This year marks the 150th birthday of Edith Wharton, and Dr. Caroline Hellman—associate professor of English in New York—graciously accepted our invitation to speak about the writer and interior designer for our Samuel M. Nickerson Lecture Series. In her classes and research, Hellman focuses on how Wharton and a handful of other female 19th-century authors dealt with domestic spaces in their lives and work.
Below are two quotes from Wharton’s writings where these themes play out in figurative and fascinating ways, followed by a Q&A with Hellman.
“But I have sometimes thought that a woman’s nature is like a great house full of rooms: there is the hall, through which everyone passes in going in and out; the drawing-room, where one receives formal visits; the sitting-room, where the members of the family come and go as they list; but beyond that, far beyond, are other rooms, the handles of whose doors perhaps are never turned; no one knows the way to them, no one knows whither they lead; and in the innermost room, the holy of holies, the soul sits alone and waits for a footstep that never comes.”
–from the short story “The Fullness of Life”
“The world since 1914 has been like a house on fire. All the lodgers are on the stairs, in dishabille. Their doors are swinging wide, and one gets glimpses of their furniture, revelations of their habits, and whiffs of their cooking, that a life-time of ordinary intercourse would not offer. Superficial differences vanish, and so (how much oftener) do superficial resemblances; while deep unsuspected.”
–from the preface of French Ways and Their Meaning
Edith Wharton’s legacy seems to one of a great writer who dealt with wealth and materialism in the Gilded Age. But in your talk, you portrayed her as this incredibly multi-faceted character—interior decorator, architectural critic, landscape designer, war reporter, charity worker…Do you think a lot of people don’t know all the sides to Wharton?
Caroline Hellman: I would agree with that, yes. I think any writer or artist can be studied in a very limited, narrow way through the frames of their texts. While Wharton was interested in portraying moneyed, old New York—especially in much of her earlier fiction—she became a humanitarian later in life and that had many implications outside of what is considered the Gilded Age.
I thought that excerpt from The Fullness of Life you gave during the lecture was really interesting, where Wharton wrote that a woman’s nature is “like a great house full of rooms” with both formal rooms for visitors and deep, intimate spaces that no one enters.
Hellman: Right, and what’s also interesting is how she had an evolution in her fiction that occurred in terms of her social critique. So if we think of her three major works, we start with The House of Mirth, in which she’s essentially talking about a single house and dealing with a kind of particular sub-set in New York. Her next big work is The Custom of the Country, where she’s dealing with the greater contingent of the United States, really. And then finally, The Age of Innocence, it’s really dealing with an entire era. I think as she herself kind of grew in dimension, so too did her critique of the world around her.
I think the people who came to the lecture, after having read your bio on our website and learning you were an associate English professor, were probably expecting a purely literary talk. It was so interesting to hear you speak about Wharton instead in terms of space and architecture, both literal and figurative. I know that’s your research area—how did you get interested in that?
Hellman: Well, my interest has always been in cultural studies and American studies, and when it came time to write my dissertation—which then became my book project—it was important to me to focus on writers who had interesting lives above their literary careers. So my book looks at four authors: Wharton, Willa Cather, Louisa May Alcott and Harriet Beecher Stowe. But what I was really interested in was the disjunction between the kinds of spaces they were writing about for their female characters, versus the ways they inhabited domestic space in their own lives. I found that discrepancy pretty fascinating. All four of these women lived pretty independent existences, but wrote somewhat bleak—or at least challenging—female characters into existence.
Can you talk about one of the other authors you focused on in your book, and how she dealt with space?
Hellman: Sure, I can tell you about Louisa May Alcott. She has a mixed literary legacy, but she is best known for Little Women and other books considered as ‘domestic fiction.’ So much of the action is centered on the home, with pretty obedient female characters, and two things are interesting about that. When you read the Little Women series—Little Women was followed by Little Men, and then the third work was Jo’s Boys—you see that the women in the fiction are working together on domestic chores. That kind of cooperative housekeeping was really early for that time. So what she’s doing, in fiction that seems at first to be pretty conservative, is advocating for women to work together, to not be isolated from the home, and in some cases be renumerated for domestic work. And in her own life, Alcott is really interesting in that she never owned a home. She rented a succession of properties, mostly in the Boston area, and she actually looked for homes without kitchens. She was so against that type of housework, and so tired of having taken care of her family for so many years, that she resented the domestic responsibilities as a burden.
We answer a lot of questions about the former mistress of the house here at the Museum, and the traditional domestic roles she played. But Edith seems like such an independent figure, and you have that independence on one hand while on the other hand she’s very concerned with the home and this traditional place for women. Do you feel that she played into the norms expected of women in the Gilded Age, or was she radical for that time?
Hellman: That’s a good question—I would definitely say she’s ahead of her time. Yes, she’s very concerned with the home, but she’s concerned with designing it. [Laughs.] It was not only the money inherited from her well-to-do New York family that allowed her to design her own spaces, like at the Mount for example, but she also made money from the proceeds of book sales and film rights. It was her own money, so she’s definitely unusual. She didn’t receive any formal education, either; she basically educated herself in her father’s library. And yet she became a writer, which is pretty unusual for someone in her social milieu to do. So I would say she has domestic concerns, yes, but ones that are far outside the norms for that period.
Caroline Hellman is an associate professor of English at City Tech, City University of New York. Her book, Domesticity and Design in American Women’s Literature: Stowe, Alcott, Cather, and Wharton Writing Home, was published by Routledge in 2011. Dr. Hellman was a 2010-2011 Fulbright Scholar in American Literature at the University of Antwerp, Belgium. Her teaching and research interests concern the connotations of place and constructions of the domestic in 19th through 21st-century American literature, as well as literary inheritance.