U.Va. Architectural Historian Examines A Different Side of Novelist Edith Wharton

September 21, 2012

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Edith Wharton is best known for her books “The House of Mirth,” “The Age of Innocence,” “Ethan Frome” and others. But the early 20th-century writer also contributed to the fields of architecture and design.

Her first book was the decidedly non-fiction “The Decoration of Houses,” which she co-wrote with architect Ogden Codman. Published in 1897, it was considered a bible of good taste and is still in print.

The book sets down the rules for domestic design, based upon common sense and reliance on the laws of harmony and proportion. Wharton incorporated those design ideals when she designed The Mount, her home in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts.

In his new book, “Edith Wharton at Home: Life at The Mount,” University of Virginia School of Architecture professor Richard Guy Wilson, an architectural historian expert in American design and art of the 18th to 20th centuries, reveals not only Wharton’s effect on design, but also the influence the house had on her fiction.

“The Decoration of Houses” had “considerable impact” in the design world, Wilson said.

“The argument they 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,” he said. “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 Mount is a reflection of that classical aesthetic. Wharton was involved in all aspects of its creation and the house represents her taste in subdued decoration. “The Mount was Edith’s most complete realization of a total environment,” Wilson writes.

Wharton had worked with Codman in the remodeling of Lands End, a home she and her husband, Edward Wharton, had in Newport, R.I. She picked up ideas from Codman and contributed others she gleaned from studying books on French architecture and others that deal with house design – all later laid out in “The Decoration of Houses.”

In addition to Codman, Wharton was friends with architects Charles Follen McKim, Stanford White and Richard Morris Hunt, all of whom contributed to an artistic revolution called “the American Renaissance” that was taking place in the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. New ideas were being generated from a reinterpretation of the past, including the Italian Renaissance, Classical Rome, France and the style of the École de Beaux-Arts.

The Mount embodies Wharton’s interior-exterior philosophy. “The gardens are very much a part of the scheme,” Wilson said. “They are not something that is thought of later. The way that you get your views out of the house is very important.”

A cross-axial hall runs across the front of the house and the rooms open off of that and then out to a terrace “with tremendous views that stretch out across the garden to the Berkshire Hills beyond,” Wilson said.

Wharton wrote in her autobiography that she was “criticized by some for not exactly following my own rules,” in the design of The Mount. Wharton hired a young firm of architects who had studied with McKim Mead & White, but worked closely with them to achieve her creative ideal.

Wilson said that although there are some exceptions, “in general, it follows very closely the idea of subdued decoration. The decoration is part of the architecture and is not a separate element.”

Wharton was a behaviorist who believed that humans are created by their environment. In the speech she gave when she received an honorary doctorate from Yale University in 1923, the first woman to receive that honor, she said, “A street, a room, is an event in the history of a soul.”

Not surprisingly, setting and the environment play a key role in her literature and was Wilson’s introduction to Wharton’s interest in architecture. While a graduate student in the 1970s, one of Wilson’s architectural history professors assigned the class to read Wharton’s “House of Mirth.”

Wilson said he was “totally entranced by the role architecture played in the novel.” While doing research in Washington, D.C. for his dissertation on the architecture firm of McKim Mead & White, Wilson came upon a reference in McKim’s papers that intrigued him: an analysis of  “The Decoration of Houses” that McKim had sent to Wharton.

Wilson visited The Mount that summer, but it was more than 40 years later that he returned to write the history of its creation and the role the book played in shaping Wharton’s life, her view of the world and the impact it had on her fiction.

In ”House of Mirth,” as the character of Lilly Bart begins her downward spiral, “the environment changes very substantially,” Wilson said. “She tries to break out of her environment – she can’t. It ultimately destroys her.”

One scene describes Lilly looking at the garden – the same view Wharton saw from her bedroom window where she wrote each morning, Wilson said.

“The Mount was a very important place for the creation of what one might say is some of the great works of American fiction,” Wilson said.

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Jane Ford

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