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.