Sunday, 27 April 2014

Edith Wharton , Julian Fellowes and The American "Gilded Age" ...

A rich new life of a great novelist. The first biography of Edith Wharton by a British woman writer, it challenges the accepted view, showing Wharton's lifelong ties to Europe and displaying her as a tough, erotically brave, startlingly modern writer and woman.

The name 'Edith Wharton' conjures up 'Gilded Age' New York, in all its snobbery and ruthlessness - the world of The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth. This major new biography upsets the stereotype. This Edith Wharton is not the genteel, nostalgic chronicler of a vanished age but a fiercely modern author, writing of sex, love, money and war - a woman of strong convictions and conflicting ambitions and desires.

Born in 1862 during the Civil War, Wharton broke away from her wealthy background and travelled extensively and adventurously in Europe, eventually settling in Paris. During the First World War she committed herself heroically to war-work and lived in France, her 'second country', until her death in 1937. She created fabulous homes in New England and France, and her life was filled with remarkable friends, including Henry James, Bernard Berenson, Aldous Huxley and Kenneth Clark. She ran her professional life with energy, writing on her travels and on Italian villas and gardens, and publishing poetry, plays, essays and short stories as well as her powerful novels. But Wharton had her secrets, including a passionate secret mid-life love affair. She was unhappily married, childless and divorced, and knew loneliness and anguish. Her brilliant, disturbing fiction shows her deep understanding of the longing and struggle in women's lives.

This masterly biography delves into every aspect of Wharton's extraordinary life-story. It shifts the emphasis towards Europe and places her more clearly than ever before in her social context and her history. In particular, it shows in fascinating detail how she worked and what lies at the heart of her magnificent and subtle books.

Untidying the drawing-room
Edith Wharton may have repudiated the customs of her country, but it provided material for her masterpieces. Elaine Showalter reviews Hermione Lee's biography
Elaine Showalter
The Guardian, Saturday 10 February 2007 /

Edith Wharton
by Hermione Lee
853pp, Chatto & Windus, £25

In her memoir, A Backward Glance (1934), Edith Wharton recalled her first attempts at writing when she was 11 years old. Her fledgling novel began: "Oh, how do you do, Mrs Brown? ... If only I had known you were going to call I should have tidied up the drawing-room." But when little Edith shyly offered it to her mother, the stately New York matron Lucretia Newbold Jones, the response was chilly and withering: "Drawing-rooms are always tidy."

The anecdote is a favourite of Wharton's biographers, and Hermione Lee quotes it early in her monumentally conceived and impressively executed study of Wharton's life and times. All the seeds of Wharton's work and psyche are contained therein - her fascination with the ethnography of upper-class societies from old New York to the Parisian faubourg, and her obsession with interior décor and its suggestive symbolism of the pristine female body. Throughout her life, Wharton struggled to free her subversive imagination from the bonds imposed upon her by her past. Most sensationally, she had a passionate affair at the age of 46 with a younger American journalist, Morton Fullerton, and left her accounts of it for posterity to discover, a fact first revealed by RWB Lewis in his 1975 biography. In novels such as Summer (1917), she explored the issues of erotic tension in unhappy marriages, while a manuscript fragment, "Beatrice Palmato", is an explicit, almost pornographic, account of father-daughter incest. (Lee calls it "lush and dated", and wryly notes that "reticence has its stylistic advantages".)

Wharton had a late start as a novelist, becoming a professional writer in her late 30s. But she was disciplined and productive, publishing 48 books, including collections of short stories, novellas, poems, essays, travel writing and literary criticism. How should a biographer find a key to a writer so varied? Lee approaches Wharton as "an American in Paris", a writer who broke away from the roots of her own American upbringing to live abroad, and whose deepest connections were to European culture and European values. In her work and life, Wharton repudiated the customs of her country, including the slangy sounds of her mother-tongue. "My first weeks in America are always miserable," she wrote to her friend Sally Norton upon one return from France in 1903. " ... All of which outburst is due to my first sight of American streets, my first hearing of American voices, & the wild, disheveled, backwoods look of everything when one first comes home!" The following year, her alienation had increased: "A whole nation developing without the sense of beauty, and eating bananas for breakfast." How a country she found so aesthetically abrasive, intellectually uncongenial and culturally primitive could in fact be Wharton's "home", and how her cultural exile formed her literary art, are among the themes Lee pursues in this comprehensive and insightful book.

