Please use these writing prompts to help get your creative juices flowing (and learn a little about Edith Wharton along the way). We hope to spark your imagination and allow you to flex your creative writing skills.
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“By the time I was seventeen, though I had not read every book in my father’s library, I had looked into them all. Those I devoured first were the poets and the few literary critics…. But the books which made the strongest impression on me–doubtless because they reached a part of my mind that no one had thought of arousing–were two shabby volumes unearthed among my brother’s college text-books: an abridgement of Sir William Hamilton’s “History of Philosophy” and a totally forgotten work called “Coppee’s Elements of Logic.” This first introduction to the technique of thinking developed the bony structure about which my vague gelatinous musings could cling and take shape; and Darwin and Pascal, Hamilton And Coppee ranked foremost among my Awakeners.” – Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance (1934)
From an early age, Wharton developed a voracious appetite for reading and knowledge. Throughout her memoir A Backward Glance, she recalls the influence of her father’s library; it was not as expansive as others of their class (his book collection was more limited as was befitting the inheritance of a younger son), yet it still contained thousands of volumes. In this passage, Wharton recalls some of her early “Awakeners,” the writers who had a profound impact on the imaginative trajectory of her life.
Who were some of your favorite writers when you were young? Who were some of your early “Awakeners”? How do they inspire you to this day?
Cover page for François Coppée, Poems: 1869-1874, which Wharton obtained while in Paris in 1881 (courtesy of http://sheilaliming.com/ewl/home.html)
I see, O lovely tree, / The earth’s brown breast, o’ergrown / With all sweet blossoms blown; / The hastening ants for me / A friendly circuit make, / And sometimes, for their sake, / Beneath my leaves I hide / A little store of food; / All round, the joyous brook / Of wind-flowers open wide; / The odorous ferns upcurl / Each tenderly-furred frond….
From “In the Forest” by Edith Wharton, published in Selected Poems of Edith Wharton (2019), edited by Irene Goldman-Price
While Earth Day was not recognized until the 1970s, Edith Wharton certainly would have celebrated the Springtime day dedicated to nature. In this particular poem, Wharton imagines a conversation between an oak tree and a violet, as each asks of the other, “What is it that you see?” Not only did Wharton appreciate the natural world, but she was also a steward of it. Her gardens attest to her deep knowledge of plant life, and the location of The Mount invites a stunning view of forest, lake, and mountains. In the U.S. and in France, Wharton chose homes that positioned herself in the midst of natural beauty.
How do you like to celebrate Earth Day? How does the natural world inspire you?
Photo by Tom Tranfaglia for Tricia McCormack Photography
What's In a Name
For Women’s History Month, this prompt highlights the many women writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who published their works under pseudonyms, or pen names, to conceal their identity for various reasons. One of the most popular reasons for doing so was that it enabled many women to enter the male-dominated profession of published authorship while maintaining their feminine respectability and/or privacy. While some women used classically inspired pseudonyms such as “Constantia” (used by late eighteenth-century American writer Judith Sargent Murray), many others wrote under a male persona. Some of the most influential writers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including Vernon Lee, George Eliot, and George Sand (whose real names were Violet Paget, Mary Ann Evans, and Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, respectively), used male pen names. These women’s numerous works are an invaluable addition to Wharton’s own library, especially those of Vernon Lee, whom Wharton befriended and admired greatly.
This was a tradition Wharton emulated in her earliest of writing days, as she chose the pen name David Olivieri for a novella she wrote in her mid-teens, published in 1977 posthumously as Fast and Loose. If you had to choose a pen name to write under, what would it be and why?
Title Pages for works by Violet Paget, Mary Ann Evans, and Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin. Digitized from Edith Wharton’s Library, http://sheilaliming.com/ewl/about.html.
The Season for Love
During her lifetime, Edith Wharton was careful never to reveal details about her romantic life. However, she maintained a diary from 1907 to 1908, which documents her love affair with journalist Morton Fullerton. This diary, which she called “The Life Apart,” was meant for no one’s eyes but hers and Fullerton’s until, as stipulated to her literary executors, she had been dead for thirty years.
Happiness is a theme that emerges throughout Wharton’s diary, explored as an experience that had eluded her until Fullerton came into her life. However, this romantic happiness was uncertain and tentative, largely due to Fullerton’s mercurial lifestyle. Though intelligent, handsome, and exciting, he was an elusive lover. In February of 1908, she wrote, “Then we went to Herblay. Such a cold, sad winter day, with the wind beating the bare trees, & a leaden sieve between brown banks! In the church it was still & dim, & in the shadowy corner where I sat while you talked with the cure, a veiled figure stole up & looked at me a moment. Was its name Happiness? I dared not lift the veil….”
In this particular passage, Wharton personifies Happiness as a figure she is hesitant to disturb for fear of it disappearing. Have you ever thought of an emotion as a character? What role did that emotion play in your life?
