A biography of the noted author, tracing her evolution from shy debutante to the social chronicler of her age.
Series: Louann Atkins Temple Women and Culture Endowment, Book Five
A biography of the noted author, tracing her evolution from shy debutante to the social chronicler of her age.
- Book I. The Old Order
- Chapter 1. A Question of Heritage
- Chapter 2. Explorations
- Chapter 3. Endeavors
- Book II. Choices
- Chapter 4. Awakenings
- Chapter 5. Estrangements
- Chapter 6. Departures
- Book III. Rewards
- Chapter 7. Charity
- Chapter 8. Profits
- Chapter 9. Losses
- Chapter 10. Loyalties
- Archives and Abbreviations
- Chronology of Works by Edith Wharton
- Primary Works Cited: Abbreviations
- A Note on Edith Wharton's Letters to Morton Fullerton
Edith Newbold Jones, who grew up to become the writer Edith Wharton, was born on January 24, 1862, in her parents' spacious brownstone at 14 West Twenty-third Street, just off Fifth Avenue and the fashionable Madison Square. At her daughter's birth, Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander Jones, a society matron in her late thirties, had been married for eighteen years to George Frederic Jones, a gentleman of leisure. They had two sons--Frederic, aged sixteen, who in autumn 1862 would enter Columbia College, and Henry, aged eleven, known to his friends as "Harry." A handsome, worldly woman very certain of her social place as the Mrs. Jones among an extended family of Knickerbocker descendants, Lucretia had long since left behind nursery duties. Indeed, the Twenty-third Street house had no nursery and one had to be improvised. We know nothing of Lucretia's feelings about her third pregnancy, but it broke the pattern of an otherwise predictable existence. Late and unexpected, the pregnancy also betrayed her active sexuality, a possible embarrassment for a woman who could be priggish about such matters. The baby's birth gave rise to gossip about Lucretia's private life and speculation about Edith's paternity.
Edith's birthplace, a five-story, chocolate-brown town house, so marked her childish imagination that years later, she could recall every detail of its setting and furnishings--the low steps leading to a front vestibule painted in Pompeian red and trimmed with a frieze of stenciled lotus leaves; the heavily draped white-and-gold drawing rooms where straight-backed chairs cushioned in purple brocade stood at attention like sentinels along the walls; the central staircase, carpeted in red velvet, spiraling toward the upper regions of the tall house. From this vantage point, Edith observed the comings and goings of her parents and their friends. She watched her mother, a figure of best-dressed womanhood, welcome dinner guests or sweep down the staircase to her waiting carriage, "resplendent in train, aigrette and opera cloak."
The 1860 national census gives an interior view of this household prior to Edith's arrival. Of more than twenty George Joneses living in the borough of Manhattan, only one is listed as a "gentleman"--George Frederic Jones, owner of a town house valued at $20,000 and personal property at $6,000. (He spent far more money on his Newport cottage, built in 1861 and valued at $60,000.) Like similar establishments, the house was staffed primarily by Irish immigrant women, hired cheaply, as were the black cook and coachman. The comparative understatement of the Joneses' style of living marked them as "Society of Birth" with inherited social standing, people who kept to their circle of peers and shunned nouveau riche pretentiousness. Although Lucretia strictly adhered to rules of correct speech and behavior, she did not adopt the formal English model of house management (as her daughter would), perhaps because she was not as fastidious as she expected others to be. A perfectly regulated household required a good deal of discipline on the part of its mistress, and Lucretia was indolent by nature. A woman settled comfortably into her worldly security, she did not put herself out for others. Following the customs of her class, she chose inertia over activity, except when it came to shopping, for which she had an inexhaustible reserve of energy. Edith later recalled that her mother expected much of her servants but gave them no consideration.
The most important and imposing figure among the seven-member staff was Maryland-born Mary Johnson, aged forty-two in 1860, an exraordinarily talented cook who prepared delicious southern fare. Edith emembered her as a "gaunt towering woman of a rich bronzy black," with golden loops in her ears and brightly colored kerchiefs on her head. Illiterate, she cooked from memory and inspiration. Lucretia Jones, writing in a "script of ethereal elegance," recorded Mary's special dishes alongside Rhinelander-Stevens family recipes. George Frederic, a gastronome whose mother, Elizabeth Schermerhorn, was reputed to have been the best cook in New York, presided proudly over his table and served excellent wines from the family cellar. Three Irish domestics--Mary Kiernan and two young sisters, Margaret and Ann Flood--kept the house in order. George Watts, a thirty-year-old black man from New York, served as coachman, and William Strong, aged twenty, was warder. Also listed on the census roll was a James Blake, possibly the tutor to Frederic and Henry Jones. Although their friends used students from Columbia College or called into service elder bachelor cousins to tutor their children, the Joneses--who placed a high priority on the quality of their sons' education-engaged an Englishman as tutor. He may have resided in the Jones household; in any case, his name was linked amorously with that of Lucretia Jones.
