Edith Wharton – The Paris Years

Edith Wharton’s relationship with Paris, and all things French, started early.  As a child, she had studied French with a private tutor and she had travelled to Paris with her family as a girl.

When she returned to France in her forties, her French was flawless and she rented an apartment at the exclusive Hotel de Crillon a little way from the Louvre Museum. The hotel had two terraces looking out over Place du Concorde and a grand piano playing in the living room every evening. She had a nice penthouse apartment where she had the sensation of being up in the sky overlooking the whole of Paris.

Hotel de Crillon, Paris
Hotel de Crillon, Paris

Wharton saw the Hôtel de Crillon as a place which welcomed a cultivated set of people.  Wharton herself came from a good “old New York” family. She had money to spend and felt that, here in Paris, an intellectual woman such as herself had a voice.  In America, wealthy women were seen merely as measure of their husband’s success.

In her novel “The Custom of the Country” Wharton spells out how marriage in America puts an end to any notions a woman might have  to develop her cultural interests.  American husbands buy their wives paintings and pretty things in order to distract them from the real business of the day which takes place in the male only board rooms.

Edith Wharton
Edith Wharton

In 1907, Edith Wharton was introduced to William Morton Fullerton by her good friend Henry James. Morton Fullerton was working as a journalist in Paris for the London Times. In a letter to a friend, Wharton states that she found Fullerton to be very intelligent. However, even from the outset, she sensed that he had an air of mysteriousness about him.

Wharton was forty five years old at the time and already an established writer. Her novel, “The House of Mirth” was enjoying great success in America and she was considerably wealthy. Her husband of twenty years, Teddy Wharton, came from a good Bostonian family.

Fullerton, it seems, had a colourful past which  included homosexual relationships, a divorced wife and a blackmailing mistress.

According to Shari Benstock, Fullerton decided to move to Paris leaving “a messy and entangled sexual past” behind him. In London, Fullerton moved in the same upper-class Edwardian society as the writer, Henry James, did. It seems that, with his his overwhelming charm, he attracted a host of friends and lovers.

He was married to opera singer Camille Chabert in 1903. The following year Chabert divorced Fullerton because she could not tolerate his affairs.  He was involved simultaneously with a least two other French women – Adèle Moutot, a minor actress whose stage name was Madame Mirecourt, and Hélène Pouget, an artist’s model from Nîmes.

Fullerton was also having a “quasi-incestuous relationship” with Katherine Fullerton, his adopted sister and cousin right up to the time he met Wharton.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (1905)
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (1905)

During the early stages of her friendship with Fullerton, Edth Wharton was spending part of every year at her home in Lennox, Massachusetts. The house was called “The Mount” and it was built on a slope overlooking the dark waters and densely wooded shores of Laurel Lake. It was here that Wharton enjoyed hosting notable guests such as President Theodore Roosevelt, diplomat Walter Berry and her good friend Henry James.

In the summer of 1907, Fullerton was helping Wharton to place a translation of “The House of Mirth” in the “Revue des deux mondes” He came too stay at the Mount during a visit he made to America to see his family. A moment of intimacy passed between Wharton and Fullerton during his stay. From that point on, Wharton started to keep a private journal where she would chart her feelings for Fullerton, and she did not hold back in passages describing the later passion she felt for him.

The Mount - Edith Wharton's home in Massachusetts, USA
The Mount – Edith Wharton’s home in Massachusetts, USA

Unlike most of her female heroines, Edith Wharton herself was extremely wealthy.  She was so wealthy that Henry James admitted to feelings of jealousy about how much she was getting in royalties from her books.  He once claimed that, while Wharton could afford to buy a motor car from her earnings in fiction, he could barely buy a wheelbarrow on the money he himself earned from his own novels.

The House of Mirth

While Edith Wharton was extremely rich, she was not beautiful and she was very aware of this. Her character, Lily Bart in “The House of Mirth” does not have financial security and she is teeetering on poverty thorughout the novel. However, in order to compensate for Lily Bart’s financial insecurity, Wharton goes to great lengths to describe how her protagonists is beautiful and how, in the beginning of the novel, she makes clever use of her beauty.

