Edith Wharton in France
By Claudine Lesage
Edith Wharton in France chronicles Edith Wharton’s dogged efforts to penetrate the Byzantine levels of French high society, her love for the French and Italian countryside, and her consuming passion for the Mediterranean garden. While Lesage is initially skeptical of Wharton’s ability to “become French,” this work ultimately portrays a woman of indomitable spirit who ultimately succeeds in fashioning a French home of her own making in her beloved adopted country.
Lesage’s work illuminates the intertwined characters and important relationships of Wharton’s life in France, many of them overlooked or minimized in earlier biographies. Prominently featured in the account are the French novelist Paul Bourget and his wife Minnie, whose meticulous diary entries over a 35-year period provide a fresh look at Wharton’s active social life both in Paris and on the French Riviera.
A still more intimate look into Wharton’s French circle is provided by her extensive correspondence with the Frenchman Léon Bélugou, a widely traveled mining engineer, writer, and well-known figure in Parisian high society. Spanning more than 25 years, the letters portray a mutual intellectual kinship and devoted friendship. Other newly discovered highlights include letters presented as evidence in Wharton’s French divorce proceedings, a mysterious autobiographical essay written by Wharton’s lover, American journalist Morton Fullerton, and numerous photographs never before published.
The author of multiple works of translation, as well original French texts on Wharton and Conrad, Lesage had access to unexamined and untranslated French sources. She presents Wharton’s life from the perspective of a native French woman, capturing a unique view of Wharton trying to navigate through the ancient layers of French society and master its often maddeningly obscure rules, all the while commenting on the horrors of World War I and the cataclysmic changes in the arts and culture of Paris.