Garden of House of Mirth

Edith Wharton in her French garden at St. Claire du Chateau. (newyorkerstateofmind.com)

My last quotation from Edith Wharton’s 1905 novel The House of Mirth offered one minor character’s thoughts on several fancy row houses of Fifth Avenue, including one or two owned by families friendly to Mr. Van Alstyne and his partner in conversation, Lawrence Seldon. After a period of not seeing her, the latter would soon meet the book’s heroine, Lily Bart, a 29-year-old beauty on the verge of old maidenhood (as such matters were calculated in those days), in the garden of a party held at one of the houses under discussion.

Both in its subject and in the elegant prose by which Wharton conveys the scene to the reader, their romantic chat was far more charming than the psychiatry of architecture described in my quotation from the “Wharton’s house of mirth” post on Dec. 2. And in a weak moment I promised readers to reprint the lovelier discussion that was to take place later in the book between Lawrence and Lily. It exemplifies Wharton’s more elegant style of discourse. So, here goes. They approach, shake hands and:

At length Lily withdrew her hand, and moved away a step, so that her white-robed slimness was outlined against the dusk of the branches. Selden followed her, and still without speaking they seated themselves on a bench beside the fountain.

Suddenly she raised her eyes with the beseeching earnestness of a child. “You never speak to me – you think hard things of me,” she murmured. I think of you at any rate, God knows!” he said.

“Then why do we never see each other? Why can’t we be friends? You promised once to help me,” she continued in the same tone, as though the words were drawn from her unwillingly.

“The only way I can help you is by loving you” Selden said in a low voice.

She made no reply, but her face turned to him with the soft motion of a flower. His own met it slowly, and their lips touched.

She drew back and rose from her seat. Selden rose too, and they stood facing each other. Suddenly she caught his hand and pressed it for a moment against her cheek.

“Ah, love me, love me – but don’t tell me so!” she sighed with her eyes in his; and before he could speak she had turned and slipped through the arch of boughs, disappearing in the brightness of the room beyond. Selden stood where she had left him. He knew too well the transiency of exquisite moments to attempt to follow her.

Taken out of context the passage might seem a little bit purplish, something maybe from a cheap romance novel, but the grace of Wharton’s prose is in the authority and concision with which she describes the most delicate and nuanced feelings flitting through her character’s minds. The plot of this novel puts Lily into social circumstances that even we reading today would consider coarse: a scene, for example, in which a wealthy suitor who has lent her money seeks repayment in a baser coin. But the prose never stoops to the level of the action, and from this literary standoffishness arises the lofty sense of architecture – classical architecture, let me be clear – in Wharton’s writing.

I wanted the book to culminate in bliss for Lily and Selden. Spoiler alert: it did not. I was sorely disappointed. I was also surprised. I wonder whether that hints at why so many great novelists tend to avoid happy endings. Well, happy or sad, one can still enjoy the architecture of the English language as one advances through the twists of Wharton’s plot.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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1 Response to Garden of House of Mirth

  1. LazyReader says:

    Architecture is the philosophy that the “Built form” is beautiful, even in the absence of natural elements. Visit Rome, it’s very pretty, what you don’t see are trees, not many line the street/sidewalks. Most of the plants are containerized or small pots. The mentality that views man and nature apart and irreconcilable in terms of land-use is rooted in our culture from the shock of industrial urbanism in the 19th century that made super clustered ghettos that Jane Jacobs would later call “Neighborhoods” They were neighborhoods when they cleared the riffraff and turned tenements into actual homes and aparts. With the advent of the City beautiful movement and labor rights and welfare of Children spearheaded some progress but mostly built grandiose public buildings and little used parks. Central park New York at 2.5 miles long and 0.5 miles wide would have been more successful if it were smaller (2 x 0.5) Most of the park is desert (not in the arid sense) but it requires substantial maintenance, is frequently hosted by cities less savory people, and is virtually blair witch-esque to visit at night.

    But having no faith in urbanism, and having no training in civic design, the environmentalists could imagine only nature as a solution: trees, grass, etc, (forgetting for a moment that even parks are man-made artifacts). Giant fields of grass for skyscrapers is sore attempt to give people sense of nature they never frequent because they’re being observed by towers. Not a university, we don’t need a quad. But the desire to integrate with some nature stems from a severe problem in urban design. Good urban design generates forms for public enjoyment even without views of nature. The garden in civic design reflects human specific scale…..Which is why the gardens of backyards and fronts took such excellent cues.

    f we’re talking about the human habitat, let’s adopt the vocabulary of urban design
    1: the PARK (1- Pocket parks which occupy 0.01-1 acres often nestledd between buildings or private or near streets, roads, The small parks in the city between 1-50 acres in size and the BIG parks between 50-1000 acres for wildlife, naturalistic and more active outdoor activities like camping, boating, horses)
    2: The square (Often occupied by civil buildings, but a huge public open space whether it be trees or planters; and the biggest accoutrements is the use of public domain and free assembly and petition)
    3: The Plaza. the smallest and least vegetated. Often built by companies/building owners to satiate zoning laws that benefit specific building demands, but society benefits from an open realm.

    Like

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