American Edith Wharton was born a blueblood. In what was experienced as a fairly wretched childhood, she may have been sexually abused—her unpublished “The Beatrice Palmato “ is a startling explicit account of incest between father and daughter. She barely survived young adulthood. A reluctant and shy debutant, she contracted a passionless marriage of convenience and then spent twelve years chronically nauseous and fatigued. Her hovering mother, shallow husband, and rigid social life seemed to make her sick. Certainly, sleeping in the same room with her husband set off asthma attacks, and sometimes her nerves broke down completely. And yet, against the odds, the inhibited young woman began to write complex novels and threw off victimhood. She gained control of her life, put her husband in another bedroom, and distanced herself from her mother and toxic social environments. She fell in love with Europe and the freedom and intellectual stimulation she found there. While seemingly a conventional Edwardian, often photographed corseted and draped in pearls, fur, and silk, Wharton was quietly rebelling against her family, country, American high society, and empty hours. She read, wrote, travelled adventurously, and collected friends.
Eventually, she met an entirely unsuitable man—the elusive, bi-sexual, and philandering journalist Morton Fullerton. He would surface; she adored him, but then he would drop out of sight. While quite taken with her, Fullerton had a louche nature and moved from woman to woman. Months of stolen meetings left Wharton euphoric and yet fearful: the cost of opening herself up could be high, and she worried about the possibility of scandal and blackmail, and, no small issue, what the servants would think.
Finally, in 1909, Wharton leapt and found an unlikely secret place to meet her lover, in the interstices of her life, while in transit, sans servants. Their rendezvous was in an unromantic Victorian terminal hotel, which fronted a London railway station with six platforms. The Charing Cross Hotel had been a place to catch or meet a train and break a journey since Victorian times. In dingy Room 91, something rather extraordinary happened. Forty- five year old Wharton became a “sensual heroine” and made passionate love for perhaps the first time. And as she lay in her lover’s arms, she felt profoundly connected to humanity, to travelers who had also loved in just this kind of place. Out of the experience, she wrote the poem “Terminus”:
…And lying there hushed in your arms, as the waves of rapture receded,
And far down the margin of being we heard the low beat of the soul,
I was glad as I thought of those others, the nameless, the many,
Who perhaps thus had lain and loved for an hour on the brink of the world,
Secret and fast in the heart of the whirlwind of travel,…
Fullerton proved faithless and Wharton, a tough-minded realist, broke off the affair. But she gained from the experience and never forgot: “I have drunk the wine of life at last,” she confided in her diary. “I have known the thing best worth knowing, I have been warmed through and through never to grow quite cold again until the end…” She thereafter wrote of love from personal experience and went on to live a brave and spirited life. She divorced, relocated to France permanently, wrote more novels, and created beautiful gardens; she entertained and proved a loyal friend. She was decorated by the French government for her philanthropic initiatives in World War I.
Though Wharton lived long and well, habits of reticence persisted and she wrote a supremely innocuous autobiography. Then unfortunately, her executors served her poorly. She was portrayed as vapid and shallow in their commemorations and by her first biographer. This image stuck. But Wharton had preserved the “Love Diary” in which she had poured her responses to Fullerton, and this and other papers finally came out of archival embargo. In the 1980s, 22 letters Wharton had written to Fullerton (and demanded back to no avail) mysteriously surfaced. Biographers could use primary documents and probe deeper. They challenged existing images and created new portraits in which Wharton emerged as a strong and powerful woman. Her life was given a triumphal spin (as opposed to many women of her era who were denied a hero’s journey or positive developmental arc). Wharton’s life, uncensored, demonstrated a full range of womanly possibilities: she was a survivor who dared to embrace life, chose, and achieve.
You can read more about Wharton when I find an agent and publisher for my manuscript Nevertheless, They Wrote: Women, Writing, and Suppression.