10 January 2009


My favorite author hands down is Edith Newbold Jones Wharton.

Little Edith Newbold Jones, age 6, painted by Edward Harrison May (1870) in the National Portrait Gallery- Smithsonian Institution. Titian curls, transparent skin and as we acolytes humbly refer to BLUE as french blue.

Here is a woman of great mind; A woman of great passion. For me, it is Edith's keen wit with the pen, her struggles with men-not so lucky in love that one, her passion for beauty- her aesthetic and her love affair with the canine species that make her La Wharton in my eyes.

Though her great friend Henry James cornered the market on complexity of characters- La Wharton connected with hers-her women in society or on the fringes- climbing or tumbling down that long ladder to new heights or to the depths. Read or reread- The House of Mirth, Ethan Frome or The Age of Innocence and you will see her Lilys, Maes and Ellens coming and going.

It is supposed- the old saying "keeping up with the Joneses" referred to Edith's father's family.
Here, another May portrait of Edith (1881)~ age 19, The American Society of Arts and Letters-

Edith Wharton wrote in "The Fullness of Life" that a woman's life is like "a great house full of rooms," and most remain unseen- "and in the innermost room, the holy of holies, the soul sits alone and waits for a footstep that never comes." A beautiful and haunting reality for Edith throughout her life.

Edith Wharton at her desk in the Library~ at The Mount 1905; Perhaps Edith's literal- innermost room. The place where she fused Pen, Paper, Reality- by way of fiction.

The Library at The Mount.

Views of My little Library- my innnermost room.

The Mount's- imposing East Facade-photographed by- David Dashiell

The Mount, Edith's mansion-realized. Her architect was Frank L.V. Hoppin and for a period of time Ogden Codman, her collaborator on the book, The Decoration of Houses. In typical fashion- Edith and Ogden argued about everything- it sometimes goes with the overlapping of the client- architect, decorator- architect relationship. Apparently in the initial stages of planning for the Mount- Ogden became uneasy about some of the stories Edith had penned- those that reflected- less than favorably on the circles that both Edith and Ogden moved in. I would venture to say the circle had to accept Edith to some degree, while Ogden's place was more tenuous, always being forced to keep up with the Joneses - so to speak.

Edith and her husband even tried to get Ogden to reduce his rates by 25%- a nightmare request to any God fearing designer! Fortunately- those sorts of requests I have experienced- went unrealized- All my working clients have been-HONESTLY- the best when it comes to understanding fees. I did have a sharp dealer from the North try to swindle me down to practically nothing- and as negotiations were going nowhere- I removed myself from further insults and withdrew my interest in the project- What a nightmare that project would have been and fortunately all those little red flags appeared- and I was spared.

Well! back to Edith and Ogden- all was settled when Edith hired another architect! Gutsy move- No doubt Edith was a task master and both were relieved and felt they could return to the friendship they shared. Odgen's first impressions of The Mount were not good- ultimately feeling that Edith had gotten in over her head and he regretted he did not take on The Mount project -perhaps-missing the ultimate opportunity to realize the sort of house he and Edith had invisioned in The Decoration of Houses.

The frontispiece for The Decoration of Houses~ Daniel Berkeley Updike.

Collaborating on such a book had to be exciting and grueling for both- really the first of its kind to lay down the LAWS of good taste in Classical Design. Surely, Codman was the driving force for the book, with Edith overseeing the entire thing- her clout as an author, insider and taste maker making the book an inevitable success.

The Mount's classical Italian and French influences reflect Wharton's principles of good taste and design as set out in The Decoration. This book deserves a good read on your part as well- written in 1897- it is a veritable mother lode of design dictums - most of which still ring too true in today's design world. It too- like a great novel- withstands the test of time. Edith's travels took her to Europe and through a number of different homes- but none held her complete heart and soul like The Mount did. Particularly amusing and so spot on today is the chapter Walls and Bric-A Brac. Read it! Both topics I will return to another day.


The Gallery at The Mount~ (1905) & present.

