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The age of experience: The moral and aesthetic sensibility in the fiction of Edith Wharton.

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posted on 2015-11-19, 09:00 authored by Patrick Moore
Edith Wharton was an American writer who believed that the aesthetic and moral are inextricably bound together. She thought that one responsive to beauty in nature and art would thereby be the more morally perceptive. Informed by this passionate belief she came to identify the beautiful with the good and ugliness with evil. In her nineteenth-century childhood she travelled with her family through England, France, Germany, Spain and Italy; during these visits she began to identify Europe with the beautiful because of its heritage of architectural and other cultural riches. The drabness of America came to be a figure of ugliness from which she hoped to escape. Through personal study she learned to admire two different writers, her fellow American and traveller Henry James and her neighbour in Italy, the eccentric Vernon Lee. These two authors reinforced her belief in aesthetic morality. James had left America because of his conscious desire to be an artist; he found his native land lacking in the variety of institutions which embodied a civilization - it had neither a heritage of artistic achievement nor a refined leisure class to enjoy it. Nevertheless, he saw clearly that Americans possessed a vigorous moral ardour and a hunger for the beauties of Europe. Mrs Wharton accepts and enlarges this belief. Vernon Lee wrote of the glories of classical eighteenth-century Italy typified by restraint, elegance and refinement, three qualities Mrs Wharton took as essential to the civilized mind. Vernon Lee had explored and popularized the ideas of her friend Walter Pater concerning the centrality of intense aesthetic experience in the personal realm which might be combined with moral purpose. Edith Wharton admired James and Vernon Lee as writers and became intimate friends of both after she moved permanently to Paris. In all Mrs Wharton's forty books, from The Greater Inclination (1899) to The Buccaneers (1937) she explores exhaustively this relation-ship between beauty and morality. In this dissertation her concern for that relationship is examined in detail, and is shown to be the central and most important element in her work.


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University of Leicester

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  • Doctoral

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  • PhD



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