Tuesday, April 24, 2012

"Drawing Rooms Are Always Tidy"

When Edith Wharton was a little girl, she used to entertain herself with a game she called “making up.” Long before she had learned to read, little Edith Newbold Jones would hold an open book and walk around the house pretending to read aloud, at the top of her voice, a stream of invented stories about her relatives and other people. According to Wharton’s memoir, A Backward Glance, all this obsessive pacing and shouting had a nearly erotic aspect, which made her parents anxious. Apparently her mother attempted a few times to write down her shouted stories, but they went by too quickly. The family's concern grew larger when Edith asked her mother to provide entertainment for children who had been invited over to the Jones household to play, because she was too preoccupied with her "making up" to stop and spend time with them.

By the time she was ten, Edith was spending hours of each day writing -- not only stories but also poems and dramas in blank verse. Her first novel was begun at age eleven. The opening sentences were: "Oh, how do you do, Mrs. Brown," said Mrs. Tompkins. "If only I had known you were going to call, I would have tidied up the drawing room."

In A Backward Glance, Wharton described “timorously” showing the start of her novel to her mother. How did Mrs. Jones respond to her talented child's efforts? “Never shall I forget the sudden drop of my creative frenzy when she returned it with the icy comment, ‘Drawing rooms are always tidy.’”

Edith Wharton lived in Paris for the latter part of her life, while continuing to "make up" one brilliant novel after another about the denizens of New York and their drawing rooms, tidy and untidy. For many years she lived on the Rue de Varenne, in a building I often pass by when I am in Paris, just off the Rue du Bac, and it is always a thrill to imagine her walking these same streets, buying a baguette at the nearby bakery, or lingering over coffee at the cafe on the corner.  A plaque on the outside of the building describes her as “the first writer of the United States to settle in France out of love of the country and its literature.”  Perhaps this was one of her reasons for leaving New York.

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