The title of Benstock's biography of Edith Wharton is somewhat mal à propos. Edith Wharton, other reviewers have pointed out, had plenty of gifts from chance. She was born, in 1862, into wealth and leisure, she had a sufficiency of good looks (in an era when that mattered even more than now). As a writer she was highly successful, both critically and commercially. Benstock takes her title from a snatch of Matthew Arnold's 'Resignation' copied by Wharton into her Commonplace Book in 1908: 'They believe me, who await/No gifts from chance have conquered fate'. What Arnold is celebrating is that markedly Victorian duty to bustle and hustle. Certainly Edith Wharton was no Mr Micawber, waiting for something to turn up. In taking up writing seriously, she broke out of the mould into which she was being set, as women were set, like large bland puddings, turning away as she did so from the pleasant, vacuous life of a society matron of means. But Edith Newshold Jones did have to become the society matron first. And her marriage to Teddy Wharton might be thought of as dictated by chance. As Benstock makes clear, she had reached the point when she had to marry somebody when she got engaged in 1885: 'At 23, her 1879 debut six years in the past, Edith was running out of time.'
LRB 20 April 1995 | PDF Download