Lily Bart does not have the same freedom as Wharton herself had.  She is not rich and her fate is dictated by those around her. The novel is an in depth exploration of American society and it depicts the repressive and coercive world that Edith Wharton grew up in with “devastating accuracy” according to Hilary Spurling.

The ending of “The House of Mirth” is far from romantic.  Wharton prefers to offer the reader a realist ending.   Naomi Wood claims that Wharton herself believes in the potential of the union of marriage, but not fake and hypocritically constructed marriages of her novels which take place mostly in affluent New York society.

Ethan Frome

In an effort to master the French language, and perfect her writing style, Edith Wharton wrote “Ethan Frome” in French from her apartment on  rue de Varenne and  it was published in 1911.

This novel is set on a remote farm in New England which is very different from the region Wharton herself would have experienced. Her characters are very poor and live in a “hand to mouth” type of existence never knowing where the money will come from.

Many of Edith Wharton’s critics have difficulty understanding how she could have possibly related to such characters given that she herself lived at the Mount and was extremely rich.  However, she did take Henry James on a motor car tour of the area once and she pointed such farms out to him along the way. Even if she did not live this kind of life, she must have been aware that such people and places existed near her home in Lennox.

Morton Fullerton
Morton Fullerton

Wharton and Fullerton’s Affair:

Back in Paris, the friendship between Fullerton and Wharton was growing stronger. They would often dine together, go to the theatre and go on short trips outside of Paris.  Once they took a motor drive together to a village in Northern France in search of their heroine Hortense Allart who had been a friend of the well known French writer George Sand.

The Whartons returned once again to The Mount in 1908 and, this time, Edith was missing Fullerton terribly. She wrote letters regularly to him. These letters are brimming with emotion. “You woke me form a long lethargy” she says in one letter “didn’t you see how my heart broke with the thought that, had I been younger and prettier everything might have been different?” she wrote.

It emerges that Fullerton was a well polished tease. He did not respond to her letters and Edith Wharton began to despair of ever seeing him again. She wrote appealing letters to Henry James who wrote back to put her mind at rest. The relationship did continue and Fullerton proposed a sexual reunion with Wharton in 1909.   She demurred at first, but later gave in and, on 1 June, she  spent a night with him at the Charing Cross Hotel in London.

They met Henry James for dinner beforehand who, according to Hermione Lee was often a “third wheel” at intimate dinners between the two. There was much champagne and exuberant conversation where, according to Kaplan, the three friends sat together “in the anteroom of the lovers passion”.

Following the night of passion at the Charing Cross Hotel in London, Wharton wrote letters to Fullerton which were at times rather melodramatic.   These letter have been published in R.W.B. Lewis’s prize winning biography of Edith Wharton:

“What you wish, apparently, is to take of my life the inmost & uttermost that a woman – a woman like me – can give, for an hour, now and then, when it suits you.”

Edith Wharton 1885
Edith Wharton 1885

In her biography of Edith Wharton, Hermione Lee not only shows what a bounder Fullerton was, but also how Edith Wharton’s novels and poetry were brought to a whole new level as  a result of her short affair with Fullerton.

Edith Wharton continued to write poetry in her private journals following during her two year love affair with Fullerton.  The language of her poems is couched in sublime and ever sacred terms.  While some some of these poems were never published, the sexual undercurrent running through them can be viewed as a subtext for her novels written during this period.

In 1910, Edith Wharton sent Fullerton a sonnet in which she offers her body and soul to him as bread and wine at communion. When he received it, Fullerton noted “EW her visits chez moi, 15 April” in the margins of the page.


“The Room”

Hemione Lee describes “The Room” as a “bold, agitatedly, sexy poem”.  It describes the rhythm of a train mixing with the couple’s love making and how such rhythms reveal much about Wharton’s night of passion.

Edith Wharton employs “grimy realism” to describe the hotel’s bedroom.  In the course of the poem she identifies with all the other bodies who have passed by this bedroom “in fagged exhaustion or passionate extasy”.  She expresses a desire to free herself from the “human unceasing current”.

As the poem comes to an end, the lovers go their separate ways – he to the “wild flare of cities” which is New York and she to a “low-skied Marsh” which, according to Lee, alludes to the home of Henry James in Rye, England.

