From the ‘Looey suite’ to the Faubourg

‘From the ‘Looey suite’ to the Faubourg: the ascent of Undine Spragg’ Edith Wharton Review, 30:1 (2014), 9-28, ISSN 2330-3964

In ‘From the ‘Looey suite’ to the Faubourg: the ascent of Undine Spragg’, I examine The Custom of the Country (1913) in the context of Edith Wharton as an interior designer. The novel exemplifies Wharton’s skill in describing high society in terms of comedy and tragedy. Her vibrant characters, from New York’s ‘Four Hundred’ and the salons of the Faubourg Saint Germain, live by very different social and moral codes, which Undine Spragg must interpret to achieve her social ascent. Wharton provides another layer of interpretation by describing the interiors Undine finds herself in.

Wharton’s first published book was a treatise called The Decoration of Houses (1897). With her collaborator, architect Ogden Codman Jr., she classified, explained and ordered the American Renaissance style for her wealthy contemporaries. The principles she developed were put into practice in her own homes, finding their most perfect expression in The Mount (1902). I will use Wharton’s aesthetic theories as a key to interpret her fictional work and reveal further layers of character and meaning.

The book is filled with references to cryptic languages, which exclude the uninitiated. Every time she joins a set, Undine has to grapple with a ‘new social riddle’, and Ralph Marvell has only the vaguest understanding of ‘the Wall Street code’. To the modern reader, the subtleties of decoration may seem to be just another obscure language; however, Wharton’s use of material culture and its ethical implications was familiar to her readers. By examining interior spaces and architecture in the novel in these terms, I explain why Clare Van Degen’s drawing room is such a refuge to Ralph, and why the ‘gilded void’ of the Stentorian Hotel, the simulacrum of a French château, suits Undine perfectly.

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Hall and stairs at Pencraig House, c.1880s. Edith Wharton Collection. Yale Collection of American Literature. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

This is my most recent academic publication, in the Edith Wharton Review, 30 (2014). This journal is published by the Edith Wharton Society, and the paper was presented at the Edith Wharton International Symposium, ‘Edith Wharton and The Custom of the Country: Centennial Reappraisals’, held at Liverpool Hope University in 2013.

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