The Mount (façade view), Lenox, MA, 1902
Edith Jones Wharton was very much a part of the Gilded Age, and recorded its society with self-awareness of her privileged life, insight, acuity and wit. Her family is rumored to have been the catalyst for the phrase about “keeping up with the Joneses.” Her mother’s family, the Rhinelanders, are an old Knickerbocker family related to the Rensselaers, a land-rich patroon family. Her unhappy marriage was to Edward Robbins Wharton, a member of a similarly distinguished family.
Although Edith Wharton is known as a great novelist, her interest in architecture, landscape design and interiors is hidden in plain sight in her design books and even her fiction. Edith Wharton’s first book, coauthored with Ogden Codman, Jr., was The Decoration of Houses (1897). Their publication is the most important American book, written by Americans, on interior decoration. Their tastemaking book repudiated the excessive ornamentation and bric-a-brac of Victorian America’s design. Her Italian Villas and their Gardens followed in 1904.
Architecture, gardens and interiors all play central roles in her fiction, most notably in The House of Mirth (1905), The Customs of the Country (1913) and The Age of Innocence (1920) — for which she received the Pulitzer Prize. Richard Guy Wilson will examine how Edith Wharton’s interests in architecture and design affected her fiction. Mrs. Wharton provided the starting point for this examination with her statement that the “impression produced by a landscape, a street or a house should always, to the novelist, be an event in the history of a soul.”