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Q&A with Hermione Lee

A third of the way through her absorbing new biography of Edith Wharton, Hermione Lee pauses to consider her subject's erotic appeal to Morton Fullerton, the notorious rogue she'd taken, in midlife, as her lover. "Exposing the concealed, thwarted, passionate self hidden under the gloves and furs could have been very intriguing to a certain kind of curious, adventurous sensualist," she writes. And, perhaps, to a certain kind of biographer?

"Well, that's it!" Lee laughed when I asked her as much over the phone last week. "Edith does this extraordinary mixture of dazzling ironical objective analysis, yet at the same time, there's this very deep, painful emotional life that goes rushing through. I was drawn to this combination that I don't think I've found in any other writer," she explained. The first-name basis, the disarming present tense -- it was easy to envision the grande dame herself hovering just beyond our conversation, a cup of tea at her elbow (in, of course, the perfect hand-painted Limoges porcelain cup).

The Goldsmiths' Professor of English at Oxford University (and the first woman to hold that title), Lee has devoted her career to literature, with critical studies of Elizabeth Bowen, Willa Cather, and Philip Roth, a highly regarded 1996 biography of Virginia Woolf, and, more recently, an engaging collection of essays about life-writing just rereleased by Princeton in paperback.

Adding to the vast pile of existing Whartonalia might not seem the obvious task for a British scholar. But she felt enough emphasis hadn't been paid to the author's many years in France -- Wharton moved there when she was 44, and more or less stayed until her death in 1937 -- and to the European influences in her writing, including her often overlooked decorating manual ("The Decoration of Houses") and travel writing, which, taken alongside her novels, add up to one giant, and beguilingly relevant, critique of America.

IDEAS: Wharton's reputation has shifted drastically over the years.

LEE: Well, in her lifetime, starting with "The House of Mirth" in 1905, she became hugely popular and an enormous bestseller. Then, in the 1930s, with the Depression, and the radical change of style and much more openness coming in about sexuality, she began to be seen as frosty and old-fashioned and as kind of a minor feminine Henry James. So from her death in 1937 through the '60s she languished.

And then interesting things happened: the big biography in 1975 by R.W.B. Lewis; the publication of quite a lot of posthumous papers, which changed our sense of her; the feminist movement of the late '60s and early '70s, when Wharton, like a lot of other women writers, was given a new standing. And, of course, the movies.

IDEAS: Yet even now, she's still seen as a passionless woman.

LEE: Unfair to Edith! Morton Fullerton clearly found her rather erotic, and he was a specialist in those things. When he finally delivers his copy of "Terminus" -- the long, Whitmanesque poem that she wrote after their night of love in the Charing Cross Hotel (which, I must say, is the most unromantic building in all of London) -- to Elisina Tyler, Edith's closest woman friend, years after Edith's death, he says that her reputation for being cold and icy was unjustified.

Besides, you can see from the writing how much she knew about sex and sexuality. "The Reef" is the most amazing novel about someone who hasn't been very sexy suddenly having all these sexual emotions of jealousy and dependency and humiliation. It's very close to the bone.

IDEAS: The Fullerton years are pretty juicy. Why did this strong, independent woman fall for such a cad?

LEE: Well, women do, don't they? The really interesting thing is the way the affair -- which lasted two or three years maximum -- seemed to reenact and anticipate an Edith Wharton novel. Her letters to him, and the way he let her down, and the fact that she couldn't lean on him during her husband's mental illness and the breakdown of her marriage. . . .You can see Fullerton distancing himself, backing off, thinking, "Oh this is more than I bargained for." It's just like one of her stories, like "The Long Run," or Lawrence Selden in "The House of Mirth." It's almost as if she picked the sort of person she already knew about from her fiction. The magnificent letters she wrote to Fullerton could have come straight from the mouth of one of her heroines.

IDEAS: She was also deeply invested in style, as you point out, and caught up in the conversations at the turn of the century about the morality of taste.

LEE: One of the fascinating things about Edith's relationship to Europe is how much she was enthralled to Flaubert and Stendhal and Balzac. She wanted to write novels of society and novels of manners -- not about isolated individuals -- that's for sure. And she wanted to write with the utmost, Flaubertian objectivity. So she never says "I" in the fiction; she says "I" in the poetry (which I think is much less good than the fiction).

Yet her own life plays through in many complicated ways in all her writing. She was wedded to the idea of objectivity, control, shape, form -- she's a great shaper of sentences, sentence by sentence on the page; at her best she's a remarkable stylist. But at the same time she didn't want to be classified as a sentimental woman novelist, in the way that often happens in that period: she's harsh, strong, powerful, direct, often kind of barren and plain.

IDEAS: A lot of these adjectives -- control, shape, form -- describe not only Wharton herself, but also her ideas about decorating.

LEE: Yes, she does believe in simplicity and light and shapeliness. She's so often picked on for being snobbish and snooty -- and she can be quite snobbish; "The Decoration of Houses" is sort of breathtakingly snobbish sometimes. But she does often say, "If you've only got a small room, this is what to do with it: don't fill it up with junk, don't have too many layers, don't cut off the windows, don't have the doors opening into the room in an awkward way."

IDEAS: These were fairly revolutionary ideas at the time, weren't they?

LEE: She was very aware of the movements going on around her. And she was fully aware of the movement for sincerity in house design. But I think her main aims were to get away from a kind of overstuffed, over-chintzy late-Victorian style in American furnishings, and to bring European styles into an American vocabulary of design.

IDEAS: Did immersing yourself in Wharton's Gilded Age lend you any insight into our own?

LEE: What Wharton did so brilliantly with novels like "The Custom of the Country" and "The House of Mirth" -- the extraordinary jostle of social forces, the complicated and elaborate standoffs between old money and new money, the whole set of shifting social attitudes between who's going to be let into society and who's going to be left out -- speak very much to our own time. I spent a year at the New York Public Library working on this book, reading the papers every day, and I was very struck by how often references to Edith Wharton would come up to illustrate a point about contemporary American life.

IDEAS: You've written that there's always one key word in a biography, and with your Woolf book it was "professionalism." What would Wharton's be?

LEE: Intelligent.

Kate Bolick is senior editor of Domino magazine and teaches writing at New York University. Her interviews appear regularly in Ideas. E-mail