Henry James upon visiting The Mount- noted " an exquisite and marvelous place, a delicate French chateau mirrored in a Massachusetts pond (repeat not this formula), a monument to the almost too impeccable taste of its so accomplished mistress, Every comfort prevails." No doubt Edith Wharton would have told Henry that the Mount was NOT a French chateau- But I suggested Edith was a bit more keen about these sorts of details than Henry. Edith Wharton for me- The Last Word.

Edith Wharton's catalog

  • Verses, 1878 (poems)
  • The Decoration of Houses, 1897 (non-fiction)
  • The Greater Inclination, 1899 (stories)
  • The Touchstone, 1900 (novel)
  • Crucial Instances, 1901 (stories)
  • The Valley of Decision, 1902 (novel)
  • Sanctuary, 1903 (novel)
  • The Descent of Man and Other Stories, 1903 (stories)
  • Italian Villas and Their Gardens, 1904 (non-fiction)
  • The House of Mirth, 1905 (novel)
  • Italian Backgrounds, 1905 (non-fiction)
  • Madame de Treymes, 1907 (novel)
  • The Fruit of the Tree, 1907 (novel)
  • The Hermit and the Wild Woman and Other Stories, 1908 (stories)
  • A Motor-Flight Through France, 1908 (non-fiction, travel)
  • Artemis to Actaeon and Other Verse, 1909 (poems)
  • Tales of Men and Ghosts, 1910 (stories)
  • Ethan Frome, 1911 (novel)
  • The Reef, 1912 (novel)
  • The Custom of the Country, 1913 (novel)
  • Fighting France, from Dunkerque to Belfort, 1915 (non-fiction, war)
  • Xingu and Other Stories, 1916 (stories)
  • The Book of the Homeless, 1916 (editor)
  • Summer, 1917 (novel)
  • The Marne, 1918 (novel)
  • French Ways and Their Meaning, 1919 (non-fiction)
  • The Age of Innocence, 1920 (novel, pulitzer prize winner)
  • In Morocco, 1920 (non-fiction, travel)
  • The Glimpses of the Moon, 1922 (novel)
  • A Son at the Front, 1923 (novel)
  • Old New York, 1924 (novel)
  • The Mother's Recompense, 1925 (novel)
  • The Writing of Fiction, 1925 (non-fiction, essays on writing)
  • Here and Beyond, 1926 (stories)
  • Twelve Poems, 1926 (poems)
  • Twilight Sleep, 1927 (novel)
  • The Children, 1928 (novel)
  • Hudson River Bracketed, 1929 (novel)
  • Certain People, 1930 (stories)
  • The Gods Arrive, 1932 (novel)
  • Human Nature, 1933 (stories)
  • A Backward Glance, 1934 (autobiography)
  • The World Over, 1936 (stories)
  • Ghosts, 1937 (stories)
  • The Buccaneers, 1938 (novel)
  • Fast and Loose, 1938 (first novel, written in 1876-1877)


  1. Great stuff. There's a new biography of Wharton reviewed in this month's Harper's. I'm afraid Ethan Frome is the only one of hers I've read.
    That said, I think you might find Elizabeth Taylor's "The Soul of Kindness" interesting, although Nemesis appears as less of an implacable force of nature than the direct result of someone being a hapless, emotionally stunted ass.
    Penelope Fitzgerald writes novels with a deceptive Victorian veneer that veer abruptly from sexuality to the petty ugliness of small town life. "The Bookshop" would have netted her a Booker Prize if the judges had been literate.
    There's also Hilary Mantel, who is for my money the best writer breathing. She writes some very troubling books about ghosts and human stupidity. "Every Day is Mother's Day" and "Vacant Possession" are black comedy supernatural thrillers. I think she owns the genre.
    Apparently she suffered from undiagnosed endometriosis for years, and at the onset of puberty she began to see palpable images of ghosts. Her account of seeing Satan in the garden of her childhood house is perhaps the best explanation I've read for someone being an atheist/Catholic.
    Great library. Reminds me I need to build some bookshelves.

  2. Rurritable- I have read Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower. Hilary Mantel- have you read her A Place of Greater Safety- my recommendation? I guess by now you might have guessed my preference for novels placed in eras-other than our own. It pleases me to read them- I hope you wont think me shallow? I need more bookshelves! When do you have time to plow?



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