Reading with Rose: In the Valley of Wharton

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Edith Wharton. Courtesy The Mount.

On Wednesday, March  8th, 2017, the Nichols House Museum joined the world in celebrating International Women’s Day–a day devoted to celebrating women and affirming our intention to further their progress. This year,  the theme was “Be Bold for Change.” In honor of celebrating women’s history, this month’s book blog will take a look at Rose Nichols’ Edith Wharton collection, which consists of three novels and one non-fiction work.

Edith Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones in New York in 1862. As a child, she traveled Europe with her parents and two brothers, which cultivated a lifelong passion for literature, architecture, and art. In 1885, at the ‘old’ age of 23, she married Edward Robbins Wharton, thirteen years her senior. Their unconventional marriage ended in divorce in 1913. Her experience during this time led to her therapist suggesting that she focus on fiction writing as a way to cope with stress. In 1902, Wharton and her husband settled in Lenox, Massachusetts. Today, their estate, known as The Mount, is open to visitors.[1]

Today, Edith Wharton’s is remembered as the first woman to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and as the quintessential author of American high society. [2] What is less well-known is that Wharton’s first love was not fiction, but architecture. Her first novel explored a theme my regular readers might recognize: Italian villas.

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Cover of Edith Wharton’s Italian Villas and Their Gardens.

Italian Villas and Their Gardens was first published in 1897. Rose’s 1904 edition features illustrations by Maxfield Parrish, a renowned American illustrator. The illustrations (examples below) featured in this book make up for the fact that the other three Wharton novels in Rose’s library do not include illustrations.

The three novels in Rose’s library are eclectic. The Valley of Decision (1902) pays homage to her fascination with eighteenth-century Italy. Next to this novel in Rose’s library is Hudson River Bracketed (1929), a lesser-known novel featuring protagonist Vance Weston, a writer, and his lover, Halo Spear. Critics believe this novel divulges Wharton’s own personal and professional experiences. [3] The third Wharton novel in Rose’s library is notable as one of Wharton’s most popular and enduring works. Ethan Frome (1911) features the longing and desire explored in many of Wharton’s novels, as well as a Massachusetts setting—forging another connection between Wharton and our matriarch Rose Standish Nichols.

 

Notes

[1] The Mount. Edith Wharton: A Biography. http://www.edithwharton.org/discover/edith-wharton/

[2] Dwight, Eleanor. Edith Wharton: An Extraordinary Life. Abrams, 1994.

[3] Ibid.

By Victoria Johnson. Visitor Services and Research Associate.

 

 

 

 

Reading with Rose: Treasure Island & The Weir of Hermiston

Books: Treasure Island

               The Weir of Hermiston

Author: Robert Louis Stevenson

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Robert Louis Stevenson by John Singer Sargent, 1887. Taft Museum of Art.

Robert Louis Stevenson was born on November 13, 1850 in Edinburgh, Scotland. His prolific career produced some of the most enduring novels of the Victorian era. [1] Two of his most significant works, Treasure Island and The Weir of Hermiston, can be found in Rose Standish Nichols’s eclectic library collection.

Treasure Island

Stevenson began writing what is arguably his most famous novel in 1881. This story was originally published between October 1881 and January 1882 in serialized form in a magazine for young boys called Young Folks [2], under the pseudonym “Captain George North.” The wild plot contains the swashbuckling adventures the Scottish author became known for. Upon its release in Young Folks, the story received little fanfare. It was published in book form in November 1883, and was so well-received that to this day it has never been out of print. [3] Rose’s edition of Treasure Island is inscribed “To Rose Standish Nichols 1894.” It lives in the bookcase behind Arthur Nichols’ desk in Rose’s library.

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The Captain’s Papers “The Squire and I were both peering over his shoulder.”-Page 49.

The Weir of Hermiston

The full title of Stevenson’s last novel is, appropriately, The Weir of Hermiston: An Unfinished Romance. Stevenson began writing this novel, which many critics portended to be his true masterpiece, in 1892. Stevenson spent hours working on the story the very day he suffered a fatal cerebral hemorrhage—leaving Hermiston “unfinished.” Today, this novel is overshadowed by the raw psychological thriller Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Stevenson’s aforementioned children’s stories; however, the plot of The Weir of Hermiston is perhaps his most personal. According to biographers, the damaged relationship between father and son mirrors Stevenson’s own relationship to his father. Furthermore, the figure of Adam Weir was based on the real life Lord Justice Clerk Robert McQueen, Lord Braxfield. [4]

w-colvinAlthough Stevenson died before completing the novel, he reportedly left notes detailing its intended ending. Some of these notes appear in editions edited by the author’s friend Sidney Colvin. [5] Rose’s edition of The Weir of Hermiston was published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1896 and is inscribed with her name. It lives in the bookcase Margaret Nichols Shurcliff built for Rose, in the corner of her bedroom.

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[1] Mehew, Ernest. “Stevenson, Robert Louis (1850–1894).” Ernest Mehew In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. Online ed., edited by David Cannadine, September 2014.

[2]”Chronology.” The RLS Website. http://www.robert-louis-stevenson.org/. 14 October 2016.

