AT FIRST, THE VISIT was like a fairy tale. In Edith Wharton’s 1912 novel The Reef, George Darrow comes to visit Anna Leath at Givré, the French chateau she inherited from her now-dead first husband. After delays and misunderstandings, the couple finally agrees to an engagement, and Givré seems like the romantic backdrop for their love. For Anna in particular it has taken on a renewed beauty with Darrow’s arrival; she sheds her impression that it is “a dull house, an inconvenient house, of which one knew all the defects, the shabbinesses, the discomforts.” On a drive through the countryside, they even discover a kind of mythical abandoned house:
[T]hey stopped the motor before a ruined gateway, and stumbling along a road full of ruts, stood before a little old deserted house, fantastically carved and chimneyed, which lay in the moat under the shade of ancient trees. They paced the paths between the trees, found a mouldy Temple of Love on an islet among reeds and plantains and, sitting on a bench in the stable-yard, watched the pigeons circling against the sunset over their cot of patterned brick.
Darrow returns to this crumbling, decaying, deserted house in his mind at the end of the day. He and Anna remain separated in the evening, both spatially and conventionally; they have not yet even announced their engagement, and Givré is populated by a cast of entangled characters, including Anna’s first husband’s mother, her daughter, her stepson, a governess, and servants. The deserted house, in a way, is the antithesis of Givré: a space known only to the couple, romantic in its desertion, the cottage complement to the fairy-tale castle. In an early draft of The Reef, Wharton even dubbed it “The Sleeping Beauty house.”
Anna and Darrow’s fairy tale is ultimately not to be, and they do not return to the little deserted house. Instead, it becomes a symbol of what is not possible for the couple at Givré, where social entanglements and an atmosphere of publicity suffocate their nascent relationship. It is eventually revealed that Darrow previously had an affair with the governess, Sophy Viner, who is engaged to Anna’s stepson. No dramatic transgression causes this secret to surface — only the watching eyes of the house’s inhabitants, and a slow breakdown of the carefully choreographed social relations. Critic Elizabeth Ammons has argued that The Reef can be read as an indictment of the fairy tale of love as liberation: “Whether the Cinderella myth of economic salvation or the Sleeping Beauty myth of sensual/spiritual salvation, the fairy-tale fantasy of being saved by a man from a life of misery is an illusion which ends in disillusion.” The illusion of the fairy-tale castle ends in disillusion, too. Givré is transformed once again, this time into something Gothic. Even the weather changes. The abandoned house becomes a poignant representation of what theorist Gaston Bachelard has called “the hut dream” — the imagined escape from a palace into a smaller, simpler dwelling where real refuge seems possible. Anna and Darrow’s hut recedes from reality into a kind of dream.
Wharton’s fiction is replete with outbuildings like the deserted house, often frequented by lovers or would-be lovers. In The Age of Innocence (1920), Ellen Olenska and Newland Archer meet in a small house on the edge of a large estate in winter so they can talk furtively. In Summer (1917), Charity Royall and Lucius Harney meet nightly for sex and tea in an abandoned house in the Massachusetts woods that they make roughly habitable. In The House of Mirth (1905), Lily Bart and Lawrence Selden kiss in the conservatory of a New York mansion, outside of a crowded ball. Her characters are drawn to such places, in part because there is no refuge to be found at home. These makeshift refuges provide temporary moments of privacy, intimacy, and escape in a world of houses that fail to be homes.
“Decidedly, I’m a better landscape gardener than novelist, and this place, every line of which is my own work, far surpasses House of Mirth,” Edith Wharton wrote to her former lover, Morton Fullerton, in 1911. She was referring to the garden and grounds at The Mount in Lenox, Massachusetts, a home she had designed herself, with the assistance of architects Ogden Codman Jr. and Francis Hoppin. She lived there full-time only between 1903 and 1908, but it remains the house most associated with her, at least in part because it allows us to visualize the ideal home Wharton would design from ground up.
In many ways, The Mount was her refuge, built as something of an escape — after a long period of illness — from the New York and Newport society of her childhood and adolescence. It was a place for intimate gatherings of her closest friends, who visited and congregated in the library to read out loud in the evenings. It was also a place for solitude, where Wharton did some of her best writing, usually in bed. It was, finally, the only place over which she would have such complete creative ownership, of which she could say, “every line […] is my own work.” In this sense, she was playing into a very American myth of home-building as an exercise in self-creation. (A myth, it should be said, that was always accessible only to the upper classes, in whose company Wharton was ensconced.) In her autobiography, decades later, she would write, “It was only at The Mount that I was really happy.”
