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The Candle or the Mirror: Edith Jones Wharton (1862-1937) and Katherine Pease Routledge (1866-1935)

Jo Anne Van Tilburg, Ph.D.

A paper given by Jo Anne Van Tilburg in the Civilized Living Series at The Mount, Edith Wharton’s Estate and Garden, Lenox, Mass., September 1, 2005.

There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.

Edith Wharton1


Edith Wharton, distinguished American author and philanthropist, was born into the upper reaches of the enormously wealthy, stratified and highly mannered society of “old New York.”2 Across the Atlantic “pond” in England, Katherine Routledge, explorer and writer, was born into English country gentry. A birthright Quaker and member of one of the era’s most successful entrepreneurial families, her family fortune was roughly comparable to Wharton’s. Wharton and Routledge, only four years apart in age, lived independent lives of luxury and high social status in directly related cultures sharing the same language and customs. The same insular and narrow social forces acted upon them, and the same rigid standards of feminine behavior were imposed upon them.

Their individual gifts opened expansive horizons of personal expression and creativity, challenging them to break out of social constraints and loveless, sexually unsatisfying marriages to make significant and long-lasting contributions to their respective fields. Wharton realized her full intellectual and artistic potential and actualized her life goals, emerging as one of America’s greatest writers. Routledge (who can surely be counted among the “new” women of the English Edwardian era) was an assertive and accomplished woman who became a central figure in the history of Easter Island. Her brilliance notwithstanding, Routledge was ultimately defeated by hereditary mental illness. While Wharton assuredly shed an incandescent literary light, Routledge was the mirror that reflected the spark of Rapa Nui cultural history.

Voyagers: The Chronology of Two Lives: 1862-1910

The timelines of significant early events in the respective lives of Routledge and Wharton generally run somewhat parallel to one another from their births to about 1910 (Table 1). Slowly developing personal intellectual and religious quests within circumscribed and monotonous home environments are central themes in both women’s lives. Routledge was born in Darlington, Yorkshire, in Northern England to a mid-Victorian clan of extraordinarily wealthy, entrepreneurial and devout founding members of the Society of Friends (Quakers). Wharton was born mid-way through the American Civil War, and her ancestry extended to the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution. Routledge’s family pedigree on the paternal (Gurney and Pease) side reached back over 900 years to its Norman roots.

Both women were raised by repressive, passive-aggressive mothers who presided over lavish but terminally dull households in which everyone had “an awe-struck dread of intellectual effort” by women or girls (Lewis 1975:29). When her husband died in 1872, Kate Pease, Routledge’s mother, donned full black regalia in emulation of the Queen’s life-long mourning for the Prince Consort and thereafter ruled her five lonely children with a combination of morbid self-pity and fierce, unexpressed but overwhelming anger: an iron fist in a velvet glove.

Their respective family circles were large and intermarried.((“There were many marriages between the Joneses and the Masons” (Lewis 1975:13).)) In Routledge’s case, “marrying out’ of the Society of Friends was strictly forbidden until 1859, and during most of her girlhood arranged marriages were common. An obvious result was “a shared, parallel, or else complementary identity with dozens of families” (Van Tilburg 2003:11). One negative hereditary consequence of intermarriage is mental illness, and Routledge’s entire life was impacted and then haunted by the violent schizophrenia of her older brother Harold Gurney Pease. While Wharton’s girlhood is characterized as a “generally placid and unadventurous life,” Harold terrorized Routledge (Lewis 1975:15). When the family secret of his violence was finally made public, Harold was institutionalized.

Both Routledge and Wharton admired distant, accomplished grandfathers and had curious, rather empty relationships with their fathers. Wharton regarded her father (George Frederick Jones, who died in 1882 when she was 20 years old) as “lonely,” suffering “stifled cravings” and “haunted by something always unexpressed and unattained” (Lewis 1975:24). The death of Routledge’s father, Gurney Pease (in 1872, when she was only six years old), was a seminal event that caused her to create a highly emotional scene in front of a funeral crowd of 300 stoic Quakers. She was thereafter marked in her family’s eyes as unpredictable, unconventional and even irrational.

