Edith Wharton’s most famous book, “The Age of Innocence,” won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921, ‘lifting a curtain on the machinations of the conventional upper-class world of old New York,’ where she had been raised, in style.
Edith was one of three children born to Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander and George Frederic Jones – and that old saying about “keeping up with the Jones’s” is believed to have been a reference to her family. The family had resided in Manhattan since the New Amsterdam era, along with the Vanderbilts, the Roosevelts, and other fellow parishioners at the old Gramercy area Calvary Church – now merged these days, with St. George’s – near Gramercy Park.
Edith’s Mother was a descendant of Alexander Hamilton who, in his day, had resided at No. 7 Washington Square; as had Edith Wharton herself in 1882, at the age of 20.
Two years prior to that, Henry James – who was a close friend – had published his short novel “Washington Square,” (later adapted as a play in 1947 by Ruth and Augustus Goetz and as a film directed by William Wyler starring Montgomery Clift and Olivia de Havilland in 1949, entitled, “The Heiress;” and revived at the Walter Kerr Theatre, with David Strathairn and Jessica Chastain in 2012, to mixed reviews). The book tells the story of Austin Sloper, a very successful physician and bereft widower, his daughter Catherine, and Morris, her gold-digging suitor.
Like her friend and mentor, Henry James, Edith Wharton provides a unique portrait of high-class society, capturing an unusual perspective on the complexities of duty and convention, the anticipation and subsequent disappointments in love, and the loneliness this can sometimes entail.
Wharton married Edward Robbins Wharton when she was 23 and he was 35. Her marriage was not a happy one, although it endured officially, for more than 28 years. There were – both for Edith and for Teddy – some diversions along the way, and although there were no children, there was a world of creativity for her, at least, in two careers: as a writer and as a designer.
In his new book, “Edith Wharton at Home: Life at The Mount,” architectural historian, and expert in American design and art of the 18th to 20th centuries, professor Richard Guy Wilson, of the University of Virginia School of Architecture conveys the nature of the extensive contribution that Wharton’s made in the area of design, generally – and especially as it relates to both architecture and ‘interior design,’ in particular – but also on the influence that The Mount had on her fiction.
Edith Wharton’s first book was a non-fiction offering that became a classic in the field of design, entitled “The Decoration of Houses.” She co-authored it with Ogden Codman, Jr., whom she had met in Newport, Rhode Island, where he had opened offices as a design professional, after having practiced both in Boston and in New York.
Greatly influenced by one of his uncles who was an architect; and another who was a professional decorator, Codman was very familiar with the architecture and antiquaries of colonial Boston; and having lived for nearly a decade at the French resort called Dinard, in Brittany, he had also cultivated an interest in the architecture of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries of both Italy and of France, as well as the Georgian style, in England.
Initially, Edith had engaged him to help her to create a formal garden between her Newport house and its outlook to the sea; but she and Codman worked well together in their early efforts, and from there they went on to collaborate on a vision for her home on Park Avenue. The two were very well acquainted by the time they set out to codify their design principles in the book.
Speaking of Codman in her autobiography, “A Backward Glance,” Edith writes:
We asked him to alter and decorate the house—a somewhat new departure, since the architects of that day looked down on house-decoration as a branch of dress-making, and left the field up to the upholsterers, who crammed every room with curtains, lambrequins, jardinières of artificial plants, wobbly velvet-covered tables littered with silver gew-gaws, and festoons of lace on mantelpieces and dressing tables. Codman viewed interior design as “a branch of architecture.
By the time she began to think about creating a home for herself, and for Teddy, on 113 acres of farmland in the Berkshire Mountains, in Lennox, Massachusetts, she followed those principals of design in “The Decoration of Houses,” and found her inspiration on a 17th-century English country house, with elements of classic French and Italian architectural elements, that turned on ‘order, scale and harmony,’ and the more elegantly-simple, the better – which was quite a departure from both the English and American contemporary styles at the time, for both the exterior and the interior aspects, which they considered to be all of a piece. Edith and Teddy lived together in The Mount for nine years, from 1902 to 1911.
First visiting the Mount while doing research for his dissertation on the architecture firm of McKim Mead & White, more than four decades ago, Wilson happened to have seen a reference to The Mount in the papers of Charles Follen McKim (1847-1901); and he came upon an analysis of “The Decoration of Houses” that McKim had sent to Wharton, and this had prompted Wilson’s visit there.
In Wharton’s 1905 book, ”The House of Mirth,” Wilson points out that as the character, Lilly Bart begins to unravel, there is a description of what she sees as she looks out at her garden – and this is essentially the same view that Edith Wharton saw from her bedroom window, from the desk where she was writing.
Wilson explains further:
The argument [Wharton and Codman] are making is that interiors should be related to exteriors, that you do not need to have all the Victorian Gilded Age excess that was very common and what they grew up with. You should clean out the interiors, make them rational. And while their orientation is classical, still what they are arguing is exactly the same as Gustav Stickley was arguing with the Arts and Crafts movement, but with a different aesthetic.
The gardens are very much a part of the scheme. They are not something that is thought of later. The way that you get your views out of the house is very important.
In her own words, also, from 1934, (just three years before her death), Edith Wharton wrote:
The Mount was to give me country cares and joys, long happy rides and drives through the wooded lanes of that loveliest region, the companionship of dear friends, and the freedom from trivial obligations, which was necessary if I was to go on with my writing. The Mount was my first real home . . . its blessed influence still lives in me.