No Gifts from Chance: A Biography of Edith Wharton

No Gifts from Chance: A Biography of Edith Wharton

No Gifts from Chance: A Biography of Edith Wharton

No Gifts from Chance: A Biography of Edith Wharton

Excerpt

Imagine, for a moment, a young woman born to wealth and privilege in the leisured society of nineteenth-century Old New York. Fitted into brocade and velvet, her red-gold hair caught in a ringlet of curls, she is expected to become a society matron. But another calling—born of her love for words and a gift for storytelling— intervenes against these well-laid plans. Entering the ballroom of Mrs. Levi Morton's Fifth Avenue mansion as a seventeen-year-old debutante, she has already lived a third of her life in Europe, written a novel and several short stories, and published (under her pastor's name) a translation of a German poem, receiving for it an honorarium of $50, her first literary earnings. Before the assembled guests, representatives of a society that was hers by birth and where she was expected to take her rightful place, she stood paralyzed with fear.

In retrospect, the compelling question about Edith Newbold Jones on that cold January evening in 1879 is one Edith Wharton asked about George Sand and George Eliot. It concerns self-transformation: How did the frightened debutante become the social chronicler of her age, an internationally acclaimed author of forty-seven books, a woman of firm opinions and independent mind? Loosening the social bonds that immobilized her in Mrs. Morton's ballroom required courage, audacity, and a willingness to risk censure—qualities inimical to New York's "age of innocence. . . ."

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