Wharton and Routledge were each nearly lost at the same young age to early childhood diseases: Wharton to typhoid fever and Routledge to scarlet fever. In Routledge’s case, the illness (and the manner in which it was treated) was a milestone in her developing sense of self and, as well, marks the beginning of symptoms of incipient mental illnesses. Like her brother Harold, from the age of 8 she began to suffer sporadically from auditory hallucinations: “voices” that she first dealt with through the teachings of the Quaker religion and then controlled by the practice of Spiritualism and, finally, the occult.

It is impossible to overstate the significance of religion in the formation of Katherine Routledge’s character, the structure of her social life and marriage, her perception of spirituality and mysticism, and her ability to cope with illness. Quaker teaching during Routledge’s time rejected organized clergy, governmental agencies, and dogma (including the Bible), believing that ultimate spiritual authority resided in the conscience of the individual.

Routledge was steeped in her religion’s singular history and philosophy. Quakers of the Victorian era believed in the innate equality of women and men and required no vows of obedience in marriage. Married or single, they were expected to efficiently manage property, engage in appropriate family business, or fight for social reform. Routledge’s family was famed throughout the English and American Quaker communities for their commitment to Quaker “concerns” and their contributions to social justice.

Routledge also absorbed a lifetime of Quaker spiritualism. From its inception, the Quaker practice of “gathered” communal worship provided both the setting and the opportunity for individual visionary displays. The Quaker belief in the efficacy of visions—and in receiving the prophetic “Inner Light” that was the source of those visions—-was deep and profound. Routledge’s family, on both the paternal and maternal sides, had generations of female members who were either strong fighters for social reform or recognized visionary prophets. This dichotomy in the perceived natures and roles of women is clearly reflected in Routledge’s adult character.

In 1882 a baronet was conferred upon the Pease family and a coat of arms was acquired. As a partial result of this new status, but also in recognition of the impressive accomplishments of the Liberal politicians in the Pease family, Routledge was presented at Queen Victoria’s Court. She made her début into polite English society and embarked upon her first whirlwind London “season.” In the same year, Wharton became Mrs Teddy Wharton. Dangerously close to spinsterhood, she married a man to who, by all accounts, was attractive, pleasant and “thoroughly devoted in a winningly subservient way” (Lewis 1975:52).

Unlike Wharton, who was educated at home, Routledge attended Sevenoaks, a prestigious English boarding school in Kent. Both women had the benefit of extensive home libraries and, while Wharton developed an abiding interest in architecture, art, and the very pursuit of beauty, Routledge turned to history and, ultimately, anthropology.

Katherine’s favorite place was the big downstairs library, which was filled with books of every description and dominated by a massive engraving of [her grandfather,] Joseph Pease. On rainy days she often sat under his gaze, absorbed in a favorite book, as the fireplace’s gas jets hissed quietly and gardeners crunched past on the gravel driveway outside, their collars turned up against the cold. She graduated from The Water Babies and other nursery tales to the many novels of Dickens; the philosophical works of the Reverend Charles Kingsley; Mr Midshipman Easy by Frederick Marryat; Johnson’s massive Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets; the history of Captain James Cook’s voyages and Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle.

Well before the age of eighteen Katherine had devoured Mrs. Marshall’s novels, popular books that gave hints and social guidelines on how to snare a husband. These books, she later said, had “illusioned” her about men and marriage. George Meredith’s famous comedic novel The Egoist was another favorite. Meredith was a champion of women, dramatizing the ideas presented by John Stuart Mill in his famous Essay on the Subjugation of Women. Katherine’s bookish interests amused her mother, who read aloud to her children but never for her own enjoyment. Looking at Woodside’s vast shelves of books Kate Pease said, “They seem just the sort of books I should like to read if I was fond of reading!”3

On a blustery Yorkshire day in 1891, Routledge announced,

“It was my misfortune to be born a woman with the feelings of a man.” Calmly she continued, “I’m thinking of going to college.” Silence fell over the elaborate family luncheon. Pale winter sun glinted off crystal on the polished mahogany table, and rows of horse-show cups on the sideboard glowed silver. The clock ticked. Wilson Pease, Katherine’s younger brother, was home on holiday from Cambridge. He broke the silence to speak up in support of his sister: “I can quite understand,” he said, “as English country life in uncongenial for anyone with any brains or taste.”4

With determined courage, wry humor, and the honest self-interest her family mistook for selfish willfulness, Routledge metaphorically gathered her skirts around her and made a run for it.