The central figure in Edith's infant world was Hannah Doyle ("Doyley"), her red-cheeked and humorous Irish nurse. Formerly Harry's nursemaid, Doyley had been kept on in the household as a seamstress. Called back into nursery service at age forty-two, she lovingly tended red-haired, blue-eyed Edith through those first winter months. When spring arrived, Doyley wheeled the baby in a high-framed black carriage to Madison Square Park for afternoon outings. She was the "warm cocoon," the "rich all-permeating presence" in which infant Edith lived "safe and sheltered." "How I pity all children who have not had a Doyley," Edith wrote some seventy years later, "a nurse who has always been there, who is as established as the sky and as warm as the sun, who understands everything, feels everything, can arrange everything, and combines all the powers of the Divinity with the compassion of a mortal heart like one's own!" Doyley's loving smile was the one constant in a childhood world that for all its comforts was sometimes lonely and darkened by illness.
Mysteries of Love and War
Edith entered a world divided by the Civil War, its rancor and deadly slaughter forming the distant background of her first three years of life. On the raw and bleak Friday of her birth, New Yorkers looked south to Cincinnati, Ohio, where Federal army troops, shin-deep in mud after days of rain, attempted to break the Confederate line. "Our Artillery Operating Within Sixty Yards of Enemy's Lines," proclaimed the New York Times, its front pages filled with special reports and regional dispatches of some half-dozen battles. Three months later, on Easter Sunday, Union forces were engaged in the most dramatic naval engagement yet in the war, the battle for New Orleans, which would secure the Federal naval blockade of southern ports. Bursts of shellfire filled the sky with black smoke, and before the week was out, the city was in Union hands.
In New York that spring morning, Easter Sunday, the Joneses prepared for their daughter's baptism. Swaddled in white lace and christening cap, Edith squinted in the sun as the family brougham made its way south to Grace Church, the white marble Gothic Revival structure on the corner of Broadway and Eleventh Street. George Frederic and Lucretia were not members of this congregation, nor would Edith ever be, but entering its baptismal rolls guaranteed one's place in the social hierarchy of the city. Edith was duly enrolled, the only official notice of her birth. (No record exists in the New York City Department of Records.) In the church registry, her name appears on the same page as a child born to George Frederic Jones's cousin Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, wife of William Backhouse Astor; the Mrs. Astor, she was the acknowledged leader of New York society. Entered just beneath the name "Edith Newbold Jones" is that of a baby girl born to Thomas House Taylor, fourth rector of the church, who baptized all three of the Jones children.
Standing before Dr. Taylor on April 20, 1862, were Edith's parents and her sponsors--Lucretia Jones's favorite sister, Mary Elizabeth Rhinelander, and her husband, Thomas H. Newbold (for whom Edith was named), and a cousin, Miss Caroline King. No sponsor represented the Joneses, although members of George Frederic's family had sponsored Edith's brothers. Following the name "Jones" on the registry pages for each child is the notation "George F & ." On Edith's record, a clerk later penciled in the name "Lucretia Rhinelander." These clerical oversights (unique in the Grace Church baptismal registry) might be explained as a too strict enforcement of the code of feminine propriety by which a woman's name was to appear in print only three times--at birth, marriage, and death--were it not that Edith seemed to suffer from a lack of mother love. The paid guardianship of nurses and governesses covered over this absence of the maternal. The father's name, properly recorded in the official book, covers over another gap--the mystery of paternity.
Two rumors circulated about the circumstances of Edith's birth. One version claimed that she was the daughter of her brothers' tutor; in the other, she was the daughter of a Scottish lord. The first story was by far the better-known tale; Edith heard it long after the principals were dead. Cultivated in the hothouse climate of a narrow and inbred society, these tales emerge against the backdrop of two highly publicized scandals in the Jones and Stevens families in the 1860s and 1870s. The events that befell Lucretia's cousin Mary Stevens Strong and George Alfred Jones (George Frederic's cousin) mixed tragedy and farce as they exposed the "sins of society," passionate intrigue enacted behind heavily draped windows of Manhattan brownstones.'
Mary Stevens Strong, daughter of a prominent banker and littérateur, made the front pages of New York newspapers when in the early 1860s, her husband, Peter Remson Strong, sued her for divorce. Married in 1853, they had three children and apparently lived together happily until Peter's brother came to live with them after his wife's death. He and Mary entered into an "illicit intimacy" that, "in a fit of remorse," she confessed to her husband in January 1862. Word of the couple's separation spread through New York society the week of Edith Jones's birth, but three years passed before the spectacular divorce and child custody trial opened in Superior Court on November 25, 1865. Key testimony came from the children's governess, who provided "damaging revelations" about her mistress. City newspapers offered editorial opinions, the New York Herald claiming that the tragedy indicated "deep social demoralization... due to the influence of the Academy of Music and theaters. "
The second scandal broke in October 1872, when the financial misdealings of George Alfred Jones became public. To support a mistress, he had defrauded some of the most revered society families--the Auchmutys, Chadwicks, and Costers, among others. Under threat of criminal proceedings, he and his wife were forced to surrender their real estate and personal property, raising a sum covering about 40 percent of his defalcations. They then retired to Bristol, Connecticut, where he manufactured clocks, lamp parts, and dolls to pay off his liability. New York diarist George Templeton Strong noted that Jones had earlier been led into "evil courses" by losing some $60,000 (almost $1,000,000 at today's rates) in a mechanized "walking-doll" enterprise.
