The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton
By Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge
(Clarion Books, New York, 2010, $20.00)
At some point in every writer’s life, he or she must decide to be a writer. Edith Wharton started making up stories when she was six; that year, she also taught herself to read. At ten, she began writing. So Wharton’s literary success should have surprised no one. But in late nineteenth century New York, a well-bred lady’s name “only appeared in print only at her birth, her marriage, and her death.” For this reason, her parents discouraged her literary ambitions. Only in her late twenties did Wharton summon the courage to pursue publication.
In The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton, Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge chronicles Wharton’s gradual flight from Old New York. She describes how Wharton formed a “republic of the spirit”: a circle of close friends around the world who shared her intellectual interests and zest for life. She loved Europe and spent much of her life abroad. Yet, New York never left Edith Wharton. Her best known novels – including The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence – are set in her hometown. And despite Wharton’s predilection for literary and artistic company, she retained the strict principles of her youth. Though she and her husband Teddy were never compatible and though she had one passionate affair, she loved her husband and took her marriage vows very seriously. She only divorced Teddy when he developed a serious mental illness.
The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton is not only the novelist’s life story. Wooldridge explores the tensions found in Wharton’s novels and her life, especially the conflict between duty and desire. Wooldridge has penned a fitting introduction to Wharton’s life and work. Together, Wharton and Wooldridge should inspire readers to form their own “republics of the spirit.”
Dorothy A. Dahm