Edith Wharton’s Houses
“Location, architectural style, and decoration make a language—one Wharton could read and write fluently.”
Edith Wharton knows houses. Her first published book was “The Decoration of Houses,” written with Ogden Codman, Jr., which argued for “house-decoration as a branch of architecture,” and against “the indifference of the wealthy to architectural fitness.” Wharton and Codman took a reformist stance, suggesting that clients stop treating the interiors and the exteriors of their houses as separate projects and start seeking more simplicity and less ornament. Wharton had an opportunity to play architect and decorator herself in Lenox, Massachusetts, where (with the help of professionals) she built the Mount, a Georgian mansion with a cascade of beautiful gardens. She wrote to her sometime lover Morton Fullerton, “Decidedly, I’m a better landscape gardener than novelist, and this place, every line of which is my own work, far surpasses The House of Mirth… ”
Yet The House of Mirth is bookended by contrasting visions of domestic architecture. In the first chapter, we visit the lawyer Lawrence Selden’s bachelor apartment with its “shabby leather chairs,” “pleasantly faded Turkey rug,” and shaded balcony, and it seems a personal oasis. In the last, we visit the unmarried heroine Lily Bart’s spare boarding-house home, “where there was no other token of her personality about the room, unless it showed itself in the scrupulous neatness.” Those rooms show the difference between the lot of the single man and the single woman in New York society as vividly as the dialogue. The societal rituals Wharton satirizes and elegizes always have specific sets. In “The Age of Innocence,” she nods to the future development of Manhattan real estate with a sidelong reference to the pioneering spirit of Mrs. Manson Mingott, who “put the crowning touch to her audacities by building a large house of cream-colored stone … in an inaccessible wilderness near the Central Park.” Location, architectural style, and decoration make a language—one Wharton could read and write fluently.
The Custom of the Country, however, is her architectural masterpiece. The novel follows the social progress of Undine Spragg, an American beauty from Midwestern Apex City, whose one desire is to move up. Lily Bart and Newland Archer, the protagonists of Wharton’s better-read House of Mirth and Age of Innocence, are both society-born insiders. Undine Spragg is an outsider, and her name itself encompasses the warring forces at work in her desire for progress. “Undine” suggests finer things, but is actually an homage to a more mundane invention, a hair-waver put on the market by her phlegmatic father the week she was born; “Spragg” is pure Apex. (Wharton does a similar thing with Ellen Olenska, in Age of Innocence; “Ellen” is New York, while “Olenska” forever sets her apart from the Wellands and the Archers.)
Undine’s lovers want to see her as divers et ondoyant, but she is really a Spraggy businesswoman. There’s a parallel plot where the husbands and fathers make and lose fortunes through real estate and the stock market, but Wharton seems as uninterested in that kind of commerce as Undine is. Instead, houses become the way we readers chart Undine’s climb, which is entirely accomplished by strategic marriage. With each husband, she changes city, house type, and architectural style, moving from brownstone to château to hôtel particulier. It is Undine’s misreading of those houses (she assumes big house equals money equals freedom) that leads her into each bad marriage, and pushes Wharton’s plot forward. Undine will never be satisfied, as the last lines of the book make clear, but our magazine-bred voyeurism is.
The first scene of Custom of the Country is set in New York’s fictional Hotel Stentorian, and includes the following description:
The Spragg rooms were known as one of the Looey suites, and the drawing room walls, above their wainscoting of highly varnished mahogany, were hung with salmon-pink damask and adorned with oval portraits of Marie Antoinette and the Princess de Lamballe. In the center of the florid carpet a gilt table with a top of Mexican onyx sustained a palm in a gilt basket tied with a pink bow. But for this ornament, and a copy of The Hound of the Baskervilles which lay beside it, the room showed no traces of human use…
The rest of the book is Undine’s flight from this damask prison. She doesn’t know why it wrong, just that it is, and she is desperate to know what is right. A box or the stalls? Pigeon-blood stationery or plain? New pearls or old sapphires? Wharton has created a character less visually literate than her readers, so Undine’s errors in décor translation create a consistent sense of foreboding. When she visits her future in-laws for the first time, we know that “the room they sat in after dinner, with its green-shaded lamps making faint pools of brightness, and its rows of books from floor to ceiling,” is in the best of taste. But Undine doesn’t understand the lack of upgrades: wood fire versus an electric grate, ferns versus orchids, roast meat rather than foreign delicacies in ruffled papers. This means she doesn’t understand the old New York family into which she will shortly marry. And this means domestic tragedy.