“Soberly dressed and decorously behaved” Katherine arrived in Somerville Hall, Oxford just a dozen years after women students were first admitted. She was one of twenty women admitted, ages nineteen to twenty-five. Gertrude Bell, whose family and Routledge’s were social friends, attended Lady Margaret Hall. One of Gertrude’s tutors, unable to deal with changing times, required her to sit with her back to him because she was not a man.

Routledge’s residence at Somerville coincided with intense political efforts to gain university degrees for women, and she passionately supported the cause. Oxford prepared Katherine well, and it was there that she discovered that she had a substantial ability to deal with people of varying social and economic backgrounds. Clara Pater, Walter Pater’s sister, was one of Routledge’s tutors, and among her instructors were vivid personalities and founding scholars in the new field of anthropology. R.R. Marett one of Oxford’s more prominent scholars, named Routledge one of the “women anthropologists, of whose achievements the Oxford school was particularly proud” (Van Tilburg 2003: 37).

Routledge was one of the twelve women in her class who sat for the same final exams required of men. She achieved honors in Modern History but, in the end was denied her degree on the basis of her sex. Routledge’s first reaction was a complete breakdown. Her second was to become radicalized and, for the rest of her life, she was a prominent supporter of rights for women.

Ancestry, Sex and Marriage

Wharton was “slow to take an interest in ancestry; when she did it was not in genealogical charts but in human realities with which she could fee some personal connection, in personalities remembered and anecdotes handed down” (Lewis 1975:8). Wharton felt the need for a community of friends, while Routledge had grown up surrounded by an impossibly large family steeped in genealogical ties endlessly recorded and recited. She sought freedom from most in her family and from many friendships. Both Routledge and Wharton preferred the company of men to women, and each individually had interesting and even illustrious friends in many fields.

Yet, at Oxford Routledge formed one or two lifelong, supportive friendships with women. From at least 1893, her closest friend was Eliza “Lyle” McAllum. Very early in their relationship they formed what they jokingly referred to as the “Sensible Women’s League.” They were the only two members, and their goal was to form only platonic friendships with men—no woman, they felt, could be both a free person and a sexual being.

Sexual naïveté, repression, and anxiety, and the “sapphist” tendencies of some Oxford friendships are all recurring themes of Victorian female life. Routledge’s attachment to Lyle was close and devoted for most of her life and may, in fact, have been a love affair. Wharton’s marriage was a sexual disaster and, according to her biographer, was not consummated for three weeks. It had “the effect of sealing off Edith’s vibrant but untutored erotic nature for an indefinite period, with far-reaching consequences for her psychological makeup and her very practice of life” (Lewis 1975:53).

Where or precisely when Routledge met her future husband is not known, but it was sometime after a long stint in South Africa, during which she met with government and military leaders as part of a women’s delegation working on behalf of resettlement of women and children from prison camps. In 1904, she introduced him to her family.

Six feet tall, tanned and fit, William Scoresby Routledge strode across the elegant dining room of London’s Carlton Hotel with a commanding presence. His dark hair was slicked back and he was wearing an expensive suit made by a fashionable London tailor. Wilson Pease [Katherine Routledge’s brother] stood to greet him and, as Scoresby reached to shake his hand, was amused to see that wire bracelets made by African craftsmen incongruously encircled his wrist. Katherine, her thick hair swept up, looked her very best in a slim Parisian gown of gray silk with thousands of tiny pink beads sparkling in the warm candlelight. She had personally attended to every detail of this lavish dinner party in Scoresby’s honor, and when he seated herself next to her, he found gifts tucked into his napkin: an old silver box to use as a cigarette case and a gold matchbox. The crisp sauternes being poured into chilled crystal goblets was his favorite.5

Katherine was plainly infatuated. As a young woman Routledge had what her family called “a craving after some new thing” (Van Tilburg 2003:43). After meeting her future husband, Routledge told her brother that her new life philosophy was to “get as many contrasts as you can. Lead the simpler, the luxurious, the sensuous, the strenuous, the intellectual lives till you have as many, or nearly as many, lives as a cat” (Van Tilburg 2003: 47).

