Edith Wharton's Reflections on

EDITH WHARTON, born Edith Jones in 1862, was one of the most prolific writers in American literary history.  In addition to novels such as Ethan Frome and The Age of Innocence, Wharton also collaborated in 1897 with designer Ogden Codman in writing The Decoration of Houses, a book many would argue defines better than any other the art of interior decoration at the turn of the last century.

IN TWO of her last works, Hudson River Bracketed of 1929 and A Backward Glance, her autobiography which was printed in 1934, Wharton wrote of her time at Wyndclyffe.  Veiling the mansion as "The Willows" and then as "Rhinecliff," Wharton wrote:

. . . But no memories of those years survive, save those I have mentioned, and one other, a good deal dimmer, of going to stay one summer with my Aunt Elizabeth, my father's unmarried sister, who had a house at Rhinebeck-on-the- Hudson.  This aunt, who I remember as a ramrod-backed old lady compounded of steel and granite, had been threatened in her youth with the 'consumption' which had already carried off a brother and sister.  Few families in that day escaped the scourge of tuberculosis . . . when Elizabeth in her turn began to pine, her parents . . . decided to try curing her at home.  They therefore shut her up one October in her bedroom in the New York house on Mercer Street, lit the fire, sealed up the windows, and did not let her out again until the following June, when she emerged in perfect health, to live till seventy.  My aunt's house, called Rhinecliff, afterward became a vi vid picture in the gallery of my little girlhood;  but among those earliest impressions only one is connected with it;  that of a night when, as I was ready to affirm, there was a wolf under my bed . . . .

The effect of terror produced by the house at Rhinecliff was no doubt due to what seemed to me its intolerable ugliness.  My visual sensibility must always have been too keen for middling pleasure;  my photographic memory of rooms and houses-- even those seen but briefly, or at long intervals-- was from my earliest years a source of inarticulate misery, for I was always vaguely frightened by Rhinecliff, which, as I saw, on rediscovering it some years later, was an expensive but dour specimen of Hudson River Gothic;  and from the first I was obscurely conscious of a queer resemblance between the granite exterior of my Aunt Elizabeth and her grimly comfortable home, between her battlemented caps and the turrets of Rhinecliff . . . .

AS RESPECTABLE as Wharton's opinion is, especially in this field, I rather think her critique of Wyndclyffe was more heavily influenced by memories of that wolf than by her own good taste.  The fact that the Victorian Gothic was probably about as far as ever from vogue in the middle 1900s probably didn't help matters.  Reviews of the mansion's design both before and after Mrs. Wharton's have had much nicer things to say. One case in point is Henry Winthrop Sargent's 1859 description of Wyndclyffe as "a very successful and distinctive house, with much the appearance of some of the smaller Scotch castles."  One wonders how Wharton would react to the house's plight today.


© T.E. Rinaldi, 2006