Welcome to Staatsburgh State Historic Site's blog! Learn more about the Gilded Age home of Ruth and Ogden Mills!

Friday, August 28, 2020

Traces of Edith Wharton's House of Mirth at Staatsburgh

This blog is authored by David Bayne who served as the furniture conservator for the New York State Bureau of Historic Sites from 1992 until his retirement in early 2020.  David spent eleven years as a musical instrument and furniture maker before taking the Smithsonian Institution's Furniture Conservation Training Program and becoming a conservator.  David conserved many pieces of furniture at Staatsburgh including the French armoire discussed in this blog from 2018.

Essay author David Bayne

As the former furniture conservator for the New York State Bureau of Historic Sites, I visited Staatsburgh many times and was often told, like most visitors, that the house inspired the setting of Edith Wharton's novel, The House of Mirth.  I had read Wharton's 1905 novel years ago, but I certainly couldn’t remember the details of the settings. Since I had some time, I decided to go back and revisit them.

Although you can visit the the mansion at Staatsburgh and see the original decor and artifacts, you are still missing the sounds and smells of the house when the family and their servants were in residence. We easily recall the sensations we have in our own 21st-century houses that make them a home, but perhaps have a harder time imagining a place like Staatsburgh being a "home," especially when the French chef is irate and the maids are clunking around upstairs. Most of us don’t have French chefs or maids for that matter. 

The House of Mirth author Edith Wharton sits at her desk at her home, The Mount in Lenox, MA

Years ago, I was working on conserving a mirror frame in the second-floor room directly above Mr. Mills’s bedroom. The room was formerly another bedroom, no longer on public view, and probably the staff forgot I was up there. I must have been concentrating, because I realized I had been hearing, but not listening to, tours going through just below me. Occasionally a voice from the gift shop asked if the photocopier was working. I was briefly annoyed, since I was trying to work, but - aha!- what I was hearing must have been an approximation of the background sounds of the turn-of-the-century house. Listen to the way voices carry up the stairwell and become muffled as the tours move into the library. Even where I was, two floors away, it wasn’t hard to hear people in the basement level. I could yell down to them if I wanted to. It’s unlikely that the house was ever silent and still.

In 1905, Winthrop Chanler, whose family owned Rokeby, an estate just north on the Hudson, wrote that he was reading The House of Mirth and found it remarkable. He wrote, “One knows all the people without being able to name one of them. Save I think Walter Berry in the hero, a little, and of course a sketch of the Mills.”1

A similar hustle and bustle to that which I experienced working on the mirror is described by Wharton in The House of Mirth.2 Try layering this onto your next visit to Staatsburgh: 
A house in which no one ever dined at home unless there was “company”; a door-bell perpetually ringing; a hall-table showered with square envelopes which were opened in haste, and oblong envelopes which were allowed to gather dust in the depths of a bronze jar; a series of French and English maids giving warning amid a chaos of hurriedly-ransacked wardrobes and dress-closets; an equally changing dynasty of nurses and footmen; quarrels in the pantry, the kitchen and the drawing-room; precipitate trips to Europe, and returns with gorged trunks and days of interminable unpacking; semi-annual discussions as to where the summer should be spent, grey interludes of economy and brilliant reactions of expense …
Wharton's heroine, Lily Bart, is a lovely but unwealthy woman from a pedigreed family who is  approaching the final age for a socially-acceptable marriage. She attends a September party in the country home of her friends, called Bellomont. To get there, she takes the three-fifteen train to Rhinebeck from Grand Central. Bellomont is likely what we visit as Staatsburgh. There are several scenes that take place in the novel during this visit that suggest what it was like to visit Staatsburgh. 

Edith Wharton, 1884, perhaps resembling her heroine Lily Bart

In another passage, Wharton seems to be describing Lily Bart walking into the Staatsburgh library, looking for a man of course. If I leave out plot details you get a good impression of the library.
She …sauntered on through the empty drawing-room to the library at the end of the house. The library was almost the only surviving portion of the old manor-house of Bellomont: a long spacious room, revealing the traditions of the mother-country in its classically-cased doors, the Dutch tiles of the chimney, and the elaborate hobgrate with its shining brass urns. …The library at Bellomont was in fact never used for reading, though it had a certain popularity as a smoking-room or a quiet retreat for flirtation. … She advanced noiselessly over the dense old rug scattered with easy-chairs, and before she reached the middle of the room she saw that she had not been mistaken. Lawrence Selden was in fact seated at its farther end; …
The library at Staatsburgh

