|Edith Wharton, age 8 (1870) by Edward Harrison May|
Wharton was educated solely by governesses and her own voracious reading. Having suffered childhood illnesses, she was restricted from taxing study: her parents "forbade my being taught anything that required a mental effort." As an adult, Wharton resents not having been taught more, but it is hard not to imagine that this relaxed approach to education gave her the freedom to build the foundations of her art in extensive reading.
I particularly like Wharton's description of her early compulsion to fiction-making, as well as her account of becoming a reader:The sentimental theory that children must not be made to study anything that does not interest them was already in the air, and reinforced by the fear of "fatiguing" my brain, it made my parents turn my work into play. Being deprived of the irreplaceable grounding of Greek and Latin, I never learned to concentrate except on subjects naturally interesting to me, and developed a restless curiosity which prevented my fixing my thoughts for long even on these. Of benefits I see only one. To most of my contemporaries the enforced committing to memory of famous poems must have forever robbed some of the loveliest of their bloom; but this being forbidden me, great poetry--English, French, German and Italian--came to me fresh as the morning, with the dew on it, and has never lost that early glow.
Much later, after publishing her first fiction collection, The Greater Inclination, Wharton writes of achieving a sense of belonging yearned for ever since those first bouts of "making up:" "The Land of Letters was henceforth to be my country, and I gloried in my new citizenship."... I cannot remember the time when I did not want to "make up" stories. But it was in Paris that I found the necessary formula. Oddly enough, I had no desire to write my stories down (even had I known how to write, and I couldn't yet form a letter); but from the first I had to have a book in my hand to "make up" with, and from the first it had to be a certain sort of book. The page had to be closely printed, with rather heavy black type, and not much margin. Certain densely printed novels in the early Tauchnitz editions, Harrison Ainsworth's for instance, would have been my richest sources of inspiration had I not hit one day on something even better: Washington Irving's "Alhambra." These shaggy volumes, printed in close black characters on rough-edged yellowish pages, and bound in coarse dark-blue covers (probably a production of the old Gaglignani Press in Paris) must have been a relic of our Spanish adventure. Washington Irving was an old friend of my family's, and his collected works, in comely type and handsome binding, adorned our library shelves at home. But these would not have been of much use to me as a source of inspiration. The rude companion of our travels was the book I needed; I had only to open it for the Pierian fount to flow. There was richness and mystery in the thick black type, a hint of bursting overflowing material in the serried lines and scant margin. To this day I am bored by the sight of widely spaced type, and a little islet of text in a sailless sea of white paper. Well--the "Alhambra" once in hand, making up was ecstasy. At any moment the impulse might seize me; and then, if the book was in reach, I had only to walk the floor, turning the pages as I walked, to be swept off full sail on the sea of dreams. The fact that I could not read added to the completeness of the illusion, for from those mysterious blank pages I could evoke whatever my fancy chose. Parents and nurses, peeping at me through the cracks of doors (I always had to be alone to "make up"), noticed that I often held the book upside down, but that I never failed to turn the pages, and that I turned them at about the right pace for a person reading aloud as passionately and precipitately as was my habit. There was something almost ritualistic in the performance. The call came regularly and imperiously; and though, when it caught me at inconvenient moments, I would struggle against it conscientiously--for I was beginning to be a very conscientious little girl--the struggle was always a losing one. I had to obey the furious Muse; and there are deplorable tales of my abandoning the "nice" playmates who had been invited to "spend the day," and rushing to my mother with the desperate cry: "Mamma, you must go and entertain that little girl for me. I'VE GOT TO MAKE UP." My parents, distressed by my solitude (my two brothers being by this time grown up and away) were always trying to establish relations for me with "nice" children, and I was willing enough to play in the Champs Elysees with such specimens as were produced or (more reluctantly) to meet them at little parties or dancing classes; but I did not want them to intrude on my privacy, and there was not one I would not have renounced forever rather than have my "making up" interfered with. What I really preferred was to be alone with Washington Irving and my dream. The peculiar purpose for which books served me probably made me indifferent to what was in them. At any rate, I can remember feeling no curiosity about it. But my father, by dint of patience, managed to drum the alphabet into me; and one day I was found sitting under a table, absorbed in a volume which I did not appear to be using for improvisation. My immobility attracted attention, and when asked what I was doing, I replied: "Reading." This was received with incredulity; but on being called upon to read a few lines aloud I appear to have responded to the challenge, and it was then discovered that the work over which I was poring was a play by Ludovic Halevy, called "Fanny Lear," which was having a succes de scandale in Paris owing to the fact that the heroine was what ladies of my mother's day called "one of those women." Thereafter the books I used for "making up" were carefully inspected before being entrusted to me; and an arduous business it must have been, for no book ever came my way without being instantly pounced on, and now that I could read I divided my time between my own improvisations and the printed inventions of others.