Routledge and Wharton each made determined efforts to escape their family circles, and from about the time of Routledge’s marriage to William Scoresby Routledge and Wharton’s passionate love affair with Morton Fullerton their life paths diverged. Travel and writing were always important to both of them, and Wharton’s blossoming career as a writer matured. Her self-education as an “intellectual tomboy” grounded her, her energy was focused and her creative intentions became clear. Routledge, at about the same time, embarked upon her first field work in Africa. She soon discovered, somewhat to her surprise, that she was a natural born ethnographer.

The Chronology Continued: 1910-1937

The further development of Wharton’s genius and the highpoints of her literary life followed her divorce. She embarked upon generously philanthropic war work, published The Age of Innocence in 1920 and then received the Pulitzer Prize for that work the following year. She received accolades and honorary degrees, and recalled her life in her 1934 biography A Backward Glance. Katherine Routledge was not so lucky. Ahead of her lay travels, publications, and her own honors, but also lurking was divorce, public humiliation, and a gradual, inexorable decline into mental illness.

In 1910, Routledge and her husband created and funded the Mana Expedition to Easter Island (Rapa Nui). They built a state-of-the-art yacht and sailed 100,000 miles round trip to what was then an isolated and primitive island. Routledge was 48 years old when she arrived on Easter Island with her husband as co-leaders of the Mana Expedition. However limited and flawed, the Mana Expedition was the first true attempt to conduct an archaeological survey of the island.

Routledge found the Easter Island breathtakingly beautiful. She experienced isolation as the island’s most profoundly affecting attribute, and suffered at various times during her 17 month stay from depression. Yet Routledge also found Easter Island liberating. She sought and achieved personal independence in the field, and immersed herself in the problems of the island’s prehistory and, as well, in its contemporary conflicts. The statues enthralled her.

Routledge’s partner in the field was not Scoresby but Juan Tepano Huki, a native Rapa Nui man just one year younger than she was. Tepano was baptized Catholic and had served in the Chilean military, where he acquired a sense of personal discipline, punctuality and familiarity with weapons. Upon his return to the island in 1901 he was named “headman” of the community and, in 1902, appointed “mayor” by the Scots-English sheep herding company that held a commercial lease on the indentured and poverty-stricken island for nearly 20 years.
Katherine Routledge immediately grasped Tepano’s central role in island society. He, in turn, took “a real interest in the work.” His mutually beneficial collaboration with Routledge grew and deepened over the seventeen months the expedition was on Easter Island. During the six months Katherine was alone on the island (while Scoresby was on the mainland) they were constant companions.

By the time the Mana Expedition departed Easter Island, Routledge and Tepano had covered every inch of the island and were a field team of two-working together on the same task or separately pursuing the same elusive bit of information. Scattered throughout Katherine’s fieldnotes and journals are dozens of pencil sketches by Tepano with her notes in pen attached; pages torn from his Company account books and scribbled on by her hand; names of places, families, statues and clans given to her by old people and then scratched out and corrected by Tepano.

Mores and Methods: Sex, Lies and Fieldnotes

During his work with Routledge, Tepano looked after a small group of elderly men who were without family, and he brokered or arranged fruitful contacts for her with them and a half-dozen others. Jotefa Maherenga was the oldest man on the island at the time.”Kapiera” (Gabriel Revahiva), “Porotu” (Juan; Hongi Atua a Ure Auviri), “Te Haha” (Ramón Te Haha) and others met with Katherine in what anthropologists call “veranda interviews.” She paid them in food or favors, and developed productive relationships with most of them. However, she had poor social relationships with young Rapa Nui males. They kept their distance because Juan Tepano had “assumed the attitude of watch-dog” over her (Van Tilburg 2003:131).

