restricted access The Sexual Education of Edith Wharton (review)
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Reviewed by
Gloria C. Erlich. The Sexual Education of Edith Wharton. Berkeley: University of California P, 1992. xiii + 210 pp. No price given.

Calling her work a psychobiography, Gloria C. Erlich admits to drawing some speculative conclusions and identifies hers as a "hermeneutic psychoanalytic method of case study." Erlich's study of Edith Wharton is beautifully written, cogently argued, and nicely jargon-free—the methodology comment is in a footnote, and that's as technical as she gets. Timely both popularly because of the new Martin Scorsese movie made from Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence and academically because of the current postmodernist trend of biographies with a focus on sexuality, Erlich's book is a joy to read as well as a treasure trove of information and insightful interpretation.

Erlich skillfully weaves a tight analysis of Wharton's life, specifically her complex and delayed sexual development, with an intertexture of Wharton's fiction-writing. Following the lead of Wharton scholar Cynthia Griffin Wolff and using The Letters of Edith Wharton edited by R. W. B. Lewis and Nancy Lewis, as well as manuscripts and papers in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale and the Edith Wharton Collection at the University of Texas at Austin, Erlich documents an uncommonly close relationship between Edith Wharton's own sexual situation and the sexual agendas she provides her fictional characters at each stage of her life. In the writing itself, Erlich believes, Wharton works out the complicated tangles [End Page 147] of her sexual history. Once thought the chronicler of New York society manners as a cool and detached observer, Erlich shows that Wharton was far from that, now that letters and other papers have become available.

Erlich argues that the central passionate event in Wharton's life came in her mid-life (at age forty-five) in an intense, though brief, affair with Morton Fullerton. Wharton was still married to Teddy Wharton at the time in a marriage that had been essentially celibate, a marriage which she had entered with no knowledge at all of what she called the processes of "generation" and in which there was no sex at all for many weeks after the wedding and then, after very little, none at all. Fullerton was a thoroughgoing scoundrel, a charmer whose own mother was dazzled by him and who was the bisexual lover of a number of eminent women and men, loving them intensely momentarily but giving only enough of himself for them to want more. However, Edith Wharton discovered a passionate depth in herself in her relationship with Fullerton. It was in this "awakening," this coming to sexual maturity in a life that had been almost void of sex, that made this experience pivotal for Wharton's personal integration quite apart from the shabby character of her lover.

Erlich suggests that Wharton anticipates the Fullerton affair in a novella called "The Touchstone" written in 1900 when she was thirty-eight and refers back to it in her novel, The Reef , when she was 50. Erlich writes, "In The Reef . . . Anna Leath plays the sexually repressed woman Edith Wharton once feared she might remain. The part of Wharton that dared convention to seize her moment with Morton Fullerton is played by Sophy Viner, who possesses the 'vital secret' of erotic energy."

Erlich builds her work itself almost like a suspenseful novel. In the early chapters she writes about the emotional split in Edith Wharton's childhood between a cold, aloof, and socially ambitious mother, Lucretia Rhinelander Jones, and a nurturing, loving nanny, Doyley. She explores this with Freudian theory of developmental conflict of a child with two such "mothers" and shows how Wharton was emotionally fragile as an adolescent. Something of this ego weakness is given to the character Lily Bart in The House of Mirth. Erlich writes, "Lacking maternal sponsorship and financial resources, Lily desperately and ineffectually seeks marriage as a refuge for her frail selfhood."

Wharton's father, in contrast to her mother, was responsive to his daughter, giving her use of his...


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