Books: Popping the Stays

EDITH WHARTON: A BIOGRAPHY

by R.W.B. LEWIS

592 pages. Harper & Row. $15.

Edith Wharton has always been seen through a lorgnette darkly. The highest born of all major American writers, she usually emerges from the memoirs looking like a bejeweled dowager in a Peter Arno cartoon—stiff-necked, straight-backed and with all her stays grimly fastened. There is some truth to the image, but only part of the truth, and no such caricature of a woman could ever have written such brilliant novels as The Age of Innocence and Ethan Frame. The lady was indeed a snob, but, as R.W.B. Lewis' fascinating biography demonstrates,...

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