Henry James (1843 - 1916)
Henry James (1843 – 1916)

Henry James

Wharton struck up a friendship with Henry James after years of trying to get an introduction. However, Hermione Lee describes how her visits to James in London reduced her compatriot to “a cowering wreck”. James describes how he found himself “burrowing under the bedclothes or lying flat and blubbering into the carpet!” after she left.  This may be an exaggeration but, by all accounts, Edith Wharton brought with her an energy and command which made everybody around her on the alert.

It is interesting that both Henry James and Edith Wharton both knew Fullerton and seemed to be in awe of him.  James found Fullerton alluring when he met him in the 1890s and,at the same time, difficult to categorize. In one of his letters to Wharton,  James describes him as “the most inscrutable of men – he will never pose long enough for the Camera of Identification”.

Fullerton inspired the fictional character of Merton Densher in James’s The Wings of the Dove except, as Hermione Lee observes, Densher is given longer legs and he is turned into an Englishman.


In the summer of 1908, Fullerton’s former mistress and landlady, Mme Mirecourt, came into possession of some compromising letters.  It was clear that if the contents of these letters where revealed, they  could damage Fullerton’s reputation. Mme Mirecourt threatened to make them public if Fullerton did not pay the money he owed her.

Mme Mirecourt had been blackmailing Fullerton several years. Fullerton had even confided to Henry James about it at some point. It is Kaplan’s view that Fullerton was also hoping for James’s financial support to get him out of this situation which threatened his reputation.

When Edith Wharton learnt of it, she came to Fullerton’s aid by advancing him the money. The understanding was that he would repay her as soon as he published a book he was working on. The book was supposed to be about Paris and MacMillan publishers had agreed to publish it.

In order to help his friend, Henry James also agreed to help Fullerton pay off Mme Mirecourt.  He  advanced him half of the two-hundred-pound due from Macmillan publishers for his book.

However, Fullerton’s book on Paris was never to be written despite angry words from both Henry James and Edith Wharton. Thankfully, Macmillan publishers never asked either James or Wharton to make good on their promissory note either.

The Wharton's apartment (1907 - 1909) on 58 rue de Varenne, Paris
The Wharton’s apartment (1907 – 1909) on 58 rue de Varenne, Paris

Edith and Teddy Wharton

Edith Wharton’s husband was a feckless alcoholic and someone who Henry James described as being “cerebrally compromised”.

While Edith Wharton and Fullerton were in the throws of passion, her husband Teddy was using the money of her Trust Funds to speculate on the stock exchange.


When Teddy began to lavish money on call girls back in the states, the rumour machine was humming and Wharton could stand it no more.  After many unhappy years of marriage, Wharton divorced her husband in the courts of Paris in 1913.

She preferred the divorce to take place in Europe rather than letting the press have a field day with the scandal in her home country.

Teddy Wharton was from an old Boston family.  Edith Wharton’s family were a powerful New York clan, and according to Charles McGrath, this was a circle where “divorce was unthinkable”.

Hemione Lee states that, during Edith Wharton’s divorce, Fullerton remained conspicuously uninvolved. He preferred to remain distant while his “on-off” affair with this rich, passionate, older mistress was “turning into a dangerous proposition”. He could see that Edith Wharton’s marriage to a crazy husband was “disintegrating amid scandal and chaos.”

Fullerton already had enough scandal in his life and, according to Lee, he continued to back off from this one. He became distant towards Wharton and more and more unreliable so that, by 1910, the affair was over.

Years later, after Wharton’s death, Fullerton would compare her Edith Wharton to George Sand in that he found Edith Wharton to be fearless and “reckless” in the way she loved.

After her divorce came through, Edith Wharton found herself alone. She decided to stay on in Paris where she would remain until the end of her life.

With the outbreak of the first World War, Hermione Lee says she “fell in love with the spirit of France”.  She began to work tirelessly for the charities she created.   These included sewing workshops that employed 800 women.  She also opened hostels for tuberculosis patients and refugee children.  She was rewarded by the French government when she was made chevalier of the Legion of Honour.


At No. 53 rue de Varenne, there is a plaque to commerate the time Edith Wharton spent living in France.  On it Edith states:

“My years of Paris life were spent entierely in rue de Varenne – rich years, crowded and happy years. ”



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