Fraiman's essay challenges the usual conflation—generally unquestioned in discussions of nineteenth-century U.S. culture—of domestic preoccupations with sentimental views of family and femininity. It does so by turning to Edith Wharton, whose devotion to houses and interior design was evident both in her first publication, The Decoration of Houses (1897), and in her home the Mount, built in keeping with Decoration's vision. Yet Wharton's house-love, far from celebrating sentimental attachments, may be seen as the opposite: an expression of unhappiness in her marriage, anticipating her eventual divorce in 1913. The Mount was carefully designed to provide Wharton with her own quarters, segregated from her husband's as well as from the public rooms below. Withdrawing there to write, she developed as a professional novelist not by fleeing the domestic but rather by claiming a second order of privacy within the private sphere. The Decoration of Houses offers another example of domestic space reimagined to resist rather than embrace familial ties. Fraiman links the book's fifty-six photographs of immaculate, museum-like rooms to a fantasy of home purged of literal and emotional mess—purged, indeed, of people altogether. The book's seeming hostility to family life is all the more striking in contrast to a rival design manual, Clarence Cook's The House Beautiful (1877), whose sentimental sketches of husbands, wives, babies, and tea kettles insist that marriage and domesticity are happily inseparable. Examining Wharton's revisionary, extramarital domesticity, Fraiman invites scholars on the Left to own this much maligned category as one available for various ideological ends.
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Susan Fraiman; Domesticity beyond Sentiment: Edith Wharton, Decoration, and Divorce. American Literature 1 September 2011; 83 (3): 479–507. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00029831-1339845
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