Edith Wharton’s name has been prominent again of late, with Hermione Lee’s biography prompting fresh discussion about the legendary American fiction writer’s place in the literary pantheon. But the New England patrician writer deserves full credit as a pioneering author of a book on home decoration titled — plainly enough — “The Decoration of Houses.”
Like the lady herself, the title is a bit starchy on the surface. And very commanding. She knows whereof she speaks, and she wants the world to know it, too. The time was the late 19th century, when bourgeois Americans’ tastes, she felt, had been led astray by Victorian values and fussiness.
Originally published in 1897 by Charles Scribner’s Sons, a hardcover edition has been reproduced to perfection this year by Rizzoli International, with a foreword by Richard Guy Wilson, chair of the department of architectural history at the University of Virginia, who lovingly explains the history and importance of the great woman’s influential “treatise” on interior design.
It was her first published book, and her interest in the subject shows up again and again in her novels, as Mr. Wilson points out. The physical settings of rooms and houses, she believed, had an impact on characters and their behavior — in life as well as in literature. He doesn’t mince the book’s importance, saying “it also helped reformulate interior design on both sides of the Atlantic.”
Those who have been to Edith Wharton’s home and estate in the Berkshire Hills of Western Massachusetts will recognize them as a direct reflection of her thoughts and ideas as much as the Palladian villa and grounds of Monticello are a mirror of Thomas Jefferson’s mind.
To be fair, it must be noted that her co-author of record was Ogden Codman Jr., a trained architect of a similarly cultivated background who, without this credit, might not otherwise have much of a legacy. The two shared a similar mission in confronting contemporaries who they felt favored far too much the gaudy aspects of the Gilded Age. On every page, they urge simplification and sophistication: Not always an easy alliance.
Quite properly, their guide is organized into chapters outlining “rules” that pertain to enhancing every room and function of a very grand house. From Rooms in General, they move on to Walls, Doors, Windows, Fireplaces, Ceilings and Floors, Entrance and Vestibule, Hall and Stairs, Drawing-Room, Boudoir and Morning-Room (all latter three composing a single chapter) through so-called Gala Rooms (Ball-Room, Saloon, Music-Room, Gallery), etc., ending, oddly enough, with Bric-a-Brac.
“The supreme excellence is simplicity, Moderation, fitness, relevance — these are the qualities that give permanence to the work of the great architects,” they write in a concluding chapter, harking to the masters and their “sense of interrelation of parts, of unity of the whole.” “There is no absolute perfection, there is no communicable ideal; but much that is empiric, much that is confused and extravagant will give way before the application of principles based on common sense and regulated by the laws of harmony and proportion.”
The house in question, the one that formed the basis for their exegesis, was Land’s End in Newport, R.I., but the same principles are on view today in The Mount in Lenox, Mass. Codman is said to have preferred French furniture and decoration over the Italian, which she liked, a slight disparity that was bound to create a tension between the two. As Mr. Wilson notes, his preference prevailed for the most part in their embrace of French styles.
The publishers call the book a classic, as well they might, since it should be required reading for anyone in the field of interior design. The original 56 plates from the original edition are reproduced here in black and white, most of them European modes intended to provide the reader with a glimpse of the history of interior decoration styles. The period furniture of Louis XIV, XV and XVI set the standard in many ways — ways that today would seem to many people formal and overbearing but which are still emulated and bought in great numbers.
Wharton is practical within limitations. Witness this bit of advice found in “Rooms in General.” She writes (we’ll suppose she did most of the writing, as does Mr. Wilson): “It is best to adapt the decorative treatment to the best pieces and to discard those which are in bad taste, replacing them, if necessary, by willowy chairs and stained deal tables until it is possible to buy something better.”
And: “It is to be regretted that, in this country and in England, it should be almost impossible to buy plain but well-designed and substantial furniture. Nothing can exceed the ugliness of the current designs: the bedsteads with towering head-boards fretted by the versatile jig-saw; the ‘bedroom suits’ of ‘mahoganized’ cherry, birds-eye maple, or some other crude-colored wood.” And so on.
She is merciless. One need only look to 18th-century France and England for models, she notes, to find furniture that “was never tricked out with moulded bronzes and machine-made carving, or covered with liquid gilding, but depended for its effect upon the solid qualities of good material, good design and good workmanship.”
The rant sounds familiar, since it might come today from shoppers who go in search of classic design, at reasonable prices, that will stand up to time and impart a sense of personal comfort and well-being. Architecture was their best guide, it appears. In the chapter on “Doors,” she writes that “old French and Italian architects never failed to respect that rule of decorative composition which prescribes that where there is any division of parts, one part shall unmistakably predominate.”
Such writing can be difficult to read and enjoy for its own sake. Better to tackle it as a guide to some of Wharton’s peculiar peccadilloes, the better to understand her life and the ideals that guided it.
Epater the bourgeois — a convenient enough motto when one is secure in one’s own beliefs about the best way to live. No small a part of that confidence stems from knowing how one’s surroundings can enhance that life.
The passion Wharton put into landscaping and domestic arrangements might be seen as compensation for an unhappy emotional life — an increasingly unsatisfying marriage to Teddy Wharton and a frustrating affair in Paris with an American journalist. But that would only serve to diminish her achievement. Artifact it may be, this book, and others that followed, became a best seller.
Ann Geracimos is a reporter on the features desk for The Washington Times.