These were not isolated instances of immoral behavior in old society, but newspaper accounts of the court trials made them difficult to ignore. We do not know Lucretia's feelings about her cousin, Mary Stevens Strong, but Edith remembered that her mother "always darted away from George Alfred's name after pronouncing it." When, as a married woman, Edith at last found the courage to ask what he had done, her mother's "muttered" response combined scorn with "excited curiosity." "Some woman," she answered. "Thank heaven she was not responsible for him--he belonged to my father's side of the family!" The family washed its hands of George Alfred; except as a "nursery hobgoblin" to scare children, he ceased to exist.
In Edith's opinion, Lucretia maintained an "incurably prosaic" view of life, yet the two stories that circulated about her were anything but commonplace. In their tragicomic eccentricity, these tales exceeded anything Lucretia might have discovered in the popular novels she read on afternoons when her husband attended services at Calvary Church or strolled along the avenues. The English tutor was said to have gone West subsequently and been killed by Indians in the Badlands, or perhaps with General Custer in the battle of the Little Big Horn. If pedantic and proper Lucretia seemed an unlikely adulteress, even less does Edith's brief mention of her brothers' "extremely cultivated English tutor" fit a frontiersman felled by Indians. Yet, the rumor, which persisted beyond Edith Wharton's death, joined illicit love to frontier adventure.
Many foreigners went West in the late 1860s, and some joined Custer to fight Indians and secure lands in the westward expansion. But these men were usually immigrants with little or no education, not English public school graduates who could work for private wages. The Civil War created Custer, making him a major general while still in his mid-twenties. After the war, he became the darling of East Coast society and gained financial support from captains of industry and financiers such as August Belmont, who invested in frontier exploration. Custer may have met the tutor through New York society connections; in autumn 1866, the tutor would have been looking for work, the Joneses having left for Europe to wait out the postwar economic depression. Boat passenger and visa records reveal no "James Blake," or anyone else serving as teacher for Harry Jones (then sixteen years old), among the George Frederic Jones entourage.
The tutor might also have been among the Civil War veterans who comprised Custer's first troops of Indian fighters. War experience would explain his fighting capabilities; if he did father a child by the wife of his employer and thus needed to disappear from New York society, the Union forces would have offered a ready answer to his problem. According to the rumor, the tutor paid for his Indian adventures with his life. But his name is not included on the roll call of 262 men who died with General Custer on June 26, 1876, at the Little Big Horn River in Montana, in a battle with Lakotas led by Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, and Rain in the Face that lasted but twenty minutes.
A second, and in some ways more intriguing, story about Edith Wharton's birth combines May-December romance with society high life. In this whispered tale, she was said to be the daughter of Henry Peter Brougham, who gave his name to the elegant horse-drawn carriage. The first baron of Brougham and Vaux, redheaded Henry Peter was a learned, high-strung, passionate, and witty Scotsman who was appointed to high positions in the British government, first as attorney general and later as lord chancellor. An erudite and fiery lawyer, a political liberal who abhorred slavery and fought for educational and legal reform, he was also a lifelong student of the physical sciences, founder of the famed Edinburgh Speculative Society, and regular contributor to the Edinburgh Review.
When, in 1820, he successfully defended Queen Caroline against her husband's accusation of infidelity, Brougham became the most popular man in England, his portrait appearing on pub signs and in shop windows. Endowed with an excellent memory and a seemingly boundless command of language, he loved literature and good conversation and was a facile writer and powerful orator who accented his speech with angular motions of his arms. His oversized hands and awkward movements made him a frequent subject of caricature, but he was known for his strong "animal spirits" and said to have been a womanizer even in late old age. Restless and easily excited, he had a broad sense of humor and a keen grasp of the ludicrous. His qualities of mind and shared physical and psychological traits with his presumed daughter give the tale a certain comic truth value.
By 1860, when he was appointed chancellor of Edinburgh University, Lord Brougham lived most of the year in Cannes. Entertaining lavishly at his Villa Eléanore, he succeeded in transforming the little fishing village into a society capital. Like other wealthy Americans, George Frederic and Lucretia Jones often wintered in Cannes and were probably there in spring of 1861, when Lucretia became pregnant with Edith. The most improbable element of the paternity story, however, was Lord Brougham's age: when he was supposed to have bedded Lucretia and fathered Edith, he was nearly eighty-two years old.
That two such stories (and perhaps others we do not know of) circulated about Edith's birth suggests that neither was true, or at least not provable. They were efforts to explain a late pregnancy and the birth of a child so unlike other offspring of New York society as to seem a changeling. But each tale strikes a blow at Lucretia Jones's carefully guarded respectability. The first rumor cuts her down to size; in her womanly desires, she is weak, silly, even pitiable, taking whatever is closest at hand to satisfy herself. In the second tale, she is an object of outright ridicule. That haughty Mrs. Jones should have given herself to an ancient Scottish lord! The whispered tales speak volumes about the feelings Lucretia engendered in New York-Newport society--jealousy, resentment, envy, bitterness. They also support Edith's views of her mother as a closed and clannish woman who held to the narrowest definitions of "nice people" and "polite society," but who took for herself all the privileges of her social standing. An acknowledged mondaine, she may have given herself a margin of indiscretion she would not have allowed others. In both stories, George Frederic Jones plays the foolish cuckold, pretending not to notice his wife's infidelity, thus avoiding scandal.
