Edith Wharton: Famous Migraineur

Nancy Harris Bonk Health Guide
  • Edith Wharton, who was the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for her book Age of Innocence, was treated for depression and possibly Migraines. Wharton struggled with the hypocrisy of her social class and was torn between being a professional writer and a woman in society. Her passions included architecture, gardening and art, and she inspired many writers. Her work are still read today, and many of them have been turned into stage and screen productions. 

     

    Edith Newbold Jones was welcomed into the world by her parents, George Frederic Jones and Lucretia Rhinelander Jones, on January 24, 1862. Brought up with wealth and privilege, she was often thought of as an only child because brothers Frederic and Henry were much older. As a young child, Wharton was creative and precocious - with one of her favorite games called "making up." In this game, even before she could read, Wharton would swiftly walk around a room with an open book pretending to read and formulate stories about various people. Soon she began reading and her game evolved into reading part of a book and then making up the rest of the story.

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    When she was four years-old, the family spent five years in Europe visiting France, Germany, Italy and Spain where she was able to learn French and German under various tutors. She loved to read in her father's libraries and didn't attend school due to the constraints of her social class. By the time Wharton turned 10 years old, she was writing stories and poems. At 15 years old her novella Fast and Loose was published. During this time, Wharton met Walter Berry and the two remained dear friends throughout her life. The two worked on her writing to develop her style and she was eventually buried next to him in France. 

     

    When Wharton was 23 years old she married Edward Robbins, thirteen years her senior. Edward was a wealthy Bostonian banker, but seemed to be sick the majority of the time. The couple moved to Newport, Rhode Island where she spent many hours decorating and redesigning her home with architect Ogden Codman. The two published a book, The Decoration of Houses, which contained a new look with more streamlined and symmetrical qualities - it became very popular and sold quite well. While she was working on her home, she managed to write some short stories, including: The Greater Inclination, Crucial Instances, The Descent of Man and Other Stories and The Hermit and the Wild Woman. When Wharton's mother died in 1901, she started to construct and create a new home - "The Mount" in Lenox, Massachusetts (which isn't far from where I used to live). It is now a National Historic Landmark.

     

    The Whartons did not share a happy marriage. In fact, Edith spent a lot of time in Europe where she met and had one of many affairs with Morton Fullerton. It's been reported that she was sick for the majority of the time in her marriage, complaining of headaches, nausea, excessive tiredness, depression and asthma. Her husband also had an affair of his own and stole money from his wife so he could support his mistress. Edith divorced Robbins in 1913. While in Europe, Wharton made sure she was surrounded by artists and other writers whom she shared intellect with. When Americans Henry Adams, Henry James and Theodore Roosevelt were in France, they could be found visiting her.

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    In 1911, Ethan Frome was printed; it is the story about a lonely farmer in New England who leads a miserable life with his horrible wife and then finds love with his wife's cousin. This theme of unrequited love and misery can be seen in many of Wharton's books. 1912 and 1913 brought a period of writing for Wharton that produced the critically praised books, The Reef and The Custom of the Country.

     

    World War I brought out the humanitarian side of Wharton as she was instrumental in raising money for expatriates in Belgium and France, helping them to find places to live and to learn. She visited hospitals and battle grounds, helping the sick and injured. Her essays Fighting France and The Marne were direct products of these events and in 1916 Wharton was given the title of 'Knight' in the French Legion of Honor. Furthermore, in 1916 her friend Henry James died and she penned, "We who knew him well know how great he would have been if he had never written a line."

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    Other classic works Wharton wrote during this time included The Bunner Sisters, Summer, and when she traveled  Morocco in 1917 she completed her travel papers entitled, In Morocco. Wharton moved into the house "Pavillion Colombe" in the Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt community just outside Paris, where she lived and worked until she died. Wharton sailed to America in 1921 to be the recipient of the first ever Pulitzer Prize awarded to a woman for her book, The Age of Innocence. The Glimpses of the Moon and A Son At The Front were also well received, and in 1923, Yale University presented her with an Honorary Doctorate of Letters. The National Institute of Arts and Letters awarded her a Gold Medal and she was nominated for a Nobel Prize in 1927.

     

    Edith Wharton suffered a stroke and died on August 11, 1937. Some considered her to be one of the best female writers of her time.

     

    For more information on Famous Migraineurs continue reading;

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    Resources:

     

    Dwight, Eleanor; Winner, Viola Hopkins. "Edith Wharton's World. Portraits of People and Places." National Portrait Gallery. 

     

    Merriman, C.D. "Edith Wharton: Biography." LiteratureNetwork.com. 2007. 

     

    Prose, Francine. "Making Up Edith Wharton." The New York Review of Books Blog. March 21, 2012. 

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    Image Credit: Library of Congress.

     

    Thanks for reading, 

    NancySig

     

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    © HealthCentral Network, 2012.
    Last updated May 15, 2012.

     

     

Published On: May 16, 2012