[3] Mehew, Ernest. “Stevenson, Robert Louis (1850–1894).” Ernest Mehew In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. Online ed., edited by David Cannadine, September 2014.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Works. Weir of Hermiston.” The RLS Website. http://www.robert-louis-stevenson.org/. 14 October 2016.

By Victoria Johnson, Visitor Services and Research Associate.

“3 black Windsor chairs, $45”

“Solid wooden Windsor furniture was also in great demand. Shapely, strong, and comfortable, it have been popular since the middle of the eighteenth century.”

Rose Standish Nichols,“Some Good Specimens of Old-Fashioned Painted Furniture,” House Beautiful, 1909.

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Image published in “Some Good Specimens of Old-Fashioned Painted Furniture”

The American Windsor chair has had a presence in homes and public buildings since the eighteenth century. These handcrafted chairs, often the work of the wheelwright rather than the carpenter, are characterized by spindle backs, turned legs, and steam-bent “hoops” that were socketed together without hardware. The solid wood seats were often carved or “saddled” to be more comfortable, and the turned spindles and steam-bent features were often a different type of wood than the carved seats, making painted Windsor chairs very common [1].

While Windsor chairs received their name from a leading market village in seventeenth century England, the style quickly spread to America and became iconic in the northeast. Nicknamed the “Philadelphia chair,” after the chair’s major manufacturing city in America, the Windsor chair claimed a prominent place in the political history of the United States when Thomas Jefferson sat in his Windsor writing chair and penned the Declaration of Independence[2][3].

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Windsor writing chair [4]
As the style moved throughout the Northeast, several different styles emerged, from smaller children’s chairs, to settees, to early rocking chairs.[5] The chairs, in their many styles and forms, became common for for use private homes as well as public spaces including the Pennsylvania State House [6], and the Boston Public Library [7].

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Marian Nichols’ bedroom showing a Windsor rocking chair, ca. 1920
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Postcard from Rose Nichols’ collection showing Windsor arm chairs at the Boston Athenaeum

Rose Nichols’ interest in the Windsor style is well documented in her 1909 House Beautiful article, “Some Good Specimens of Old-Fashioned Painted Furniture.” While she suggests in her article that they may not be “fancy” enough for a formal parlor, she writes that they are “appropriate for the library.” She also notes that “for furnishing a piazza nothing surpasses Windsor chairs and settees.”[8] Several postcards from Rose’s collection also boast Windsor chairs in interior images, including scenes of libraries, bedrooms, entry halls, and even kitchens.

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A postcard from Rose Nichols’s collection showing a Windsor chair in a study
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A postcard from Rose Nichols’ collection showing three Windsor chairs in a kitchen

Rose’s collection includes four, black “bow-back” Windsor armchairs, a style that was common at the turn of the nineteenth century.

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One of Rose’s four Windsor chairs

Despite her appreciation for Windsor chairs, it is unclear where Rose’s set of four chairs belonged. Throughout the years, the chairs were documented in three different places. In a photo from the early twentieth century, the four chairs were placed on the piazza at the Nichols family’s summer home in Cornish, New Hampshire. In Rose’s 1935 inventory of the furnishings at her 55 Mount Vernon Street home, “3 black Windsor chairs” are listed in the library. However, the oral histories from her caretaker, Mary King, from the late 1950s suggest that they were used in the kitchen. Although it is unknown where Rose would have permanently housed these four chairs, all three of the documented locations do align with her published advice regarding the use of painted furniture.

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Rose Nichols’ 1935 inventory of her furnishings including “3 black Windsor Chairs $45”

 

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Elizabeth Nichols (left) and friends, seated on the four chairs on the piazza of the family’s summer home in Cornish, New Hampshire.

These four “shapely, strong, and comfortable” chairs may have had a somewhat nomadic life with the Nichols family, however they represent Rose’s interest in interior design and furniture as well as American history. Though the Windsor chair was originally designed in England, its evolution through early America and associations with Philadelphia at the time of America’s founding, makes it an iconic example of American furniture. Rose Nichols understood this rich history and shared it, both through her written work and the preservation of her collection.

 

[1]Ormsbee, Thomas H. Field Guide to Early American Furniture. Boston: Little, Brown, 1951. 91-95. Print.

[2]Butler, Joseph T., Kathleen Eagen. Johnson, and Ray Skibinski. Field Guide to American Antique Furniture. New York, NY: Facts on File, 1985. 44-45. Print.

[3]Nichols, Rose Standish. “Some Good Specimens of Old-Fashioned Painted Furniture.” House Beautiful. February, 1909. 54-56. Print.

[4]Ormsbee, Thomas H. Field Guide to Early American Furniture. Boston: Little, Brown, 1951. 101. Print.

[5] Ibid. 91

[6]Osborne, Harold. The Oxford Companion to the Decorative Arts. Oxford: Clarendon, 1975. 830. Print.

[7]Nichols, Rose Standish. “Some Good Specimens of Old-Fashioned Painted Furniture.” House Beautiful. February, 1909. 54-56. Print.

[8]Ibid. 56.

By Emma Welty, Curatorial and Administrative Specialist