innermost room, the holy of holies, the soul sits alone and waits for a footstep that never comes.”

By the end of her life, Wharton’s popularity had faded, but she was earning a huge amount for her work; in the year 1936, when a good salary was about $2,000, Wharton earned $130,000 from her writing. Her books include Ethan Frome (1911), The Custom of the Country (1913), The Age of Innocence (1920), and The Gods Arrive (1937).