Wharton seems to be still describing the Staatsburgh library in this passage about another private library.
She began to saunter about the room, examining the bookshelves between puffs of her cigarette-smoke. Some of the volumes had the ripe tints of good tooling and old morocco, and her eyes lingered on them caressingly, not with the appreciation of the expert, but with the pleasure in agreeable tones and textures that was one of her inmost susceptibilities.
Note there is no mention of the titles or authors of the books, neither does she take a book down to even do a cursory examination. Instead it is the look and harmony of the books' spines that is important. As Lily says about herself a page or two later:
If I were shabby no one would have me: a woman is asked out as much for her clothes as for herself. The clothes are the background, the frame, if you like: they don’t make success, but they are part of it.
Lawrence Seldon suggests a walk.
She had made no reply to his suggestion that they should spend the afternoon together, but as her plan unfolded itself he felt fairly confident of being included in it. The house was empty [everybody is at church in the village] when at length he heard her step on the stair and strolled out of the billiard-room to join her. She had on a hat and walking-dress, and the dogs were bounding at her feet.
What is exciting to me about this passage is that I have stood many times right on the spot where Lily steps down the stairs and Lawrence strolls out of the billiard room. The site's current gift shop used to be the billiard room and there is a photograph showing its former appearance. The spot where Lily’s foot touches the floor is between the gift shop and the exhibit rooms. The next time I’m there I will listen for the scratch and clack of the dogs on the floor.

Staatsburgh's Billiard Room

While elaborate formal dinners of multiple courses, served in Staatsburgh's enormous, marble-clad dining room were the highlight of a weekend visit, there is far less emphasis on dining in The House of Mirth; the descriptions are generic and not specific. But just off the dining room at Staatsburgh is Mrs. Mills' boudoir. It functioned as her office, and there is a short description in Wharton's novel that evokes its appearance, as the lady of the house makes arrangements for her house guests: “Miss Pragg, the secretary, had been called away, and there would be notes and dinner-cards to write, lost addresses to hunt up, and other social drudgery to perform.” Lily offers to help Mrs. Trenor (the lady of Bellomont) who says:
‘Oh, Lily, that’s nice of you,’ she merely sighed across the chaos of letters, bills and other domestic documents which gave an incongruously commercial touch to the slender elegance of her writing-table.
It isn’t hard to imagine the French writing table between the two windows as being the very same table.

The desk in Staatsburgh's boudoir used by Mrs. Mills

A surprising amount of the novel takes place outside, but I’m not familiar enough with the grounds to pick out the actual settings. There might have been, for example, a footpath that led by the estate's greenhouses, to the village.  In the novel an omnibus arrives to take people to the church in the village. The church still exists, and it is not far away from Staatsburgh.  After services, the guests walk back to the house. There is also a romantic stroll Lily and Lawrence take that seems to correspond to some of the paths around the house. Other outdoor descriptions are easy to match with what can be experienced at Staatsburgh. The guests spend time on the west terrace facing the river and Wharton describes one afternoon.
The terrace at Bellomont on a September afternoon was a spot propitious to sentimental musings, and as Miss Bart stood leaning against the balustrade above the sunken garden, at a little distance from the animated group about the tea-table, she might have been lost in the mazes of an inarticulate happiness.
So try it out and wander onto the terrace and indulge in propitious sentimental musing and become “… lost in the mazes of an inarticulate happiness.” Things could be worse.

But what about the smells, such as the cigarette smoke in the above passage about the Library? Tobacco must have been a predominate smell in the house and the conservators routinely clean nicotine off  paintings and furniture in historic homes. In addition to cigarettes there are some descriptions in The House of Mirth of the best cigars that money can buy. 

My own experience with the smells of Staatsburgh was ghostly. I was in my conservation laboratory, far from the site, working on a chair from Mrs. Mills’s bedroom. I was quite close to the frame, removing modern paint from the original layer with dental tools, when I smelled perfume and was convinced that someone had just walked up to my bench. I looked up but didn’t see anyone – weird. I even walked around in case I missed them. When I went back to work I could smell perfume again and once again looked up. I then realized that someone (Mrs. Mills? A maid?) must have spilled some expensive perfume on the silk upholstery of the chair. Perhaps that chair was used at the dressing table. For a minute I was there, surrounded by the glories of Staatsburgh. I was a lucky man.

[1] Winthrop Chanler letter to Margaret Chanler, his wife, October 29, 1905, in Winthrop Chanler’s Letters. Quoted in Edith Wharton An Extraordinary Life by Eleanor Dwight, 1994. The Chanlers were friends of Wharton’s.

[2] For all of the quotes I have used The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton, Penguin Books, 1993. “The text for this edition is taken from the text of the first edition, published October 14, 1905”

No comments:

Post a Comment