It is probable that younger Rapa Nui men, if not the entire community, assumed that sex was part of the bargain between Tepano and Katherine Routledge. Sex had always played a religious and economic role on Rapa Nui, just as it had in all other early island societies. Routledge (1919: 129) noted that, “sexual morality, as known to us, was not a strong point in life on the island.” Tepano’s proprietary “watch-dog” relationship with Routledge benefited him and enriched her work, but it also shaped and curtailed it.

Nonetheless, Routledge held some quite startlingly conventional beliefs that, apparently, Tepano shared. As jefe or “headman” of the village, Tepano acted as a kind of policeman. Some say he was a prig and zealous enforcer of sexual morality in others-people in Hanga Roa sang a song, a little ditty to warn others when he was nearby. Such conservative notions of sexual propriety were part of the role Tepano played in the European world.

During the time her husband was on the mainland, Routledge continued her archaeological fieldwork while, at the same time, she carried out ethnographic work with Tepano. Routledge and Tepano were each complex characters with real needs. She was no shrinking Victorian violet, and she liked and admired men in whom, like Tepano, “reliability was the charm of strength” (Van Tilburg 2003: 183). Katherine’s personal feelings about Tepano are clear: she respected him, depended upon him, and trusted him. Her feelings were those of being in love. In The Mystery of Easter Island Routledge (1919) wrote that “the whole voyage of the Mana is a tribute” to the ship’s captain, Henry James Gillam, and the success of the Mana Expedition “was due to the intelligence of one individual who was known as Juan Tepano.”
Tepano orchestrated and facilitated a circle of ethnographic contacts for Routledge and acted as the group’s translator. He was exposed to objects and artifacts he had never seen on the island through the photographs, museum catalogs and books she brought with her and shared with him. He absorbed new information from the field discoveries they made together. Tepano’s contact with Routledge changed his life, and the information he later shared with Métraux was, in a real way, enriched—some would say contaminated—by his intimate contact with Katherine Routledge.

Routledge’s contact with Rapa Nui, in turn, changed her life. On the island she was removed from the “gathered” security of Quaker communal spirituality and responded to that gap by attending Catholic services conducted in the village church. Tepano had been baptized Catholic, but like all islanders his spiritual life was a complex mix of past and present belief systems. He believed in mana, the spiritual power contained within the statues, in dangerous personal spirits called akuaku, and in the predictive power of dreams. Rapa Nui souls, he said, appeared at the moment of death to friend and foe alike.

Angata was a woman in a long tradition of Rapa Nui spiritual practitioners. She was a visionary who, like Routledge, heard “voices.” Like some female members of Routledge’s Quaker family, Angata’s powers seem also shamanistic to the modern anthropological eye. She wore an elaborate rosary and went door-to-door in the village, refusing to enter but counting her beads and intoning an eccentric and unintelligible language. She was respected, but her behavior was spooky and many people feared her as a witch. Her impact was so profound that, many years later, her family told me that they believed “the witch doctor on Easter Island” had ruined Routledge’s life and tumbled her into mental illness.

Her book,The Mystery of Easter Island, was a huge success as a travel book, and it saw a second printing within a year. Unfortunately, the “scientific book” she had hoped to write never appeared. Routledge never returned to Easter Island, although she certainly had the means to do so. Instead, she embarked upon another long voyage through the Society Islands and as far as Australia and New Zealand, all the time amassing huge quantities of fieldnotes. Notwithstanding her sense of religion, Routledge never lost her skeptic’s eye or scientist’s interest. In Tahiti, she met an American geologist

Traveling in the Pacific with the object of proving that it had never been a continent, but tht the islands were sporadic volcanic upheavals from the ocean bed. He had found himself involved in the everlasting quarrel between geologists and biologists, who each want the world constructed to prove their own theories. IN this case a biologist wished for continuity of land to account for the presence of the same small snail in islands far removed. Our friend had contended that the mollusks might have traveled on drift-wood, but was told in reply that salt water did not “suit their constitution.” He had then argued tht they could easily have gone with the food in native canoes. “Anyhow,” he concluded, with a delightful Yankee drawl, “to have the floor of the ocean raised up fifteen thousand feet, for his snails to crawl over, is just too much.”6

Tepano lived out his life on the island, becoming a respected elder and authority on native traditions. There is no record that he and Routledge ever corresponded or had contact.