Quoted text excerpted from “‘The Life Apart’: Text and Contexts of Edith Wharton’s Love Diary” by Kenneth M. Price and Phyllis McBride, 1994
Photo of Morton Fullerton courtesy of Edith Wharton Collection. Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University
Memorable Birthday Presents
“And there was one supreme day when, my mother having despairingly asked our old literary advisor, Mr. North at Scribner’s, ‘what she could give the child for her birthday,’ I woke to find beside my bed Buxton Foreman’s great editions of Keats and Shelley! Then the gates of the realms of gold swung wide, and from that day to this I don’t believe I was ever again, in my inmost self, wholly lonely or unhappy.” –Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance (1934), page 71.
This writing prompt draws inspiration from Wharton’s birthday, January 24, 1862. Wharton received copies of Shelley’s Poetical Works and Keats’s Poetical Works from her mother as a birthday present when she was in her late teens. For Wharton, this gift enabled “the gates of the realms of gold” to be “swung wide” and affected her life profoundly. These volumes helped form the basis of Wharton’s own book collection, influenced by the time she spent in her father’s library.
Reflect on a particularly memorable birthday present you received when you were young. What made it so special? Do you still have it?
Beautiful White Silence
“How I miss that beautiful white silence that enclosed us at the Mount, & enabled me to possess my soul!” –Edith Wharton to Sara Norton, December 30, 1904, Edith Wharton Collection. Yale Collection of American Literature. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
From her townhouse in New York City, in December of 1904, Wharton was feverishly trying to finish The House of Mirth to meet the new serialization schedule for Scribner’s. Lily Bart’s slow social decline in the same city certainly occupied Wharton’s mind in a much different way than the calm and wintery serenity of Lenox.
What is your favorite place to experience the “beautiful white silence” that winter brings? Where are your favorite wintery views? Where do you feel at peace this time of year?
“This is the villa of the Gamberaia at Settignano. Till its recent purchase, the Gamberaia had for many years been let out in lodgings for the summer, and it doubtless owes to this obscure fate the complete preservation of its garden-plan. Before the recent alterations made in its gardens, it was doubly interesting from its unchanged condition, and from the fact that, even in Italy, where small and irregular pieces of ground were so often utilized with marvellous skill, it was probably the most perfect example of the art of producing a great effect on a small scale.” –Edith Wharton, Italian Villas and Their Gardens, page 41.
Italian Villas and Their Gardens was published in November of 1904. This particular villa Wharton admires for its ability in “producing a great effect on a small scale.”
Think of a scene you have encountered invoking a similar feeling. Were you observing nature, architecture, the city, the country? What time of year? Where were you when you came across this scene? What brought you to it? What “great effect” did it have on you?
“Oh, Dorsetshire’s full of ghosts, you know.”
-Edith Wharton, “Afterward,” published 1910
The days are growing shorter and colder, which means that the season of spirits and spookiness is very much upon us. Not only was Edith Wharton a fan of ghost stories, but she penned many herself. “Afterward” is about a woman named Mary and her husband who move from America to Dorsetshire, England. The couple is determined to purchase a home that is haunted, but they end up getting more than they bargained for.
Take a stab at writing your own ghostly tale! We have many stories to tell here, for The Mount is full of ghosts, you know…
Photo taken by Robert Oakes, ghost tour guide
“We have been in the new house ten days, & have enjoyed every minute of it. The views are exquisite, & it is all so still & sylvan—I have never seen the Michaelmas daisies as beautiful as this year—the lanes are purple.” –Edith Wharton to Sara Norton, September 30, 1902, Edith Wharton Collection. Yale Collection of American Literature. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
Edith and Teddy Wharton moved into their newly-built home, The Mount, in September of 1902. She reflected on this new home with happiness and contentment, appreciating the beauty of the surrounding landscape. The Mount in September is truly spectacular, as many of us can affirm. Try to recall your feelings surrounding your first couple of weeks spent in a new home.
What time of year did you move, and how did that impact the transition?
Happiness in Old Age
Edith Wharton died August 11, 1937 at the age of 75 in Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt, France. For this month’s writing prompt, we point you to this uplifting quotation, found in one of the opening paragraphs of her autobiography A Backward Glance, published in 1934:
“In spite of illness, in spite even of the arch-enemy sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways.”
This recipe for a long life certainly rang true for Wharton, whose love of architecture, gardens, history, travel, writing, and her dogs kept her busy until the end of her days.
What are some ways in which you are “insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways”? What would your recipe for long life look like?
Edith Wharton wrote to Eunice Maynard in July of 1911 from The Mount, “I am a little stupefied by the heat – we have reached 94° here, & the ripe gooseberries in the garden yesterday were literally burnt up by the sun!” Edith Wharton Collection. Yale Collection of American Literature. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
Summer is most definitely upon us! Reflect on a time you felt “a little stupefied by the heat.” Where were you? How was the heat impacting your senses? What about your surroundings?
An Age of Innocence
The title for The Age of Innocence is drawn from the Sir Joshua Reynolds painting of the same name. Wharton often drew inspiration from art; many of her poems are ekphrastic poems, i.e. poems about particular works of art.
Choose a work of art and write a short poem or prose piece about your response to it.
“My ruling passions:
A good joke & perhaps that should have come first”
-Edith Wharton, from her personal diary
What are your ruling passions? What should could come first on your list? Take inspiration for Wharton’s passions and see where it takes you.