Some Americans in the ‘House Beautiful’: Edith Wharton, Oscar Wilde, and Aestheticism


  • Ailsa Boyd


The ‘House Beautiful’ of the Aesthetic movement was an ideal of beauty, sensuality, and taste. A reaction against industrialization, Aestheticism embraced internationalism and was frequently condemned as immoral. During his 1882 lecture tour of America, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) became the Aesthetic movement’s most recognizable spokesman. The writer Edith Wharton (1863-1937) may have heard him speak, which is significant because her first published book was an interior design manual, The Decoration of Houses (1897). This is just one point within a vibrant transatlantic exchange of ideas on truth and beauty in art and design in the 1870s-80s. Familiar with life on both sides of the Atlantic from travels in her childhood, Edith Jones had been enchanted by the art and architecture of the ‘Old World’, and her literary career began with a serious engagement with art, interior design, and their importance in society. Both Wilde and Wharton put their theories of decoration into practice in their own, very different, homes. Although Wharton’s controlled taste seems diametrically opposed to Wilde’s espoused decadence, it is possible that Aestheticism gave Wharton a language with which to discuss beauty in her own writing. At several points in her career, she utilized the ideas of Walter Pater (1839-1894) in her work: a youthful poem ‘Intense Love’s Utterance’ (1881), the short story ‘The Fulness of Life’ (1893), and her last, unfinished novel, The Buccaneers (1938). Each would have been unthinkable without the transatlantic exchange of ideas on Aestheticism, of which Wilde was the self-acknowledged prophet.