Most Admired: Edith Wharton

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Edith Wharton (1862-1937)

Edith Wharton is well known as one the more prolific American writers of the twentieth century, being a novelist and short story writer as well as a garden and interior designer. In 1921 she became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for one of her best known novels, “The Age of Innocence.” It has been made into at least three movies, the most recent being the Martin Scorsese film released in 1993. In 1923 she became the first woman to receive an honorary doctorate from Yale.

During her long life her literary endeavors were encouraged by a varied group friends of both the literary elite and other notable public personalities such as: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Henry James, Jean Cocteau, Andre Gide and Theodore Roosevelt. Additionally she met both Sinclair Lewis and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Her upbringing and varied group of friends and influences provided her with unique insights into the upper class. Through all her life her polished prose and humor produced fiction which appealed to a large audience. She received the French Legion of Honor for her philanthropic work during World War I, and was additionally a member of the National Institute of the Arts and Letters, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

In addition to notable novels such as “The Age of Innocence,” “The House of Mirth,” and “Ethan Frome,” she also wrote at least eighty-five short stories and non-fiction dealing with her European travels and Interior and Garden design such as “Italian Villas and Their Gardens,” and “French Ways and Their Meaning.” She is best known for her novels with portraits of New York’s upper class during pre-World War I society. She used both humor and empathy to discuss their vanishing world at the beginning of the twentieth century. In such novels as “Ethan Frome” she was much more harsh and critical of the rural lower class of Massachusetts.

A few short quotes :

“Nothing is more perplexing to a man than the mental process of a woman who reasons her emotions.”

“If only we’d stop trying to be happy, we could have a pretty good time.”

“Life is always either a tightrope or a feather bed. Give me the tightrope.”
~ Edith Wharton

Most Admired: Virginia Woolf

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Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)

Adeline Virginia Woolf is well known as one of the major literary figures of the twentieth century. The English author, novelist, essayist, biographer, feminist, publisher and writer of short stories is best known for her novels “Mrs. Dalloway,” “To The Lighthouse,” “Orlando,” and her book length essay, “A Room Of One’s Own.” From this essay she is often quoted, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

She began writing professionally in 1900 with an article about Haworth, the home of the Bronte family for the Times Literary Supplement. Her first novel “The Voyage Out” was published in 1915 by her half-brother. She would go on to publish novels and essays as an intellectual to both critical and popular success. Much of her work was self-published through the Hogarth Press. Her work was often criticized for its narrow portrayal of the upper middle class intellectuals and lacked anything of ethical or emotional relevance for the common reader. She is often criticized as well for being perceived as an anti-Semite despite the fact she was happily married to a Jewish man and condemned Christianity as self-righteous egotism and in a letter to her friend Ethel Smyth, “my Jew has more religion in one toe nail—more human love, in one hair.” Additionally her distaste for fascism and its ties to anti-Semitism is quite plainly spelled out in her book, “Three Guineas.” Her final work, “Between the Acts,” aptly expresses some of her main themes : transformation of life through art, sexual ambivalence, and the flux of time throughout one’s life at the same time being a deterioration and renewal.

Throughout her life Virginia suffered from several “breakdowns” as a result of having symptoms that conform to bipolar disorder, the first occurring by the sudden death of her mother when she was thirteen. Her most significant episode occurred after the death of her father in 1904 and was in turn briefly institutionalized after her first suicide attempt. Modern scholars have suggested her recurring depressive periods were a result of sexual abuse both her and her sister were subjected to by her half-brothers. She vividly recounts this in an autobiographical essay, “A Sketch of the Past,” which can be now read in “Moments of Being” a collection of posthumously-published autobiographical essays. She wrote of the event, “I can remember the feel of his hands going under my clothes; going firmly and steadily lower and lower, I remember how I hoped that he would stop; how I stiffened and wriggled as his hand approached my private parts. But he did not stop.”

Throughout her life she struggled with periodic mood swings and associated illnesses. Though this often affected her social life, her literary career and productivity continued with very few breaks. After the completion of “Between the Acts” she fell into a deep depression. The onset of World War II and the destruction of her London home in the bombing only deepened it. On March 28th, 1941 she filled the pockets of her overcoat with stones and drowned herself in the River Ouse which runs through the counties of West and East Sussex near her home. In her last note to her husband she wrote :

“Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier ’til this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that – everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.”
~ Virginia Woolf