If high society resented Lucretia's aloofness, it was openly curious about Edith, whose difference from young women of her circle and others of her family soon revealed itself. She was too precocious, too well read, too introspective, too firm in her opinions. The rumors purported to explain the source of Edith's talent while also undercutting her social status (the tutor story) and mocking aspects of her temperament and demeanor (the Lord Brougham story).
Edith did not learn of the rumors about her birth until later in life, but her fiction--especially during the extraordinarily prolific period of the 1920s--contains many tales of illegitimacy and secret love affairs, children given away or hidden away to avoid social scandal, and marriages of pretense. Two close women friends of Edith provided anecdotal evidence about the first rumor of her parentage and her reactions to it. Matilda Travers Gay, daughter of a prominent New York lawyer and man-about-town, William R. Travers, knew Edith as a child and maintained that she was the "image" of the tutor. George Frederic knew the circumstances of his wife's pregnancy, she said, and had agreed to love and care for Edith as though she were his own, even providing a substantial legacy for her in his will. Another friend, Margaret Terry Chanler, said that Edith not only had reason to believe she was the tutor's daughter, but also had once tried to trace him, only to learn that he was long dead.
Prior to World War I, when Edith was in her late forties, she had an extramarital affair hidden from her husband and their closest friends, and even from her servants, whose respect she did not want to lose. Her brothers, Frederic and Harry, had fewer scruples in this regard. When in the early 1890s Frederic was caught in an affair with a New York nouveau riche, he left the United States for France, where he lived with the woman for a time under an assumed identity. Late in life, Harry fell in love with a European woman who pretended to be a countess but was in reality a gold digger. He may have fathered a child by her, his "niece," a young woman he supported financially. To provide for his "niece" and the countess (whom he married just before his death), he disinherited both his sister, Edith, and Frederic's daughter, Beatrix Jones.
Edith Newbold Jones was born into a family rife with secrets and fearing scandal. Except for one, their secrets were sexual in nature. In 1863, Congress passed the National Conscription Act, declaring that all men between ages twenty and forty-five were eligible to serve in the "national forces." George Frederic Jones, forty-two years old, was required to register for the draft. In general, men of his class did register. They then paid commutation fees to keep their names out of the draft pool. (In the first year of the draft act, the U.S. Treasury collected nearly $12,000,000 in fees.) Others hired substitutes, usually bounders and fugitives, to take their places in the Union ranks. Grover Cleveland, future president of the United States, and Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., a member of the Joneses' social set, bought substitutes. Roosevelt suffered lifelong guilt for his action, guilt that his son Theodore, Edith's friend in adulthood, also felt. The New York City draft riots in July 1863 dramatized the rage against social and economic prejudice legalized under the draft act. George Frederic and his family were in Newport on Saturday, July 11, when violence erupted at 766 Third Avenue, the registry office where officials drew the first names for the draft. George Frederic had nothing to fear--he had not registered for the draft. For a gentleman, the risks of skirting the draft law were minimal; if caught, George Frederic would have paid a fine. He was not caught, and he apparently never revealed to anyone what he had done.
Edith was three years old when Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House. Grant would later become one of her great heroes, and among her favorite sayings was his answer when Lee asked if the Confederate cavalry should hand over its horses to Union forces: "No, you will need them for autumn ploughing," Grant said. These words, she told a friend years later, "are the expression of a whole world of feeling." In adulthood, she read widely on this period of American history, yet the war itself merits only a single mention in her autobiography, A Backward Glance (1934): the war resulted in an economic depression that forced her father to economize by taking his family to Europe, where they could live more cheaply. This "happy misfortune" gave Edith six years in Europe during a formative period of her youth. The Civil War figures in only two of her fictional works, but they provide revealing glimpses into the social climate of that time. "The Spark," one of the Old New York tales (1924), describes New York's Seventh Regiment marching off to battle in the glory days of 1861 to the sounds of marching bands and cheering crowds of bystanders on Broadway, soldiers' pockets stuffed with sandwiches made by Charley Delmonico, the society restaurateur.
"The Lamp of Psyche," written in 1893, the thirtieth anniversary of the draft act, is usually read as a tale of love inspired by the myth of Cupid and Psyche. It concerns a Boston gentleman who cannot explain how he avoided going to war. Edith projects a version of herself onto Delia, his wife, described as a "much-indulged" daughter of "incredibly frivolous" parents, a woman who "had never been very pretty" and who took herself with "a dash of contemptuous pity." When she asks her husband why he did not serve in the Union army, he first says, "I don't know," and then admits "the truth": "I've completely forgotten the excellent reasons that I doubtless had at the time for remaining at home." His response destroys his wife's "ideal" of him. She sees that the "long-past action was still a part of his actual being; he had not outlived or disowned it; he had not even seen that it needed defending." This statement captures the attitude of many society gentlemen who found ways to avoid military service, and it might be read as Edith's belated commentary on her father, a member of the Republican party but someone who had little sense of civic responsibility and felt no call toward political activism. "The Lamp of Psyche" suggests that she had pondered (although perhaps never openly inquired about) his activities during the Civil War.
Among Edith's forebears was a military hero, her maternal great-grandfather, Major General Ebenezer Stevens. Drafted into the artillery during the Revolution, he captained a regiment that besieged Quebec and later fought under General John Burgoyne at Ticonderoga and Saratoga. On a trip to Washington, D.C., as a girl, Edith visited the Capitol Rotunda and saw her great-grandfather portrayed in John Trumbull's Revolutionary War paintings. She had a "secret partiality" for him, admiring his "abounding energy and joie de vivre" (known as the "Great Progenitor," he fathered fourteen children). More importantly, she considered him a "model citizen," a man who lived a life of purpose. In his courage and resolve, he stood quite alone among her ancestors, and she proudly took him as a guide for her own behavior."
