Edith Wharton: Expatriate in Paris

by Stephanie Hepp

In 1907, Edith Wharton left what she deemed a self-righteous and cynical America to travel around Europe.  When she arrived in France, Wharton saw Paris as an ideal escape from the United States’ restrictive norms.  Janet Goodwyn suggests that “travel both fed [Wharton’s] imagination and restored her to a sense of self-possession; her experiences as a tourist fuelled her life as a writer” (2).  Residing first in a quaint apartment at 58 Rue de Varenne and then at 53 Rue de Varenne, Wharton found Paris wholly captivating and adopted the city as an expatriate.  Mary Suzanne Schriber points out that Wharton decamped to Paris in “degrees and stages… over a period of time” due to her monotonous marriage, dissatisfaction with America’s perspective on women’s ideas, and Paris’s hospitable atmosphere (258).

Edith Wharton’s disappointment with her humdrum marriage led her to seek a stimulating affair in Paris.  In America, Wharton’s social scene prevented her from finding a suitable husband.  Consequently, at the naïvely young age of 23, Edith Jones married aristocratic, spiritless Teddy Wharton.  Over the next few years, Edith found her relationship with Teddy to be static and boring.  R.W.B. Lewis argues that Wharton desired an acquaintance with a “greater mental vitality,” “a greater interest in books and painting,” and “a keener awareness of history” than the typical American (55).  When Wharton first arrived in Paris, she met a studied, attractive, and idealistic man, Morton Fullerton, who, Lewis asserts, was the type of person Wharton had been seeking in America (186).  Wharton enjoyed Fullerton’s presence and the couple had an affair until 1909.  According to Lewis, the affair transpired because Wharton wanted to counter Teddy’s burdensome “dead weight” and live passionately during her sojourn in Paris (318).

Edith Wharton was enthralled with Parisians because of their unique views of divorce, women’s role in society, and the historically rich atmosphere that was nonexistent in America.  Americans rejected the idea of divorce, finding it disgraceful. The French, on the other hand, accepted divorce and found the decision to be a personal matter.  Edith divorced her husband while living in Paris in 1913, pleased to be in a society that would keep her ordeal socially private.  Furthermore, Wharton was accepted in France as a professional “femme de lettres,” or a female writer, whereas in America, her literary concepts “puzzled and embarrassed [her] old friends far more than it impressed them” (Schriber 258).  In Paris, Wharton escaped this disapproval and found the intellectual camaraderie she so desired by going to salons. There, a woman could express her ideas about philosophy or perspectives on current events in a book club-like atmosphere.  Wharton’s ability as a woman to freely express her opinions, in conjunction with her fondness of Paris’ art, architecture, and history, made her expatriation to Paris effortless.

Wharton’s character did not suit America as much as it did Paris. Schriber describes Wharton’s life in America as “uneasy” and her choice to move to Paris was intuitive (258).  She loved Paris’s rich culture, and each time she returned to the city, she found yet another element that made her love Paris even more.  Wharton insisted she had the French spirit “dans mon sang,” which translates to “in my blood” (Sciolino 1).  Paris was integral to Wharton’s existence since she had incorporated the French culture into her very being, having lived in France for the rest of her life.

Works Cited

Goodwyn, Janet. Edith Wharton: Traveller in the Land of Letters. New York: St. Martin’s, 1990. Print.

Lewis, R. W. B. Edith Wharton: A Biography. New York: Harper, 1975. Print.

Schriber, Mary Suzanne. “Edith Wharton and Travel Writing as Self-Discovery.” American Literature 59.2: 257-267. JSTOR. Web. 8 Sept. 2010. http://www.jstor.org/‌stable/‌2927044.

Sciolino, Elaine. “Edith Wharton Always Had Paris.” New York Times 11 Oct. 2009: n. pag. Web. 14 Sept. 2010. http://travel.nytimes.com/2009/10/11/travel/11footsteps.html.

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