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In this orderly collection of autobiographical sketches Edith Wharton - generously and with nearly photographic recall - begins by inviting readers into her early life in nineteenth-century New York. We are treated to its cast of characters, old New York, country life up the Hudson River, the clothes, the houses, and the remarkable (and unremarkable) personalities - Washington Irving was a friend of the family - as well as the sensibilities of a sociable, bright, and wonderfully observant little girl.
Edith began to read so early that it surprised her upper-class (but unintellectual) family. Before long she became an "omnivorous reader," happiest plowing through the volumes of the classics in her father's library. She soon found that she required time alone - to invent characters, to make up stories. She knew that she had to write fiction - from childhood on, despite realizing by young adulthood that "in the eyes of our provincial society authorship was still regarded as something between a black art and a form of manual labor." Of the social imperative to closet one's writing urges she elaborates: "My father and mother were only one generation away from Sir Walter Scott, who thought it necessary to drape his literary identity in countless clumsy subterfuges, and almost contemporary with the Brontes, who shrank in agony from being suspected of successful novel-writing." The idle rich, Wharton makes clear, were intended to stay idle - and not busy themselves with writing, especially for (horrors!) pay. Her descriptions of her early popular successes are memorable.
In subsequent chapters Wharton lays out her well-thought-out opinions regarding childhood, self-discovery, the formation of the writer's imagination and intellect, and the importance of finding one's own way - as an intellectual and as a social being. There is dry humor, too. She treasured good literature and good conversation - and pursued (and found) them throughout her life. She loved beautiful things and places, too. Finally, she describes her sojourns abroad (mainly England, France, and Italy) and the relationships and places that sustained her and nurtured her creativity, her productivity - and her soul.
Lifelong friends play a central role in much of this memoir. She describes people well, without breaches of privacy or confidences. This is not at all limiting. She writes tenderly of the blossoming of her friendship with "American gentleman" Egerton Winthrop, a man of "cultivated intelligence," a shy, physically awkward man whom Wharton considered "the most perfect of friends." Others were George Cabot Lee, Vernon Lee, Howard Sturgis, Geoffrey Scott, Percy Lubbock, and most of all, Henry James, who is drawn wonderfully (and not uncritically) in this book. Of her friendship with James she remarks "The real marriage of two minds is for any two people to possess a sense of humor or irony pitched in exactly the same key, so that their joint glances at any subject cross like interarching search-lights."
I loved this memoir, and greatly admired Wharton's ability to reveal herself and her world so fully and well.