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Customs of her country

Despite her close ties to Europe, Edith Wharton remained a writer focused on America and Americans

Edith Jones in 1884, age 22, a year before she married Edward Wharton. Edith Jones in 1884, age 22, a year before she married Edward Wharton. (Lilly Library, Indiana University)

Edith Wharton
By Hermione Lee
Knopf, 869 pp., illustrated, $35

Here, in this door stopper of a book, is everything you will ever need and want to know about Edith Wharton. Hermione Lee, Goldsmiths' Professor of English Literature at Oxford, is distinguished for her scrupulosity and range as a biographer -- her 1997 book on Virginia Woolf ranks as one of the very best on a modern writer -- and a critical sensitivity to fiction that finds an echo in the intelligent common reader. The book's length allows her to give ample commentary to Wharton's novels and stories, along with a virtually day-by-day tracing of her extraordinary energies as a traveler, a buyer and designer of houses, a planner and critic of gardens -- of interior and exterior decoration. R.W.B. Lewis's biography of 1975 was notable for its sanity and scholarship; Lee's is about a third longer, makes use of letters Lewis hadn't seen (especially Wharton's correspondence with her lover, Morton Fullerton ), and is more passionate in the determination to establish Wharton as a masterly writer -- someone not to be patronized as the privileged and snobbish embodiment of high-class imperiousness.

Wharton's reading in 19th-century scientists, philosophers, and anthropologists -- Darwin, T. H. Huxley, Herbert Spencer, Thorstein Veblen, James George Frazer's "The Golden Bough" -- was, in Lee's phrase, "one of her first and most determined exit strategies" from the stifling parental and New York culture of "provincialism, censoriousness and timidity." She became a "novelist-ethnographer" of the world in which she grew up. Yet like James Joyce, who made oppressive Ireland the subject of his fictions, Wharton, for all her commitment to Europe, especially France, never left home. The 20 years of traveling between her marriage, in 1885, and "The House of Mirth," in 1905 , her second novel, were crucial to her development; but, like that novel, the major ones that followed -- "The Custom of the Country" and "The Age of Innocence" -- were saturated with New York City.

The most vital and humorous part of Wharton's elegant memoir, "A Backward Glance ," deals with her relationship with Henry James; a similar claim could be made for the 20 pages Lee spends on Wharton's friendship with the Master, their "happy motor-trips among the hills of Western Massachusetts" (as she put it in "A Backward Glance") and the group of men, largely homosexual or bisexual, that gathered around James in his later years. These included Percy Lubbock and Howard Sturgis , the latter of whose excellent novel "Belchamber" Wharton tried unsuccessfully to get Scribner to publish. She enjoyed an atmosphere in which (Lee's words) "hugging and yearning went along with satire and malice " and James could, impartially, eviscerate both Sturgis's and Wharton's own fictions, not only behind their back . Wharton felt secure in this atmosphere "brimming with innuendo and anecdotes." At any rate, relations with the "little band" devoted to keeping up standards are more invigorating to read about than her affair with the dubious Fullerton, for all its high (or melo-) drama. Lee has no new explanation for the 12 years of various illnesses and depressions that began with her marriage to Edward Wharton at age 23. To account for these as some have, by calling them a psychosomatic reaction to the marriage, is perhaps less telling than to note, as Lee does, that it is hard to find a happy marriage in Wharton's fiction.

As we would expect from her books on Woolf, Willa Cather, and (surprisingly) Philip Roth, Lee's judgments and discriminations about Wharton's fiction are sensitive and fully argued. Her favorite novel is "The Custom of the Country," but she is excellent on "The Age of Innocence" (my own favorite), which she well describes as "more muted and equivocal in its tone, less harshly and brilliantly satirical" than "Custom" (it's also shorter by 200 pages) . I'm grateful to her for reminding me to pick up again "The Reef," a novel whose painful intricacies -- it is her one truly Jamesian novel -- are studied and beautiful. Lee gives plenty of attention to the stories and novellas as well, of which "that subdued realist masterpiece of thwarted lives," " Bunner Sisters," takes its place alongside the more familiar "Ethan Frome" and "Summer."

The biographer's painstakingness, however, comes close to wearing out any reader less than absolutely determined to get all the low down on houses, gardens, and travels . A friend of Wharton's once broke off from writing about one of the novelist's gardens by noting that " she could do it much better herself, but I doubt if she would try to describe it." Lee describes everything most fully, names the names and species of every dog Wharton ever owned, every bit of food and drink consumed, and the names and prices of each ordered bottle of wine. If, as she says, Wharton was a "fussy and ruthless tourist," there is something ruthless (if not fussy) in the endless catalog ing Lee feels she must engage in.

She writes that Lubbock's memoir made Wharton sound like the character played by Margaret Dumont in Marx Brothers films; Lee's biography authoritatively gives us a human being altogether more various and sympathetic. Still, I caught a brief glimpse of the formidable Dumont in a rare melting mood when we hear of Aldous Huxley (one of the few modernists Wharton liked) patting Wharton's behind as he guided her down a steep slope of outdoor steps. According to Huxley biographer Sybille Bedford , " The entourage froze; Mrs. Wharton turned her head, not abruptly . . . and gave a sweet smile."

William H. Pritchard is a professor of English at Amherst College. His most recent book is "Shelf Life: Literary Essays and Reviews."