Although Edith Wharton is usually identified with the upper-class New York society into which she was born and that she satirized in her best-known novels (e.g., The House of Mirth, 1905; The Custom of the Country, 1913; and The Age of Innocence, 1920), she was an enthusiastic, lifelong traveler and, after 1910, a resident of France. Overall, she lived more than half of her life in Europe. She was born among well-to-do New Yorkers who, she said, were happiest when boarding an ocean liner to carry them to new lands. She is America's preeminent literary “lady, ” who did not need to write for a living and came of a class opposed to all work for women. Although she felt marginalized by both gender and class, she became a prolific author with an international circle of friends active in literature and the arts, most notably Henry James.
Between 1866 and 1872 young Edith traveled with her parents in Italy, France, Spain, and Germany, with long stays in Rome, Florence, and Paris. This sojourn marked her emergence as a writer: in her autobiography, A Backward Glance, she recalled that she first felt the “ecstasy” of “making up” stories as a four-year-old, not yet able to read, alone in Paris, on a winter day, holding Washington Irving's Alhambra in her hands and talking to herself. She would, in fact, become an inheritor of Irving's romantic style of travel writing.
She was again in Europe from 1880 until 1882, when her father died at Cannes. The family then returned to New York; ultimately, her mother and both of her brothers settled in Europe. In 1885 she married Edward Wharton, a well-to-do Bostonian, with whom she made annual trips to France and Italy, educating herself as a connoisseur. She also read and wrote voluminously, so that, before middle age, she was “able to write fiction in French, to translate (for publication) into English, and to speak both these languages, as well as Italian