Today is the 150th birthday of Edith Jones Wharton, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for literature for her 1920 novel The Age of Innocence. She was a prolific writer who averaged a volume a year for forty years. Her works include novels, novellas, short stories, ghost stories, an autobiography, literary criticism, poetry, plays, and translations, and they cover topics such as war, travel, landscape gardening, Italian architectural history, and interior decorating. But she is most well known for her juicy, insider novels about the New York society into which she was born. Today, her taste and insight are as popular as ever. Edith Wharton is on trend.
In a New York Times interview, Julian Fellowes, the creator of "Downton Abbey" cites Wharton as one of his influences for his wildly popular PBS series. And Bill Cunningham recently pointed out that rich Victorian-inspired silks are stealing the show on Paris's runways and made stellar appearances at the opening of the new addition to Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The details about dresses, Parisian designers, upholstery, window treatments, state-of-the-art gas fireplaces that Wharton wrote about with authority and sometimes cattiness make her novels a pleasure to read. If she was alive today, I am sure she would an über design blogger, a global taste-maker with a sharp tongue and a massive Twitter following. One of my favorite bits of trivia about her is that her family, specifically her Aunt Elizabeth Schermerhorn Jones, was "the Joneses" as in "Keeping up with the Joneses."
But my favorite thing about her is that she loved dogs. Throughout her life, she was often photographed with her pups. She gave to animal charities. And she helped establish the S.P.C.A. in its early days in the United States. One of my all-time favorite dog quotes is by her. It's one I think of often as I face my days without Darby, but it has never been so beautiful as when I saw it published as she wrote it, almost as a haiku...
My little old dog:
At my feet.
The other bit of trivia I love about her, is that although she staged photos of herself working at her desk, she supposedly wrote in bed with her dogs, throwing the pages onto the floor. When I discovered that, I realized how she was able to be so prolific. I have been toying with a new theory about dogs giving humans the space to be artists (in the same way they gave them the space to plant crops and settle down and store fat and think new things with their bigger brains). I think Edith Wharton proves my theory. Dogs give you the permission to stay in bed and write, and the incentive to go outside and design your garden, and hang out with your friends on the terrace. I think Edith Wharton had a beautiful life (though in all honesty it was sometimes heartbreaking), not because she was born into wealth, but because she loved dogs.
Photos are from the Yale University Beinecke Book & Manuscript Library.
The curators at The Mount, Edith Wharton's estate, are asking for birthday wishes, videos, cards and photos on their blog and their Facebook Page.
Happy Birthday, Edith Wharton!