Good Housekeeping

Felicitous Space: The Imaginative Structures of Edith Wharton and Willa Cather

by Judith Fryer
University of North Carolina Press, 403 pp., $9.95 (paper)

Henry James, already an expatriate in 1883, noted on his return to America in that year that the “most salient and peculiar point in our social life” was to be found in the situation of women. He perceived an “abyss of inequality” which he attributed to “the growing divorce between the American woman (with her comparative leisure, culture, grace, social instincts, artistic ambitions) and the male American immersed in the ferocity of business, with no time for any but the most sordid interests, purely commercial, professional, democratic and political.”

Judith Fryer offers us an illuminating exploration of how two American woman writers, Edith Wharton and Willa Cather, managed to escape the cramping limitations that men had imposed on their lives through the flight of their artistic imagination into what she calls “felicitous space.” Every human being, according to the mathematician Henri Poincaré, whom she quotes, takes his own body as an instrument of measurement to construct a space of instinctive geometry that his imagination can then amplify into a greater space where he can lodge his universe. Women, trapped in the home, excluded from the marketplace, had to use their vision to create a larger world in which to breathe.

Opinions have differed sharply in the last hundred years on how much consideration literary critics should give to an author’s life. From Sainte-Beuve’s exhaustive relation of biographical facts to events and characters in fiction we have swung to more austere academic methods of isolating the work itself, to the modern psychobiography where literature operates as evidence to the would-be analyst. Fryer’s method of using the author’s life as another of her works strikes me as the most fruitful.

Edith Wharton not only housed her characters with a richness of detail equaled only by Balzac (Edmund Wilson called her the poet as well as the pioneer of interior decoration); she built and bought sumptuously for herself. She erected a great country manor, The Mount, in the Berkshires; she furnished and adorned the Pavillon Colombe in St. Brice-sous-Forêt near Paris and Ste. Claire-le-Château at Hyères on the Riviera, and designed elaborate formal gardens for all three places. The prevailing rule in her creations, as expressed in The Decoration of Houses which she wrote with Ogden Codman, was order. As Fryer puts it: “The careful symmetry allows for no unexpected mingling of servants and masters, no penetration of guests into private quarters, no romantic hermitages in the gardens, but rather a kind of social interaction that is carefully planned, controlled, deliberate.”

The masculine world was disordered, untidy, and (as Wharton was to see for herself on a visit to the front in World War I) brutal. By putting sense and proportion into it, by creating rooms and gardens in which men and women could graciously intermingle, she was able to transform it into “a world of conversation and stimulation, of continuity and tradition.” She never believed in a separate world for women.

Interiors played a dynamic role in Wharton’s novels. In The…

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