Wharton underlines the disconnect between Undine and her future husband, Ralph Marvell, by making the sympathy between man and manse explicit. Ralph arrives home in Washington Square and, “mounting his grandfather’s doorstep, looked up at the symmetrical old red house-front, with its frugal marble ornament, as he might have looked into a familiar human face.” Old, frugal, human: these are not qualities that Undine respects.
Paris beckons, as does a French count with a château in Burgundy. Undine’s first glimpse of this house (so much better than a Greek Revival townhouse!) is magical, even Disney-esque. As she describes it,
It’s the most wonderful house you ever saw: a real castle, with towers, and water all round it, and a funny kind of bridge they pull up. Chelles said he wanted me to see just how they lived at home, and I did; I saw everything: the tapestries that Louis Quinze gave them, and the family portraits, and the chapel, where their own priest says mass, and they sit by themselves in a balcony with crowns all over it.
It’s an embarrassment of riches—Louis Quinze, crowns, a moat—but Undine never considers that this castle, like that red housefront, may come without a cellar full of gold. Even sitting in a balcony with crowns may grow old, month after winter month, when your husband’s mother and assorted elderly, embroidering-loving relatives share that balcony. The “real castle” is transformed by marriage into an “empty house.”
Everything in the great empty house smelled of dampness: the stuffing of the chairs, the threadbare folds of the faded curtains, the splendid tapestries, that were fading too, on the walls of the room in which Undine stood…
The chatelaines of the castle don’t understand her restlessness or the rootlessness of her little son Paul (who I always think of as the saddest boy in literature), but that quality may well be based in Undine’s first experience of architecture. After a fight with Chelles, Undine realizes, “there was no more hope of shaking his resolve or altering his point of view than there would have been of transporting the deep-rooted masonry of Saint Desèrt by means of the wheeled supports on which Apex architecture performed its easy transits.”
She left Apex long ago, but, since birth, houses have seemed to Undine to be transportable, consumable objects, like her father’s hair-waver. It’s symbolic, in a petty way, that both in Washington Square and at Saint Desèrt she tries literally to reset the old customs, altering family jewels along a more modish pattern, having a fire in the gallery rather than sitting in her mother-in-law’s room, and worst of all, calling in an appraiser to find out the monetary value of the Louis Quinze.
In her last marriage, in the last chapter of the book, Undine seems finally to have it all. The house and the money, the rarities, and the modern conveniences. She’s roused herself to be more than ornamental, helping her new husband assemble the spoils from impoverished ancient European families and install them in a new hotel, one behind “a pair of tall iron gates with gilt ornaments, the marble curve of a semi-circular drive, and bands of spring flowers set in turf.” It is a house on the model of her own beauty, a little too bright, too obvious, her rooms decorated like one of her dresses, “all pale silks and velvets, artful mirrors and veiled lamps, and the boudoir as big as a drawing room, with pictures he would have liked to know about.” It is suggested (shades of Betty Draper Francis) that she might have become a little bit fat.
“He” in the following quotation is Paul Marvell, and this is the first house we see through his eyes, not his mother’s. She still has no perspective, but he’s starting to gain one.
In the bedroom, on the brown wall, hung a single picture—the portrait of a boy in gray velvet—that interested Paul most of all. The boy’s hand rested on the head of a big dog, and he looked infinitely noble and charming, and yet (in spite of the dog) so sad and lonely that he too might have come home that very day to a strange house in which none of his old things could be found.