Our first glimpse of Edith is a miniature by an unknown artist made when she was three years old. Pale blue eyes peer wide-eyed from a squarish, chubby-cheeked face. Her lips are drawn in a bow, eyebrows sketched by two curved lines, the red hair pulled into big sausage curls at the temples. Later pictures emphasize her high, wide forehead and undershot jaw. In only one portrait, made in Europe by Edward Harrison May when she was five years old, could she be called beautiful. Posed in half-profile in a pale-blue taffeta dress trimmed in gray fur, her hands clasping a vase of flowers and her red-gold hair cascading gloriously down her back, she appears as a Renaissance child whose soft eyes and gentle smile might have engaged a court painter.
This is a rare view of Edith Jones, who more often is shown behatted and beribboned, a young lady of fashion frozen in place, devoid of spontaneity or personality. In stylized studio portraits of her adolescence, she tries to meet the camera's expectations, rarely smiling and often staring sad-eyed into the distance. By contrast, a little-known childhood photograph shows her dressed in a plain pinafore, her hair uncurled and bangs badly cut. No Renaissance princess or fashion mannequin, she looks tired and somewhat forlorn--but recognizably a real child. These visual images of young Edith dramatically expose the contradictions between the "safe, guarded, monotonous" little-girl world described in her memoirs and the lived experience of an impulsive tomboy who grew into a "self-conscious child."
"Much governessed and guarded," Edith said she had little awareness of her parents' activities. Yet, she sensed that her mother felt burdened by George Frederic's taste for New York and Newport society and by the responsibility of overseeing two large houses. "Society is completely changed nowadays," Lucretia would say. "When I was first married we knew everyone who kept a carriage." If a carriage signified social status in the 1840s, by the 1870s--when Edith heard her mother sigh over the changed standards--men with new, industrial wealth provided carriages for their "fashionable hetaera." Lucretia Jones was shocked by this open defiance of social propriety and embarrassed when her young daughter impertinently pointed out on Fifth Avenue a smart canary-yellow brougham with a coachman and high-stepping bays. Edith should turn her head when the dark-blue Jones carriage passed the yellow one, her mother said. The shiny carriage that caught Edith's eye belonged to financier August Belmont, purchased for his lover, a woman he "kept" in a Madison Avenue apartment.
By the standards of the later Gilded Age, the Joneses lived a simple life centered on social and church activities. They entertained at small dinners and luncheons with close friends and relatives--except on January 1, the official opening of the winter season, when Lucretia gave an open house. In the Dutch tradition, the master of the house prepared a special punch from the family Madeira (which had "gone round the Cape") and then joined his men friends in making New Year's morning calls. At each house, they drank "bumpers of Madeira" and tasted baked goods and other delicacies served by the mistress of the house. Diarist George Templeton Strong recalled that Lucretia Jones's open house on New Year's Day 1860 was particularly festive.
George Frederic enjoyed strolling along New York streets, and by the time she was four, Edith regularly accompanied him. She dated the birth of her identity from a promenade up Fifth Avenue on a bright, sunny midwinter day in 1866. Dressed in a warm wool coat and pretty satin bonnet trimmed in tartan plaid, she looked out on the world through a filigreed veil of Shetland wool covering her eyes and cheeks, her small, mittened hand lying inside the "large safe hollow" of her father's warm hand. Along the way, they met her cousin Daniel Fearing. An outgoing little boy, he lifted her veil and planted a bold kiss on her cheek. She was thus "wakened to conscious life by the two tremendous forces of love and vanity." A web of sensations formed around this event--the feel of winter cold, the slanting sunlight seen through the filigreed veil, the little boy's kiss, her father's large, warm hand, and the wide avenue lined with brownstones. Possessing an acute visual memory and a delicate sensitivity to customs, manners, and emotional atmospheres, Edith later re-created Old New York in stories and novels by drawing on her earliest experiences. Walking with her father up Fifth Avenue that winter morning, she was already seeing the world through the eyes of a storyteller.
Edith descended from prosperous English and Dutch merchants, bankers, and lawyers: on her mother's side, the Stevenses, Ledyards, and Rhinelanders; on her father's, the Schermerhorns, Pendletons, and Joneses. George Frederic and Lucretia were distant cousins (related through the Gallatins), and although theirs were not aristocratic colonial families, they traced their New World roots back nearly three hundred years. When young George Frederic and "Lu" met in the early 1840s, they had everything in common but wealth. Edith recounted her parents' courtship and the first years of their marriage as a romantic tale of a tall, handsome young man born of a prestigious and wealthy family who at age twenty fell in love with the eldest (and least pretty) of the "poor Rhinelander girls," whose father had died young, leaving his wife, daughters, and son in diminished circumstances.