Acknowledged in the last few decades as a major American writer, and newly popular since the filming of several of her novels, Wharton has been the subject of many biographical studies, critical revisions and ideological controversies. She has been described as a woman who hated women; a survivor of childhood sexual abuse; the victim of an unstable and deceitful husband and a painful divorce; a neurasthenic who was treated by the notorious rest-cure specialist Dr Silas Weir Mitchell. Lee rejects all of these labels as unproven - there is no evidence for abuse, for example - or oversimplified. None comes close to explaining her genius, and they underestimate her "toughness and resolve". Lee also gives relatively short shrift to more recent, politically charged critiques of Wharton's snobbery, racism and anti-semitism. She frankly notes the blunt references to "Yids" and other racial and ethnic slurs in Wharton's letters (deleted or omitted by early editors), but places them against the richer, more complex and contradictory contexts of the fiction.

Lee is out to understand Wharton, not to vilify or sanctify her. She gives a much fuller account of Wharton's working methods than anyone has before, looking at manuscript revisions, and at Wharton's many tantalisingly unfinished stories and novels. She seems to have read everything Wharton wrote, and all that has been written about her; and she is a discriminating and generous critic who offers full, fresh and incisive discussions of all the novels and scores of the short stories. She traces Wharton's strenuous intellectual self-formation, from her early reading of Darwin, Spencer, Nietzsche, Huxley, Frazer and Veblen, to her mature studies of European painting and art. She delicately untangles the psychological and literary intricacies of Wharton's friendship with Henry James, who both was and was not her Master and mentor in the novel, and whose influence she both cherished and derided. Wharton's generously intended but sometimes botched schemes to funnel money to James, the social geometry of her friendships and rivalries with James's homosexual and bisexual circle at Howard Sturgis's English country house Qu'Acre, his serio-comic efforts to resist her powerful personality (he called her the Firebird and the Eagle) and her futile efforts to escape being pigeon-holed as his imitator and heiress make this an inexhaustibly fascinating subject for analysis. Lee also pays close attention to Wharton's often overlooked work for France in the first world war, her many books and efforts on behalf of the French cause and her anger, outrage and shame regarding US foreign policy before America entered the war.

To the French, Lee points out, Wharton was "an American who loved France and whose novels brilliantly explained America to the French". She was also admired, and felt at home, in England, where she once hoped to buy a great country house. But her self-created, self-aggrandising position as the exceptional American abroad, the anti-American American, also had its pitfalls for her art. Lee calls The Custom of the Country (1913) her greatest novel, rightly praising it as "tightly themed, highly controlled". But Lee could say more about the limitations of Wharton's ferocious attack on American capitalism, consumerism and acquisitiveness. Custom is also Wharton's most obtuse statement about the promise of democracy. Her anti-heroine Undine Spragg is indeed avaricious, ruthless and vain, a midwestern Becky Sharp; but Wharton also mocks Undine's lack of sensitivity to class distinctions, and absence of religious prejudice, as signs of provincial ignorance. When a French aristocrat denounces Undine, he also condemns an entire pioneer nation: "You come from hotels as big as towns, and from towns as flimsy as paper, where the streets haven't had time to be named, and the buildings are demolished before they are dry, and the people are as proud of changing as we are of holding on to what we have." Although Wharton had travelled extensively in England, France, Italy, Germany and north Africa, she had seen little of the United States beyond New England and New York. In the decades that followed, she would retell and reframe her expatriate story of "nostalgia and distaste", while other American novelists such as Willa Cather and Sherwood Anderson were exploring the dreams and tragedies of the inhabitants of those small towns.

