EDITH WHARTON was born Edith Newbold Jones on January 24, 1862. She was educated privately in New York and Europe. Edith Wharton's upper-class childhood in "old New York" provides the setting for her best fiction, which presents scathing critiques of a society hostile to women's intellectual and artistic aspirations. A female intellectual at a time when women were considered more or less ornamental, Wharton once said of herself that she was considered too intellectual to be fashionable in New York, and too fashionable to be considered intellectual in Boston.This witticism has a serious side that may help to explain why she spent most of her adult life in France, returning only once, in 1923, to receive an honorary degree from Yale, the first woman ever so honored.
In 1885, she married Teddy Wharton, a man more interested in hunting and fishing than in art and ideas. The marriage was not a happy one, due in part to Teddy Wharton's bouts of depression. Teddy also embezzled money from Edith's estate (using some of the money to purchase a house for his mistress in Boston). In 1913, they were divorced, two years after Edith's passionate affair with a journalist named Morton Fullerton, an affair begun in response to Teddy's infidelities and emotional distance. After her divorce, Wharton never remarried.
Her life was filled with writing and writers. She had a long-time friendship with Henry James that began when he suggested that Wharton "do New York," which she did with great success in The House of Mirth ( 1905), her second novel. The novel charts the destruction of Lily Bart at the hands of a mercenary society, a formula reversed in The Custom of the Country ( 1913), in which Undine Spragg spares no one in her quest for material gain. Although in most Wharton novels society is seen as a repressive, highly codified environment in which those who do not conform are punished, Wharton rarely presents any alternatives for her characters. We see this most clearly in her most well‐ known novel, The Age of Innocence ( 1920), in which the conventions of society win out over the passion between Ellen Olenska and Newland Archer.It is for this novel that Wharton was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1921. She was the first woman to receive the award.