Although Rhinelander men were renowned for business enterprise, Frederick William Rhinelander (Lucretia's father) preferred literature to his account books. The family fortunes fell further after his death, when his brother, charged with managing the properties, made himself rich at the expense of the widow and children. The theme of indolent men with inherited wealth and little business sense who died young and left their wives and children without adequate support would become a staple of Edith Wharton's fiction. She herself was victimized by cousins who managed her trusts ineptly; she fought her brother Frederic, who profited through inheritances meant for Edith and Harry, and she provided financial support for her disadvantaged sister-in-law and niece.
Wishing a better match for their son, and thinking him too young to marry, George Frederic Jones's parents forbade him to see "Miss Rhinelander of Hell Gate." His father even denied him the sailing boat that would have carried him easily from what is now East Eighty-first Street up Long Island Sound to the "pretty country house with classic pilasters and balustraded roof" where Lucretia lived. Wily as Odysseus, George Frederic early one morning turned the oar of his rowboat into a mast and made his bed quilt into a sail. Thus rigged out, he hurried to his lady love. Devotion eventually overcame parental objection, and in 1844, George married Lu. Like other fashionable young couples, they honeymooned in Cuba, traveling in volantes to visit plantations. Returning to New York, they set up housekeeping at 80 East Twenty-first Street in Gramercy Park.
A graduate of Columbia College, George Frederic had received an "Honorary Testimonial" degree in 1841, one of only two graduates in the first class of the "Literary and Scientific Course." His studies prepared him for the career of gentleman of leisure that he pursued for the rest of his life. His bride, who with her sisters had learned needlework, music, drawing, and "languages" (drawing room French, Italian, and German), took her place among the young society matrons of the day. She looked forward to a life of hospitality and foreign travel, and in these ways "avenged" the indignities of her social debut two seasons earlier in 1842. The reduced family fortunes and her position as the eldest and least beautiful of the Rhinelander daughters had meant that Lucretia appeared at her coming-out ball dressed in a homemade white tarlatan gown and her mother's hand-me-down satin slippers. Suffering martyrdom in pinched shoes that impeded her dancing, she "never ceased to resent the indignity inflicted on her." As Mrs. George Frederic Jones, she adorned herself in furs, feathers, and satin bonnets; her ball gowns came from the rue de la Paix and her jewels from Cartier. She discovered the capital of fashion on her first trip to the Continent in 1847, three years after her marriage, when she and George Frederic traveled for a year in Europe with their infant son, Frederic.
Paris was the pièce de résistance of that long voyage by boat, train, and diligence from England to France, Holland and Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Italy. George Frederic loved Paris--a city of theater, opera, flower markets, museums, and restaurants--and he and Lucretia made two visits on this tour, first in spring 1847 and again in winter 1848. It was an adventuresome undertaking for a young couple, and "a very strenuous journey for people with a small child," as George Frederic remarked in his travel diary. Lucretia and the baby were often ill. The trip came to an unexpected end in spring 1848, when revolution broke out in Paris and the monarchy fell. Riots began on February 22, and two days later, from the balcony of their rue de Rivoli hotel, the Joneses witnessed the abdicated King Louis Philippe and Queen Marie Amélie escape across the Tuileries Gardens. (Lucretia, with her "inexhaustible memory" for fashion details, noted in the royal family's brief and dramatic passage the special features of their court dress.) George Frederic recorded in his diary that mobs then "pillaged the palace," throwing from its windows furniture and clothing that were later burned in the garden.
Despite such scenes, and the presence of 100,000 troops in the city, the Joneses did not leave Paris immediately. For three more months, they kept up their daily routine: while Lucretia was fitted for her first Paris wardrobe, George Frederic took afternoon strolls. Four weeks to the day after the riots began, while walking with his two-year-old son, Frederic, in the Tuileries, George Frederic noted that the gardens were now "too democratic to be pleasant." By March, the spirit of revolution had spread to Vienna and Berlin, cities they had visited the previous year. Although worried about general unrest, George Frederic and Lucretia maintained their rounds of theater and opera until they encountered serious difficulties getting money through letters of credit. On May 25, after weeks of Paris street demonstrations that ended in the dissolution of the National Assembly, they left for England. George Frederic detested London ("certainly the most wretched place under heaven"), and within days of their arrival he fell into a deep depression. "All the style in London [is] to be found in the horses and carriages," he noted in his diary, "the men and women have certainly very little of it." He admitted to being desperately homesick, and by June 1, 1848, he and his family were on their way back to New York.
George Frederic had enjoyed introducing his bride to places he had seen on his Grand Tour in 1838, when he crossed the ocean with his father on one of the last sailing passenger ships. Edith, who made the transatlantic voyage by steamship some sixty times in her life (despite her fear of the ocean), and who traveled extensively in Europe and North Africa, caught the romance of travel from her father's stories. George Frederic's Grand Tour abroad, however, was his father's last journey. Edward Renshaw Jones died in 1839, leaving his son a small fortune in Manhattan and Brooklyn real estate that supported Lucretia and her three children long after George Frederic's death in 1882.
The answer to many problems in Old New York, whether the threat of social scandal or a drop in the family fortunes, was travel abroad. Thus, in 1866, with property values falling, the Jones family rented out their New York and Newport houses and booked passage for France, where Edith (nearing her fifth birthday) caught her first glimpses of the "background of beauty and old-established order" that would define her aesthetic tastes and sensibilities. On November 17, 1866, as the country struggled with the social, political, and economic realities of Reconstruction, George Frederic Jones swore his allegiance to the Constitution and government of the United States of America, paid $5, and received a passport to travel abroad.
