Friday, January 25, 2013

Happy 151st Birthday, Edith Wharton!

In spite of illness, in spite even of the archenemy sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways." - Edith Wharton, born January 24, 1862

My first encounter with Edith Wharton was during my junior year of high school. For an assignment in American Literature, we were tasked to choose a book and write chapter summaries. I don’t remember why I picked The House of Mirth, but it was probably because it fit the criteria and it was in my parents’ library. However, it was the best book I could have plucked off that shelf. I was seduced by the atmosphere of Gilded Age America and entranced by Lily Bart, a spoiled but naïve heroine who tries to navigate New York society on her own. It remains one of my favorite books and the one I recommend the most when asked to recommend Edith Wharton.

I believe in soul mates, sort of, for authors and readers, the kind of reading relationship that even lifelong readers find only once in a blue moon. You read a handful of pages and have to stop because it’s like this writer was inside your head while penning this book. Your ideas of and outlook on life sync up so well that it becomes impossible to remember a time before you’d discovered this writer. And it’s reciprocal, because, after gleaning all the wisdom and empathy possible, you go out and recommend this book and this writer to all your friends. You can’t stop talking about it. It sneaks into every conversation.

The House of Mirth was such an experience for me. I devoured a number of her other novels, though I still have a long way to go, as she was quite prolific. Among my favorites are: Ethan Frome, The Glimpses of the Moon, The Children, and The Buccaneers.

But she didn’t write only novels. An accomplished gardener and amateur architect, she wrote books such as The Decoration of Houses and Italian Villas and their Gardens. Also, this is her estate, The Mount, located in Lenox, Massachusetts, which she designed herself:

I’ll leave you with a few interesting tidbits.
- She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921 for The Age of Innocence and was the first female recipient.
- She wrote ghost stories.
- She moved to France later in life (and wrote about it). The street on which she lived is now called rue Edith Wharton.
- She was given an honorary doctorate from Yale, and the Yale library has a collection of her letters and manuscripts.
- She was good friends with Henry James.
- The Mount is thought to be haunted. Ghost Hunters filmed an episode on it.
- She was rewarded the Chevalier Legion of Honour for her relief and refugee work in France during World War I.

Because I am a literary enthusiast and a major dork, I celebrate her birthday every year, usually by making cupcakes. This year's weren't a culinary masterpiece, but being happy in small ways is a healthy thing. :)

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