US novelist whose writing explores, through witty and satirical observation of the manners of fashionable society, the conflict between social duty and the aspirations of the individual.
Born into a wealthy New England family, she was educated at home. In 1885 she married a Boston banker, Edward Wharton, and travelled in Europe before moving to France in 1907. Her husband was mentally unstable, however, and the couple divorced in 1913. While maintaining a house in the USA, Edith Wharton remained in France, where she was a leading light in the US expatriate community. During World War I she headed the Children of Flanders Rescue Committee, which enabled 600 orphans to escape from Belgium.
In the 1890s Wharton had begun contributing poems and stories to such magazines as Scribener's and Harper's; this was followed by the publication of a volume of short stories, The Greater Inclination (1899), and a novella, The Touchstone (1900). She achieved popular recognition with a full-length novel, The House of Mirth (1905), which satirizes the hypocrisies of New York society in turning against a social climber when her attempts to join its ranks fail. Her second major success came with Ethan Frome (1911), a grim story of passion, jealousy, and revenge set on a New England farm. Wharton's third major novel, The Age of Innocence (1920), won her a Pulitzer Prize. It tells the story of a New York lawyer who, though in love with the separated wife of a Polish count, is forced into a loveless marriage with his fiancée who enlists all the snares of social convention to entrap him.
Wharton's other novels include the marriage-market tale The Custom of the Country (1913), the best-selling Twilight Sleep (1927), Hudson River Bracketed (1928) and its sequal The God's Arrive (1932), which compare the cultures of the Midwest and New York, and the posthumously published unfinished novel, The Buccaneers (1938). Her work is often compared to that of her close friend, the US novelist Henry James. In all, Wharton wrote some forty-six books, including travel writing and a book of criticism, The Writing of Fiction (1925). She published an autobiography, A Backward Glance, in 1934.