He sailed to Europe with his wife, daughter, and two sons, accompanied by Hannah Doyle, who doubled as Edith's nurse and Lucretia's personal maid. Except for Frederic, who had graduated from Columbia College in 1865 with a "gentleman's degree" in beaux-arts and later completed a master of arts degree, the Jones family remained in Europe until June 1872. During their first two years abroad, Harry finished his preparations for university, and on April 10, 1868, was admitted as a pensioner to Trinity Hall, Cambridge University. Monseigneur Gardiner, chaplain of Paris, sponsored him and certified his private studies. In 1872, Harry received his bachelor of arts degree. In these same years, George Frederic taught Edith to read, and she gained fluency in French and Italian, and began to study German.
Edith's love of Europe, and especially of Italy, began in the family's first year abroad, which they spent in Rome. Bathed in spring sunshine, the city of romantic ruins awakened her senses to the perfume of violets and daffodils heaped on the Spanish Steps, the sounds of locanda music echoing from Trastevere, and the feel of "springy turf" underfoot on the grounds of great Roman villas, where she walked with her mother among statues and stone pines. Relieved of entertaining and household management duties, Lucretia spent time with her daughter. Together they searched the Palatine slopes for porphyry and lapis lazuli fragments, relics of the palace of the Caesars that Lucretia turned into paperweights and inkstands. In good weather, Hannah Doyle accompanied Edith to the Monte Pincio high above the city and watched as Edith rolled hoops and skipped rope with one of her earliest childhood playmates, Margaret Terry ("Daisy") and her little brother, Arthur. They were the children of Louisa Ward (sister of writer Julia Ward Howe) and Luther Terry, an expatriate American artist who made his living painting portraits of his compatriots. The two girls would not become real friends until many years later, after they both were married, but in her mind's eye, Daisy recalled "Pussy" Jones's "quantity of long red-gold hair" and her "smart little sealskin coat, the first I ever saw."
Although adventurous in few other ways, Edith's parents next took her on an arduous (some would say foolhardy) journey across central Spain to the southern cities of Córdoba and Seville. Under the spell of Washington Irving's Alhambra, George Frederic wished to see the Moorish courtyards and fountains of Granada's ancient palace fortress. Of her months in Rome, Edith recalled the scent of box hedges and the texture of "weather-worn sun-gilt stone," but the Spanish trip produced in her jumbled sensations--jingling diligence bells, cracking whips and yelling muleteers, jabbering beggars, squalid posadas, a breakdown on a windswept sierra, and the taste of chocolate and olives. "From that wild early pilgrimage," she wrote years later, "I brought back an incurable passion for the road." Letting her passion take its lead, as an adult she crisscrossed Europe in chauffeur-driven luxury cars, accompanied by friends, members of her household staff, and pampered lapdogs. Spain, which changed less during a half-century than any other of the European countries that Edith knew well, drew her back four more times, three of the trips taking place in the final decade of her life. Although the extremes of temperature and the dirt and noisy confusion of Spain did not hold the same charm for her then as they had in her early childhood, she loved the country in her last years primarily for its links to the Middle Ages--the period in art, architecture, and literature that she loved best. Still searching for her spiritual roots, she was twice willing in the last years of her life to brave foul weather, bad roads, questionable food and lodging to visit Santiago de Compostela.
Edith's parents eventually tired of traveling and settled in Paris for two years (1868-1870), taking an apartment at 61 avenue Joséphine on the Right Bank. A member of the international Paris community, George Frederic was well known to the American Legation and to local religious and government offices, whose combined services he used to establish credit, arrange housing, and find doctors, dentists, and legal assistance. A founding member of the Anglican Holy Trinity parish, he cultivated the society of transplanted New Yorkers and Newporters, and joined in the rounds of dinners and evenings at the opera and theater."
Two events of this period directed Edith toward literature. She discovered "making up," a form of storytelling that combined intense imaginative and sensual pleasures, and she learned the alphabet. Henry Bedlow, a mustached elderly family friend from Newport, shared her "secret story-world." After Sunday dinner, he would draw her onto his knee and tell her tales of the Greek gods and goddesses. Edith recast these mythic figures, envisioning them as the ladies and gentlemen she saw riding in the Bois de Boulogne or along the Champs Elysées, the ladies in flounced taffetas lounging indolently in open daumont carriages flanked by escorts of handsome outriders. Telling these stories out loud to herself, she experienced a rush of pleasure at the sounds of her words.
She discovered other pleasures in the physical properties of certain books. The Galignani Press edition of Washington Irving's Alhambra--with its closely printed pages, heavy black type, narrow margins, and rough-edged yellow sheets--made her fancy swell, burst, and overflow, sweeping her off "full sail on the sea of dreams." (Books sometimes produced in her powerfully erotic, even frightening, responses that only later in life did she recognize as sexual.) When overcome by the urge to "make up," Edith shut herself in her mother's bedroom and paced the floor, Alhambra in hand (often upside down, as she did not yet know how to read), turning its pages in rhythm to her own voice. Curious about her activities, nurses and parents spied through cracks and keyholes. Lucretia tried to copy down Edith's words, but they flowed so quickly she could not capture them. At first amused by this strange ritual, the Joneses became increasingly concerned about the compelling power the imagined world exerted over their daughter, a power she later called a "devastating passion" and a "perilous obsession."