Katherine Routledge was an ethnographer, and an ethnographer is a writer.7 Field work, and the field notes such work produces, supplies the discipline of anthropology with new ethnographic information. Before ethnography was established as a discipline in the 1840s, the critical and comparative observations of early Pacific voyagers produced rich accounts of Oceanic cultures. As the discipline became more formalized, guidelines became more standardized. However, recent studies of ethnography as a genre “bring out the many tropes it shares with unscientific, lay forms such as travel writing”(Clifford 1990: 53).

The principles and goals of anthropological field work articulated by Malinowski were recognized before Routledge arrived on Rapa Nui in 1914. She grasped the four guides of ethnographic fieldwork: learn the language; be authoritative but sympathetic; record everything precisely, and avoid preconceptions. She succeeded at following only one of them: authority and sympathy were inherent in her character.

She understood field work methods to include outlining native customs through direct questioning, the gathering of genealogies, and census taking. She was significantly less successful at grasping the more imponderable aspects of island life through the use of the Rapanui language (which she never learned). Routledge understood her field data as a collection of empirical facts (metonymic) and as images or patterns (metaphoric). She was, in fact, obsessed with patterns.

Routledge’s approach to field work was humanistic. Functional field data analyses of the type championed by Margaret Mead, for example, and involving charts, tables and cross-referenced inter-relationships between cultural events or human institutions utterly escaped her. The “ticking clock” that she sensed every day, and that urged her on to rescue oral history threatened with extinction, was embedded in her by her mentors H.C. Haddon, W.H.R. Rivers, C.G. Seligman and other anthropologists of the day who regarded all field research as salvage work.

All of Routledge’s unpublished field notes are in the form anthropologists call “scratch notes.” They are sketchy and frequently illegible, and were usually produced in full view of her consultants. Her field note technique is of the type usually called “inscription,” in which Routledge as a participant-observer in group discussions jotted down words or phrases. During later “transcription” she used them to recall the whole thought or event. Her final “descriptive” field notes were often written after the scratch notes were “cold” or not written at all.

Katherine painstakingly traced genealogies and connected a family web of almost two hundred Rapa Nui people. She considered information from a single source to be “inadmissible evidence.” Her methodology was to seek two individuals who could support a given point, thus giving her three statements. She rarely got that, but was able quite often to validate a statement with one other confirming opinion. She applied tests of continuity and context, and sought corroboration. Her ethnographic field notes are a treasure trove of information and insight.


Lewis, R.W.B. 1975. Edith Wharton: A Biography. New York, Hagerstown, San Francisco, London: Harper & Row.

Routledge, Mrs. S. 1919. The Mystery of Easter Island. London: Sifton, Praed.

Van Tilburg, J. 2003. Among Stone Giants: Katherine Routledge and Her Remarkable Voyage to Easter Island. New York, London, Toronto, Sydney, Singapore: Scribner

  1. Wharton, E. 1902. “Vesalius in Zante.” North American Review 175: 625-31 []
  2. “The Reader’s Companion to American History” Houghton Mifflin http://college.hmco.com/history/readerscomp/rcah/html/ah_091800_whartonedith.htm []
  3. Van Tilburg 2003: 27 []
  4. Ibid.: 3 []
  5. Van Tilburg 2003: 47 []
  6. Routledge 1919:318 []
  7. Clifford 1990: 53 “What does the ethnographer do—he[/she] writes.” []

Jo Anne Van Tilburg, Ph.D. — Archaeologist; Director, UCLA Rock Art Archive, Cotsen Institute of Archaeology; Project Director, Easter Island Statue Project Conservation Initiative

Posted on May 4th, 2009 by Jo Anne Van Tilburg, Ph.D. | Category: Routledge |