Yet that was not entirely true. At the end of her habitation there, she had been spending more and more time abroad, and had come to feel increasingly at home in France. In the final years of her failing marriage to Teddy Wharton, especially during the summer of 1911, The Mount was the scene of his many breakdowns and verbal abuse; it was more a site of marital turbulence and claustrophobia than peace. When the couple separated that September, soon to divorce, they planned to sell the house, though she asked him not to do so without her consent. When she reached Paris, just a few months after she had written to Fullerton about the gardens, she received a telegraph that Teddy had sold it without her permission. She never returned to live in the United States.
There’s a version of Wharton that exists in the popular imagination as the stately mistress of a great estate. Readers of the 2012 Vogue story “The Custom of The Country: Vogue Re-creates Edith Wharton’s Artistic Arcadia,” which features actors and models posed around Wharton’s former Massachusetts home, would perhaps be surprised by how forbidding many of her fictional homes actually are. There’s certainly some truth to the vision of Wharton as homemaker: she designed and decorated houses and gardens throughout her life and was the co-author of a popular decorating manual, The Decoration of Houses (1897). She was attuned to and deeply interested in both architecture and interiors. But she also struggled during her life to construct a real and permanent refuge.
Some of the constraints she encountered were related directly to her gender. Prevailing laws made it difficult for her to control her finances and property. Her marriage to Teddy involved verbal abuse, breakdowns, infidelities, and financial disasters, all of which she was expected, by law and convention, to endure. She had struggled all her life, too, with the psychological effect of homes. Toward the end of her life, she wrote regretfully of residences she had seen in childhood. “The effect of terror produced by the house in Rhinecliff was no doubt partly due to what seemed to me its intolerable ugliness. […] My photographic memory of rooms and houses […] was from my earliest years a source of inarticulate misery, for I was always vaguely frightened by ugliness.”
The Custom of the Country (1913) can be read as a series of moves, by the anti-heroine Undine Spragg, from house to house to house and husband to husband to husband. All stopping points are fundamentally unsatisfying to her until, at the novel’s conclusion, she marries billionaire Elmer Moffatt and acquires a new set of houses. In New York, finally, she gets the house on Fifth Avenue she had longed for in the novel’s opening pages, a home that is described archly as “an exact copy of the Pitti Palace, Florence.” And in Paris she gets a sparkling, grand, expensive townhouse in one of the newer neighborhoods, no less artificial than the replica of the Florentine palazzo. The Paris house becomes a stage set of sorts, made for show rather than for living.
The last chapter of The Custom of The Country take us through the Paris house, as Wharton turns fresh eyes on Undine’s housekeeping habits. The chapter begins from the perspective of Paul Marvell, her nine-year-old son, who has thus far been largely absent from the narrative. He has just returned from boarding school to this new home, where he finds his mother gone. Paul’s observations orient the reader toward the hollowness of the house. He is deeply estranged from his new surroundings, especially his room, which seems to him “the loneliest spot in the whole house,” lacking all his “dear battered relics.” Paul yearns to commune somehow with this strange new place:
He went into all the rooms in turn: his mother’s first, the wonderful lacy bedroom, 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 and tables he was afraid to touch.
He is drawn to his mother’s room, which has the same hazy, illusory beauty she does. The space is populated with mirrors, the only objects in which Undine shows consistent interest throughout the novel. But there’s something forbidding about her room, too. Paul wants to know about the pictures, yet there is no one to tell him their stories; he is afraid to even touch the tables. All the objects in this new house are strange, estranging — attractive, potentially revelatory, yet untouchable. This is true, too, in the library, which, Wharton writes, “attracted him most: there were rows and rows of books, bound in dim browns and golds, and old faded reds as rich as velvet: they all looked as if they might have had stories in them as splendid as their bindings.” But a servant warns him that they are “too valuable to touch.” Paul is thwarted in his attempts to move past the surfaces of objects, to know and understand the books and paintings. The house reveals itself to Paul as a series of shiny facades, impenetrable even as he tries to get closer to them.
Meanwhile, the house is being set up for a large party that is planned for that night, thus revealing its true purpose. “The lamps were lit, the vases full of flowers, the footmen assembled on the landing and in the vestibule below, when Undine descended to the drawing room,” Wharton writes, emphasizing the ordered and beautiful nature of her entertainments. But because of its high artifice, the house fails to provide a place of refuge for Paul. This kind of exclusion happens repeatedly, in houses of all kinds, in Wharton’s fiction: New York brownstones, palatial mansions, narrow row houses, a small red cottage in an out-of-the-way Massachusetts town. All these houses strangely forbid their inhabitants from feeling at home.
