Edith Wharton + Principles of Creativity
Updated: Dec 22, 2021
Reading Edith Wharton, the biography by Hermione Lee, I’m becoming aware of why I never liked to read Edth Wharton’s novels, which are bleak with “thwarted lives” and “great waste of dis-occupation.” Wharton seems to offer two options for women in The House of Mirth.
Option 1: “Through this atmosphere of torrid splendour moved wan beings as richly upholstered as the furniture, beings without definite pursuits or permanent relations, who drifted on a languid tide of curiosity from restaurant to concert-hall, from palm-garden to music-room, from ‘art exhibit’ to dress-maker’s opening.’
Option 2: Gerty Farish’s sense of purpose through philanthropy.
Of course there is an option 3, modeled by Edith Wharton herself. As Hermione Lee points out: “To make Lily into an autobiographical heroine would be to miss the point - it is exactly because Edith Wharton is not like Lily that she can write this novel.”
Edith Wharton has curiosity—or maybe the ability to follow through on her curiosity—in a way that Lily Bart doesn’t. As Hermione Lee points out, “Reading books is not an advantageous thing to do in The House of Mirth. The only serious reader in the book is Lawrence Selden, and his pleasant bachelor library and nicely bound first editions of La Bruyere are no help to him in managing his ambivalent feelings for Lily. They only cultivate the epicureanism and self-conscious detachment which make him step back from her, time after time, until it is too late.”
(Tangentially related to Selden’s intellectual effeteness, I just enjoyed Dear Committee Members, where the protagonist's intellectual detachment blessedly does not, by the end of the book, save him from his humanity.)
What made Edith Wharton different from her protagonist? Well, Hermione Lee wrote 770 pages exploring Edith Wharton’s formidable drive to make herself into something different from Lily Bart.
From an observer’s vantage point, the process was as easy as 1-2-3: cultivate curiosity and the determination to follow it, slowly accumulate self-confidence by learning to be a good reader, building and landscaping a house and garden, and learn to write.
But, as always, from the inside looking out, the path wasn’t so obvious. In a letter to her editor in 1894, Wharton says, “I seem to have fallen into a period of groping, and perhaps, after publishing the volume, I might see better what direction I ought to take and acquire more assurance (the quality I feel I most lack)...”
Charting Wharton's path to success, we see that she followed many of the principles that foster creativity:
Take the next step you can see. The path ahead isn’t always clear. You feel like you’re groping. That’s okay.
Find mentors. Wharton had numerous role models and mentors who advised her on her reading and writing.
Do the thing. Lots of output is more effective than producing one perfect project. “Wharton’s own writing life was, after 1899, so high-voltage, so prolific and efficient, that it is startling to find it crowded, too, with unfinished novels, plans for unpublished stories, poems that stayed in manuscript form and abandoned sequels to several of her novels.”
Follow your curiosity. From travel and Italian Gardens to writing novels, Wharton pursued what interested her.
Be willing to look weird. If what you’re doing places you outside the norm, don’t let that stop you. “Wharton’s self-creation through the 1890s and 1900s as a woman writer who could not be categorised under ‘feminine” or ‘sentimental,’ and a highly cultured author who could also appeal to a big audience, was a remarkable one.”