Richard Guy Wilson
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.”
Edith Wharton also put her words into practice when she became extensively involved in remodeling a house in Newport, Rhode Island, summering place for the privileged classes of America’s Gilded Age. Later, she built her own home, The Mount (1902), in Lenox, Massachusetts, according to her own design principles. She hosted literary figures and artists at her country home in the Berkshires. Additional design assistance came from her niece, Beatrix Jones Farrand, a noted landscape designer. The Mount is an autobiographical house because it was crafted by Edith Wharton in the same manner that she drafted her literature, with impeccable taste, an astute eye and a deep appreciation of beauty.
Richard Guy Wilson’s interest in architecture and design comes to him naturally. He was born in Los Angeles, the home of everything new, and grew up in a house designed for his parents by Rudolph Schindler, a leading modernist designer. His undergraduate degree is from the University of Colorado, and the University of Michigan awarded him master’s and doctoral degrees.
Richard Guy Wilson taught at the University of Michigan and Iowa State University before coming to the University of Virginia in the nation’s bicentennial year. He has led the Victorian Society’s 19th Century Summer School for more than 30 years. He was a visiting professor at Cambridge University in 2007.
Dr. Wilson’s publications include The Prairie School in Iowa (1977) with Sidney Robinson; The American Renaissance (1979); McKim, Mead & White Architects (1983); The Colonial Revival House (2004); Harbor Hill: Portrait of a House (2008); and Edith Wharton at Home: Life at the Mount (2012). He contributed to The Architecture of R. M. Schindler (2001), who designed his parents’ home, and to David Adler, Architect: The Elements of Style (2001).
Our speaker’s research interests have also been sparked by his adopted home, Mr. Jefferson’s university. Dr. Wilson also wrote Thomas Jefferson’s Academical Village (1993, 2009) and The Campus Guide: University of Virginia (1999, 2012). He was also the principal author and editor of the Society of Architectural Historians’ Buildings of Virginia: Tidewater and Piedmont (2002).