So, if a home fails to provide refuge, where can one go? Some of Wharton’s male characters might retreat into their libraries, which grant them the same kind of interior experience they granted Wharton. Most of her female characters, however, can’t find the same comfort in books. Often, her characters seek shelter in the exterior world. They go to the museum, or the greenhouse, or the park, or the tucked-away cottage, or the crowded streets of a small town on the Fourth of July. Her characters are able to find improvised refuges, existing in the nexus between privacy and display, which often create a momentary shelter before leading to a sudden exposure.
The theater and the opera, in Wharton’s fiction, exist at just such an intersection between private and public, alternately providing shelter and total exposure. The opera box is not an interior, but it does have some characteristics of one — particularly at the old Academy of Music in 1870s New York that Wharton describes in The Age of Innocence. The Academy had only 30 boxes, which rarely changed hands, and which Wharton describes in familiar, loving terms as the “shabby red and gold boxes,” passed from generation to generation like heirlooms. (For comparison, the much grander Metropolitan Opera House, which opened in 1880, had 122 boxes, available for purchase.) The boxes were also enclosures of sorts, governed by the social norms of private rooms, as scholar Maureen Montgomery notes: “The rules of the private drawing room prevailed in the opera box and public ballroom, thereby privatizing public space and making it a respectable place for women of the social elite to be seen.” This is something of a paradox: by their very treatment as private places, opera boxes allowed for a certain kind of public display. In The Custom of the Country, Undine calculatedly uses the New York opera — this time the newly built Metropolitan — as a kind of marriage market, a respectable place where she might show herself off to prospective suitors. The spectacle of the opera is so significant in the world Wharton depicts that, in The Age of Innocence, New York society is able to take the sight of Regina Beaufort’s emeralds as a (false) sign of financial security — a glimpse of opulence that buoys the shaky markets.
But opera boxes can also nurture a surprising amount of intimacy. Conventional etiquette in the late 1800s permitted all kinds of close contact at the opera house: a walk with a gentleman in the passages between boxes, or conversations in the unusually close quarters of the boxes themselves. It is in an opera box, in the opening chapter of The Age of Innocence, that Newland convinces May Welland to let their engagement be announced. It is in another opera box that Ellen turns to him, her voice obscured by the low gossip of others, and makes the first explicit reference to Newland’s tokens of affection. “Do you think,” she asks, glancing toward the stage, “he will send her a bunch of yellow roses tomorrow morning?” Her glance toward the stage is significant; the very conventions of watching the spectacle onstage heightens their intimacy in this space. Soon, though, their tête-à-tête is interrupted — they are, after all, in public.
Wharton is very particular about public forms of intimacy. She knew something about this herself, from her affair with Fullerton. Though the tryst occurred when Teddy Wharton was in the United States and Edith was in Paris, there was still a need for discretion. Wharton describes the restaurants where she met her lover as “at the end of the earth (rive gauche) where there is bad food & no chance of meeting acquaintances.” They went on drives together, and met at a railway hotel, and went to the theater with friends and acquaintances. She wrote in her journal that Fullerton slipped into their box during one performance — “that little dim baignoire (number 13, I shall always remember)” — and watched her closely. She wrote to him later of that experience, “I don’t suppose you know, since it is more of my sex than yours, the quiet ecstasy I feel in sitting next to you in a public place.”
The quiet ecstasy of public intimacy was a kind of consolation, then, for the lack of privacy to be found in the home. Of course, in public, such intimacy is never complete, almost always being interrupted — the illusion of refuge ultimately shattered, just as the illusory sanctuary of the domestic sphere has already been. None of Wharton’s spaces are described in static terms; they shift with social relations and psychological states. Her writing about space has been, I think, oversimplified as the feminine obsessions of an over-invested decorator, reduced to the stuffed furnishings of the novel of manners. In fact, both her public and private spaces are complex social networks, facilitating intimacy and then rupturing it.
I have been thinking about all this during this time of lockdowns, when I am stuck at home. The rooms of my house seem more than ever to be in flux. Sometimes their changes mirror my own mood and sometimes they produce it: clutter prevents me from writing, or a room seems cluttered because my writing does. I am in this space of idealized refuge, and yet sometimes it feels like the opposite. Then sometimes again it feels like a home. The public sphere — a daily walk, for example — feels at times like a refuge, but also a bit dangerous. I want to go somewhere, but I don’t know where. Perhaps it is a place like the impossible deserted house in The Reef.
Sophie Haigney is a writer and critic who lives in London. Her writing on art, technology, and books has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Nation, The Baffler, and other publications.