Janet Barron

Same Mephitic Odours

The Letters of Edith Wharton

By RWB Lewis & Nancy Lewis

Simon & Schuster 654pp £16.95 order from our bookshop

‘The reading of your book has been like walking the wards of some infirmary set apart for the treatment of pestilential disease,’ a friend wrote to Edith Wharton about her novel, The House of Mirth: ‘the same ghastly wrecks of humanity, the same mephitic odours, the same miasma of afflorescent corruption’. Edith was delighted by such high praise. ‘Do New York!’ Henry James had advised her – and in Edith’s opinion New York was a very sick place. ‘Such dreariness, such whining sallow women, such utter absence of the amenities, such crass food, crass manners, crass landscape!’ she lamented of her homeland: her countrymen were so vulgar they ate bananas for breakfast.

If for no other reason, this edition of her correspondence would be worth reading for its sheer amount of prejudice. Edith’s loathing of all things American ran so deep she could not even tolerate their spelling, expostulating with an editor for reducing her to ugliness when he ‘Websterised’ her work. Anyone blessed with sanity and the cash to buy a ticket should, she urged, jump on the first steamer to Europe, where the monuments were pleasing even if the natives were rude.

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