It is a strange fate for a celebrated writer to be remembered as the friend of a still more famous one. Such, for a generation after her death in 1937, was Edith Wharton’s lot. Her novels were out of fashion, indeed had been consigned to that limbo of all things ‘Victorian’ – ‘prim’, ‘mannered’, ‘violets and old lace’, etc – by a consciously modern public who simply supposed her books to be like that, from their setting in old New York, without actually reading them. Her personal image was of a large, rich, imperious old lady who – ah, ha – had seized on poor Henry James who was too polite to resist her and bore him off on wild journeys across France by chauffeured car. Did not James himself write piteously to friends of her ‘unappeasable summons’, and refer to her as an ‘eagle’ swooping down on him and as ‘the Angel Devastation’? And had not others complained about her bossiness, her arbitrary changes of plan, her chilliness to people who did not measure up to her own high social or intellectual standards, and her nineteenth-century assumption (correct, as it turned out) that her life would always be well padded with servants and that this was her right?
It was, actually, all true, but what a partial truth. Like all proper writers, the creator of Undine Spragg and Lily Bart (not to mention the lower-class Bunner sisters) was a far more complicated, vulnerable and perceptive person than the grande dame of posthumous myth. With R W B Lewis’s