In her book Body Parts: Writing About Lives, Lee discusses the problems of ending biographies, particularly dealing with the subject's death; should it be milked for pathos and meaning or understated? She de-dramatises Wharton's death from a stroke in August 1937. But she also chooses to end her lengthy biography with an anecdote, rather than a considered summing-up and celebration of Wharton's literary achievement, and in the absence of a critical conclusion, that anecdote bears a lot of weight. In her final pages, Lee describes her pilgrimage to Wharton's "plain, rather ugly" grave outside Versailles: "The tomb was covered with weeds, old bottles, and a very ancient pot of dead flowers. Clearly no one had been there for a long time." To Lee, the untended, unvisited grave suggests the anomaly and the cost of Wharton's permanent exile and deracination. In the rain, she "weeded Edith" and decorated her grave with a silk azalea bought from the cemetery flower-shop. "She would probably have been scornful about the artificial flower, but would, I felt, have been glad to have her grave tidied up." In this diminishing and muted ending, one hears the echo of Lucretia Newbold Jones: "Graves are always tidy." But neither Wharton nor the reader should have cause for complaint.

· Elaine Showalter is writing a literary history of American women's writing from 1650 to 2000

New show: Julian Fellowes, pictured at The Mount, in Lenox, Massachusetts, the estate of Edith Wharton, who will likely star in his drama for NBC on the Gilded Age in New York

NBC signs 'Downton Abbey' creator for U.S. period drama focusing on the fortunes of 'the princes of the American Renaissance' during the Gilded Age in New York
'The Gilded Age' could air as early as Fall 2013
Era was marked by the rise of industry, invention and finance from the late 1800s to the early 1900s
Characterized by J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller and Cornelius Vanderbilt - as well as the Astor family

The first two seasons of British period drama 'Downton Abbey' have taken U.S. audiences by storm, and plans are now in place for America to receive a period drama of its own.
And now, just six weeks out from series three, NBC has signed its Oscar-winning creator, Julian Fellowes, to come up with a show based on America's past.
Set in late 19th century New York City, 'The Gilded Age' will follow the lives of 'the princes of the American Renaissance, and the vast fortunes they made - and spent.'

The new television drama will be produced by the NBC Universal television studio and could be on the air as early as Fall 2013.
'This was a vivid time with dizzying, brilliant ascents and calamitous falls, of record-breaking ostentation and savage rivalry,' Mr Fellowes said in a statement.
Lavish: Mansions, like the one belonging to Cornelius Vanderbilt, sprung up along Fifth Avenue at the height of the Gilded Age

'(It was) a time when money was king.'
The Gilded Age in New York was marked by the rise of industry, invention and transportation.

The era was personified in bankers J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and Cornelius Vanderbilt.
They were the business pioneers who became America's first millionaires after founding steel, oil and finance.
As lavish mansions sprung up along Fifth Avenue, the Gilded Age was also the time when the Astor family rose to prominence, eventually becoming 'the landlords of New York.'
The famed Waldorf-Astoria hotel, Manhattan’s Astor Place and the Astoria neighborhood of Queens are just a few of the locations that continue to carry the Astor name.

NBC reportedly passed up 'Downton Abbey' at the start, believing the costume drama wouldn't appeal to American viewers.
The glorified soap opera follows the aristocratic Crawley family; their romances, tragedies and endless struggles of the manor's many servants.
The commercial and critical success of 'Downton Abbey' has been huge since it graced U.S. screens two years ago.

It has won six Emmy awards, including two for Fellowes and two for Dame Maggie Smith, who plays Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham.
According to the New York Post, the show's second season was the most watched series ever with its February 5, 2012 episode rated No. 2 at 9pm behind the Super Bowl.
The program has been sent up on 'Saturday Night Live' and by late night host Jimmy Fallon as well as inspiring scores of YouTube videos.
Mr Fellowes will continue working on 'Downton Abbey,' which has been renewed for a fourth season.

