Social Studies

updated 10/04/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/04/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

WHEN EDITH WHARTON WAS 11, SHE began writing a novel in which she had a character say, "If only I had known you were going to call. I should have tidied up the drawing room. "Wharton-mother, a pillar of late 19th-century New York City society, read it and rebuked the budding author. In their privileged world—even in fiction—an untidy drawing room was simply unthinkable.

Wharton never made the same mistake again. She became a preeminent American novelist by accurately chronicling the world she had grown up in—a place where money substituted for character, emotions were repressed and manners were everything. With the release of Martin Scorsese's opulent adaptation of Wharton's most famous novel, her Pulitzer-prizewinning The Age of Innocence (1920), her work is enjoying a renaissance. Book sales are surging, a film version of Ethan Frome (1911), starring Liam Neeson, was released in February and two other movies are planned. In our era of confessional candor, when few taboos remain to be broken, Wharton's appeal lies in the studied indirectness of her characters' sexuality—and the cold eye she cast on the ruthlessness behind society's veil of gentility.

Wharton was corseted by the same conventions she wrote about. Born Edith Newbold Jones in 1862 to an aristocratic ship-owning and real estate family, she endured a proper but loveless marriage to banker Edward Robbins Wharton for 28 years. Moving to Paris in 1907 (the couple, who had no children, divorced in 1913), Wharton befriended literary greats such as Henry James and André Gide, played hostess to visiting U.S. dignitaries such as Theodore Roosevelt—and had a midlife affair with Morton Fullerton, an American journalist.

Wharton wrote more than 40 books in her 75 years—novels, novellas, short story collections, poetry, and works on architecture, gardening and travel. To the very end, her pessimism about humanity remained undiluted. In her 1934 memoir, A Backward Glance, she wrote, "Life is the saddest thing there is, next to death."

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