To "make up," Edith had to move about and pace the floor. Reading, however, required that she sit immobile. Telling stories triggered physical urges, movement and speech, but reading induced a motionless and fixed concentration. Finding her in this trancelike pose one day, her parents discovered she was reading Ludovic Halévy's Fanny Lear, a play about a prostitute that was having a succès de scandale in the late 1860s. Edith, age six, now divided her time between improvising tales and reading books that her mother judged appropriate for her. When her maternal grandmother, Mary Stevens Rhinelander, came for an extended visit, Edith read Tennyson's Idylls of the King aloud to her. Lacecapped and wrapped in black moiré silk, Grandmamma was very deaf, but she dutifully held up a japanned ear trumpet as her granddaughter shouted out the verses. Edith felt her body tingle in "rhythmic raptures" at words she did not understand.
Discovery of this sensual and dramatic "other" world separated Edith from children who did not know how to enter her "labyrinth." Her parents worried about her self-absorption. Reflecting on these events many years later, Edith dismissed their concerns. In her external life, she said, she had all the "normal instincts" of her sex-enjoying pretty dresses, puppies, and romps with little boys in the tree-lined allées of the Champs Elysées. Girls did not interest her, nor did she like to play with dolls, and she reluctantly (but obediently) attended parties and dancing classes, such as the one conducted by Mlle Michelet, a stern, mustached ex-ballerina. Although a tomboy, Edith was already familiar with feminine arts, and she displayed her gifts to best advantage. Playing ball or skipping rope with the Harrys, Willies, and Georgies, she shook out her long red hair "so that it caught in the sun!" A few years later, she amused herself by stealing the handsome German fiancé of a daughter of the Livingston family. He was attracted to her "sense of fun," and she enjoyed keeping his "poor fiancée on the rack for a few weeks." It was, she admitted, the only adventure she ever embarked on with "malice prepense."
Edith's account of her awakening to written and spoken words leaves no doubt that they produced in her ecstatic, almost orgasmic, responses. Possessed by a "furious Muse," a "Pythoness-fury," she answered their call with "accumulated floods of ... pent-up eloquence." Such moments transported her "body and soul" into a state of exultation, and she experienced "exquisite relief" from her struggle to "be like other children." Her desire for language--whether Holy Writ, Renaissance sonnets, or everyday vernacular--transgressed the boundaries of convention. Even at this early age, she was pulled between conforming to social codes and giving free rein to her powers of expression.
Edith noticed that her father was also moved by language, especially the King James Bible and the long sweep and strong beat of Tennyson's verse. "I imagine there was a time," she wrote, "when his rather rudimentary love of verse might have been developed had he had any one with whom to share it." But his wife's matter-of-factness "shrivelled up any such buds of fancy" in him. Edith wondered what kind of man her father was meant to be, what desires had been stifled in him. She first pictured him in her mind's eye as the "tall splendid father who was always so kind." Later, she saw him in his ground-floor study in the West Twenty-third Street house, bent over his household account books, diminished by economic worries and marital strains into "my poor father." At the end of his life, he stared mutely from his deathbed, a victim of paralytic stroke, who struggled in vain to convey a good-bye message to his twenty-year-old daughter, who sat at his bedside.
Edith sensed that her father was "lonely" and "haunted by something always unexpressed and unattained." She hinted that nearly forty years of marriage to Lucretia had reduced George Frederic, the handsome, blue-eyed suitor, into a broken and disappointed man. He had sailed up Long Island Sound to meet his beloved at dawn on a summer's day. But it was a "false dawn," as his beloved apparently had no poetry in her soul.
As an adolescent, Lucretia Rhinelander read and copied out into a black notebook sentimental Victorian verse by John Jacob Guerney and the moral inspirations of Lydia Sigourney. Except for William Wordsworth's "A perfect creature nobly planned," Lucretia's choices were ones that her daughter--into whose hands the notebook eventually came--would hardly call poetry. A typical example is Rosa Patience McNevan's "My Childhood's Hours," copied by Lucretia in 1838, when she was fourteen. It describes an ideal mother's love, one that in Lucretia's upbringing was perhaps more longed for than achieved.
My childhood's hours! my childhood's hours!
How oft my thoughts fly back
To that sweet time when brightest flowers,
Seem'd strew'd on Life's dull track....
And when a teardrop filled my eyes
Caused by my infant woes
A mother's voice would calm my sighs
And still me to repose.
Brimming with nostalgia and regret, composed in singsong rhythms and banal images, the poem is maudlin Victoriana. It illuminates a vulnerable, pathetic side of the young Lucretia Rhinelander that by adulthood had hardened into orthodoxy. Spontaneity and girlish enthusiasms had, apparently, been early killed. She was only twelve years old when her father died in 1836, aged forty. As the eldest child, Lucretia would have felt the loss more keenly than did her siblings, not only the economic deprivations that required her to wear her mother's hand-me-downs at her debutante ball, but also in bearing the emotional demands of her mother and in assuming greater responsibility for her younger sisters and brother. As an adult, Lucretia attended to her widowed mother out of filial duty (as Edith would do for Lucretia), but she never forgave Mrs. Rhinelander for the indignity of her "coming out." Edith never forgave Lucretia for failing to give her the love and affection she showered on her sons.