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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Moved by a story, Henry James writes to Edith Wharton for the first time

It’s hard to imagine that the young Edith Wharton was shy. Yet that is her explanation for why she failed to meet Henry James the first two times their paths crossed. She wore her newest Doucet dress, “a tea-rose pink, embroidered with iridescent beads,” to a dinner party in Paris in 1887 when she was just twenty-five. He never noticed her and she didn’t speak up (“those were the principles in which I had been brought up”).

Later, in the 1890s, when they were both part of the entourage of the painter Daniel Curtis and his wife in Venice Wharton donned what she believed to be a particularly fetching hat. Another failed effect.

James did begin hearing about Wharton through their many mutual friends. As she wrote more, their pieces began appearing in the same magazines. In 1899 she sent him her first book of tales, The Greater Inclination. James wrote a caustic note to a friend: he had read “the fruits of her literary toils.” What was best in them was “her amiable self.” What was “not best was quite another person.”

Then in October 1900 Lippincott’s Magazine published “The Line of Least Resistance,” a story set in Newport about an unfaithful wife and a weak-willed rich husband. Readers in Wharton’s high society circle in Lenox, Massachusetts were appalled: they thought the millionaire bore a scandalous resemblance to Emily Vanderbilt’s brother-in-law. James loved it. Reading it prompted him to write this historic first letter from England on October 26, 1900 (110 years ago today):
Dear Mrs. Wharton,

I brave your interdiction & thank you both for your letter & for the brilliant little tale in the Philadelphia repository [Lippincott’s]. The latter has an admirable sharpness & neatness, & infinite wit & point – it only suffers a little, I think, from one’s not having a direct glimpse of the husband’s provoking causes – literally provoking ones. . . The subject is really a big one for the canvas – that was really your difficulty. But the thing is done. And I applaud, I mean I value, I egg you on in, your study of the American life that surrounds you. Let yourself go in it & at it – it’s an untouched field, really: the folk who try, over there, don’t come within miles of any civilized, however superficially, any “evolved” life. And use to the full your ironic and satiric gifts; they form a most valuable (I hold) & beneficent engine. Only, the Lippincott tale is a little hard, a little purely derisive. But that’s because you’re so young, &, with it, so clever. Youth is hard--& your needle-point, later on, will muffle itself in a little blur of silk. It is a needle-point! Do send me what you write, when you can kindly find time, & do, some day, better still, come to see yours, dear Mrs. Wharton, most truly,
Henry James
After many more letters they finally met in December 1903; for the remaining thirteen years of James’s life they would become close friends and traveling companions, despite a nineteen-year age difference.

Of related interest:
  • Great Books, Half Read recounts Edith Wharton’s hilarious tale of motoring with Henry James (and why he should never ask for directions)
  • The Mount, the Lenox estate Edith Wharton designed, hosts numerous Halloween-themed events this week, including readings of Wharton’s ghost stories
Related LOA works: Edith Wharton: Novels, Novellas, Stories, & Other Writings; Henry James: Complete Stories

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