In United States history, the Gilded Age was the period following the Civil War, running from 1877 to 1893 when the next era began, the Progressive Era.
The term was coined by writers Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner in The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, satirizing what they believed to be an era of serious social problems hidden by a thin layer of gold.
The Gilded Age was a time of enormous growth as the United States jumped to the lead in industrialisation ahead of Britain.
The economic boom attracted millions from Europe. Railroads were the major industry, but the factory system, coal mining, and labor unions also gained in importance.
During the 1870s and 1880s, the U.S. economy rose at the fastest rate in its history, with real wages, wealth, GDP, and capital formation all increasing rapidly.
Capitalizing on the economic boom were America's first millionaires like J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt - now regarded as the first success stories in the steel, oil and finance industries.
And they weren't the only flourishing industries.
Between 1865 and 1898, the output of wheat increased by 256 per cent, corn by 222 per cent, coal by 800 per cent and miles of railway track by 567 per cent.

The growth was interrupted by a major nationwide depression known as the Panic of 1893.

Julian Fellowes On Downton Abbey: Season 6 'May Be Our Last' Due To 'The Gilded Age,
"Unlike America, in England we have to wait until the season finishes airs before we receive a pick-up; we're not renewed multiple years in advance. We never want to jinx anything."
"That's good because it keeps everyone at the top of their game. If there is a sixth season, it may be our last. I'm about to start on a new US drama called 'The Gilded Age' for NBC Universal. And the last thing I want is to juggle two shows."
Julian Fellowes to create 'American Downton' set in 1880s New York
The Gilded Age' series is expected to reference the Vanderbilt family and will feature 'princes of the American Renaissance'

When Julian Fellowes offered Downton Abbey to the NBC network he was told that American viewers would never sit through an Edwardian-era period drama.

But the broadcaster has had a change of heart after US viewers fell for the series and now Fellowes will create an “American Downton” for NBC, set in 19th century New York.

Three years after sending the Oscar-winning screenwriter packing, NBC has asked Fellowes to put an American twist on the British show, which has won 6 Emmy awards and posted record ratings for the PBS network.

The Gilded Age, the working title for the new show, will be set in New York City in the 1880s and focus on the rising, and inevitably plunging, fortunes of “the princes of the American Renaissance,” according to the network.

Fellowes, who will be executive producer, said: “This was a vivid time, with dizzying, brilliant ascents and calamitous falls, of record-breaking ostentation and savage rivalry; a time when money was king.”

Jennifer Salke, President of NBC Entertainment, says the network was “thrilled” to have the “immensely talented” Fellowes on board. “Having him on our team represents a major creative coup,” she added. The network, which hopes to get the show, produced by the Universal Television studio, on air next Autumn, promises a “sweeping epic”.

Historians define the Gilded Age as the boom period following the Civil War, running from 1877 to 1893.

Coined by writers Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner in their book, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, it was an era of huge economic growth for the United States, as new railroads connected the vast country, scarred by political corruption and social inequalities which followed industrialisation.

Fellowes’ series is expected to reference the Vanderbilts, the family which attained huge wealth through railroads and shipping in the 19th century, becoming “New York royalty” through their social standing in the city.

Fellowes, who will continue to write Downton Abbey, shook up the ITV drama this year with the introduction of New York millionairess Martha Levinson, played by Shirley MacLaine (pictured above with the Dowager Countess played by Maggie Smith), as the mother of Lady Cora. However speculation that The Gilded Age might act as a “prequel” to the British show, which has now reached the mid-1920s, appears premature.

The NBC network is under new management since executives rejected Downton Abbey. Period dramas traditionally do not fare well in US prime-time slots, which are dominated by high-volume, crime procedurals.

But although it screens on the PBS cable network, which picked up the series when NBC passed, Downton has built an audience of 5 million viewers and become a national talking-point, spawning “Dress like Downton” segments on US breakfast television and a range of unofficial merchandise, including a “Lady Cora pearl set”.

The Gilded Age is set to compete against another US series based on the snobbery and rituals of a closed, New York, high society. Teen drama Gossip Girl is inspired by The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton’s 1870-set novel chronicling Manhattan’s wealthy classes.

Fellowes will take Downton into a new era following the news that Dan Stevens, who plays Matthew Crawley, will leave during the fourth series. The actor is currently appearing on Broadway and says he wishes to pursue new opportunities in New York.

ITV is to launch a new big-budget period drama next year. Set in the early 1900s, Jeremy Piven takes the title role in Mr Selfridge, the story of the visionary American founder of the London retail department store.

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