It’s the sesquicentennial of the birth of Edith Wharton today. Born, as all the biographical info say, into an aristocratic New York family, Edith Newbold Jones lived in a refined and elegant world. Indeed, the Jones in her name was the original Jones in the expression, “keeping up with the Jones.”

Family money meant her family could flee the war-torn and impoverished United States following the Civil War and for six years, as a child, Wharton lived in Europe.

She was educated by governesses and wrote her first book at the age of 11. The anecdote that came of it provides an insight into the world she knew. Wharton’s childhood writings begins: “Oh Mrs. Brown…If only I had known you were going to call I should have tidied up the drawing-room.” After showing the book to her mother, Wharton’s mother, a chilly and remote woman, gave her critique. “Drawing-rooms are always tidy.”

What is most admirable about Edith Wharton, I think, is the fact that she became a professional writer in her late 30s and was a recognized expert in interior design and landscaping.

She didn’t have to work but unlike so many in her set and her generation, Wharton felt like she had something to prove. Her home at 19 Washington Square North still exists and a New York Times article from 2004 has details of the New York of her times.


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