Although I have almost zero interest in military strategy, I do believe I would read a biography of Vice Admiral Nelson if Hermione Lee wrote one. Her prose is an absolute pleasure, she's insightful and nuanced, and I'm very lucky that she happens to specialize in authors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, rather than in tire manufacturers or bank directors. Her most recent book, Edith Wharton, only heightens my esteem: she paints a complex, multi-dimensional portrait of Wharton, never glossing over her less attractive features, but never sensationalizing or over-simplifying them either.
Diving into a biography is sometimes daunting, because there are usually many pages before one even reaches the object of one's interest. A biographer will often begin far back on the paternal side of the subject's ancestry, working gradually up to her father's meeting with her mother. Then, when the birth of the subject is almost in view, the reader must backtrack into the mists of ancestry on the maternal side, and spend another chunk of time waiting for the subject's mother to meet her father. We then hear all about their courtship, still waiting patiently for the subject to be born. All of this is important information, of course, but the strictly chronological accounts in many biographies don't do much to elucidate why it's important: the ways in which the subject herself interacted with her parents; how her ancestry shaped her; conflicts in her adult life that may have had their seeds in her parents' relationships. Lee takes a more organic approach, incorporating into the accounts of Wharton's upbringing and ancestry glimpses of the woman she would become, and the complicated relationship she would develop with her upper-class "Old New York" parentage. I found that, in addition to being infinitely more enjoyable to read, this method allowed me to get more out of the sections on Wharton's parents than I usually do. Thanks to Lee's early sign-posting of relevant aspects of the parent-child relationship in the Jones household, I was able to absorb, remember, and apply my reading in the early chapters to events much later in the book.
This organic, nuanced approach extends to Lee's treatment of the relationship between art and biography. While the events of a writer's life obviously affect her art, many biographers take an overly simplistic view of the way in which that manifests. Some critics, for example, will reduce the work of a writer who suffered from mental illness into a list of symptoms, completely erasing the writer's own agency in creating her art. Or they will hone in on an artist's political liberalism or conservatism, but fail to examine the nuances of those politics, the tensions and harmonies between the artist and any movements in which he may have taken part. Lee's analysis, by contrast, is patient and complex. This is lucky, because Edith Wharton mined material from her own life in varied and unexpected ways. Characters who display surface details culled from her past in Old New York may share very little with their creator on a deeper level, and in her most autobiographical pieces her "self" is often split between multiple characters in a novel or story. She repeatedly re-worked specific themes - forbidden sexuality, or a person still haunted by obsolete social strictures - which were suggested by her experience and deeply important to her in her own life, but in ways that bear little resemblance to her specific circumstances.
A particularly subtle, and touching, elucidation of the life/art relationship has to do with The Age of Innocence, which Wharton wrote just after the death of her dear friend and fellow-writer, Henry James. The two were close in a deep yet complicated way that allowed for certain resentments on either side. James tended to caricature Wharton to other members of their peer group, and Wharton spent her entire career fighting against a critical reputation as "a female Henry James." Yet the two supported each other more-or-less successfully through dark times. (As a gossipy aside, James was instrumental in introducing Wharton to the one physical passion of her life, Morton Fullerton, and proceeded to form an awkward third to many of their rendezvous and quarrels, much like a character out of one of his own novels). Lee points out that The Age of Innocence was the first book Wharton had written since her very early career that James would not read, and delicately examines the many nods to different James plots and characters that are scattered throughout the novel. Considering Wharton's life-long struggle to divorce her work from James in the public imagination, it's even more poignant that she would engage in this kind of public elegy for her lost friend, in the medium they shared - and, at the same time, as always, she is re-working and commenting on his writing as she honors it.
One of the things I appreciate most about Lee is that she respects the passions of her subjects, even if they may be unexpected from a reader's point of view. As she begins a long section on Wharton's gardens, she reminds us that
This expensive, pleasurable, and profound obsession should not be thought of by non-gardeners as a form of quietism or a mere hobby. ... Apart from traveling, writing, reading, and seeing her friends, this, for the rest of her life, was what she did. ... She was a writer and gardener, and her gardens became, for those who saw them and heard about them, as admired as her books.
As a reader and a human, I find this kind of reminder extremely useful. There exists in every life more than we expect, more than we care about when we begin our examination. Just because we enter into the life of Wharton wanting to read about her books, doesn't mean that we should pass over other passions that sustained her just as much. Lee does a beautiful job of portraying how crucial and soul-sustaining gardening was for Wharton, how she strove toward her gardening vision, exulted in her successes, and mourned deeply when her entire garden was killed by a freak storm and cold snap as she approached old age. Gardens may not be that important to me, but through Lee's eloquence I grasped their deep and lasting importance for Wharton, and connected that importance to similarly life-giving elements of my own life.
But as lovely as the gardening section is, my favorite pages deal with Wharton's 4,000-volume library, beautifully bound, much read and marked up. Only a careful and passionate reader like Lee could communicate the excitement and joy of connecting with Wharton through the record she left of a life of reading:
These marginal marks make up a form of autobiography. There are love gifts from Fullerton and copies of his work; affectionate dedications from James; copies of Berry's books; books she could not discuss with Teddy, or that were left over from his own minimal collection; books that once belonged to her father, her mother or her brothers; early gifts from a great variety of French writers, presentation copies from Theodore Roosevelt. There are old book-plates from Land's End, and the ownership signatures of "Edith Jones." There are corrections she made in her copies of her own works. Her books do not just provide evidence for her life story, they were also protagonists in it, and the equivalent of old friends.
I love this idea of books, marked-up and idiosyncratically organized, as somewhere between a record of one's life and a room of one's friends. It's how I feel about my own library, and a source of joy to me every day. Occurring, as it does, toward the end of the biography, this section on Wharton's library is a chance for the reader to look back over the course of her long life from a different perspective, and to access her feelings in a different, and possibly more intimate, way.
There's no avoiding it, Edith Wharton is long: 762 pages in paperback, discounting the copious notes section. It's a commitment, and there are quirks that strike the modern reader as odd: Lee's decision, for example, not to translate most of her French quotations. (I personally quite liked this, since I read French middling-well and prefer not to read the same passage twice, but I can understand how it might get frustrating for the majority of English readers.) But to me, every page of this tome was worthwhile. I now feel I know someone new: a driven, passionate, flawed individual, one I appreciate and disagree with, one who would probably not like or humor me if we had dinner together, but one who seems tangibly present thanks to this biography. My own copy of Edith Wharton is just as marked-up as Wharton's volumes of Keats or Proust, and will be a good friend to me from now on.
(Edith Wharton was my sixth book for the 9 for 2009 Challenge.)