Yeazell on Lee on Wharton

The latest issue of the LRB has a review by Ruth Bernard Yeazell of Hermione Lee’s new biography of Edith Wharton–a book I really want to get my hands on very soon. Here’s a taste:

‘My God, how does one write a Biography?’ In her magnificent study of Virginia Woolf, Lee chose to answer Woolf’s question not so much by writing a sequential narrative from cradle to grave as by offering a series of topical essays, loosely arranged by chronology and artfully composed to highlight the various aspects of her subject’s personal and imaginative history. So Virginia Woolf began with a meditation on ‘Biography’, and later chapters were as likely to address such recurrent themes as ‘Censors’ or ‘Selves’ as more obvious milestones such as ‘Marriage’ or ‘War’. Edith Wharton adopts a roughly similar method: it opens not with Wharton’s birth but with her parents’ unexpectedly witnessing revolution in the Paris of 1848, and its second chapter, ‘Making Up’, is as much a commentary on the evasions of the adult autobiographer as on the young Edith Jones’s love of storytelling. With both novelists, Lee is particularly sensitive to the gap between the life as lived and the writer’s retrospective creation of herself; and unlike many literary biographers, she is at her best when her subject’s own imaginative powers are at their height. Her readings of The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country and The Age of Innocence – not to mention A Backward Glance – help to persuade one that biography is a means of enhancing literature, not reducing it.

The rest of the review is here.

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