Nestled in the picturesque Berkshires in a bucolic setting in the town of Lenox, MA is the Mount, the stately former home of Edith Wharton, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and my favorite American author. Needless to say I was ecstatic when I had the opportunity to undergo a literary pilgrimage to this enchanting place which is now designated as a National Historic Landmark.
Wharton belonged to an exclusive circle of the wealthy elite of New York society and designed the Mount in MA as a retreat to escape the confining milieu of her social class. “The Mount”, she wrote, “was to give me country cares and joys, long happy rides and drives through the wooded lanes of that loveliest region, the companionship of a few dear friends, and the freedom from trivial obligations, which was necessary if I was to go on with my writing.” She lived here for just ten years but it was a period of unbridled creativity when she wrote novels as acclaimed as The House of Mirth and Ethan Frome.
I ventured on my excursion on a rainy and dreary day. I was hoping for sunny weather to get good pictures of the property but in the end the rain turned out to be a blessing in disguise as it lent to the place the same wistful air that permeates her work.
The quarter mile road leading to the imposing mansion had contemporary art displays on each side. Some people may balk at the idea of such quirky displays on a Gilded Age property but they added a whimsical touch to the tour and, I thought, brought out the contrast between the past and the present in a rather unique and striking way.
One of the first things you notice on entering the house is that it is not ornate or stuffy with wallpaper and formal furnishings but represents a departure from the Victorian conventions of design. It is light and airy and quite different from the opulent Newport mansions of the era. I was surprised to learn that Wharton planned a lot of the design and the architectural elements of the home herself. She co-authored a book with Ogden Codman, one of the architects of the house, entitled The Decoration of Houses and the Mount reflects her aesthetic sense of understated elegance through the features delineated in the book- simplicity, symmetry, balance and living in accord with nature.
Although the house was designed to be a tranquil haven, Wharton’s life in the Mount was far from peaceful. Her marriage to her husband Edward “Teddy” Wharton was strained. He suffered from depression, mood swings and angry outbursts which took a toll on her own health. Today his symptoms could be explained as bipolar disease and schizophrenia. She was also trapped in a loveless marriage and she finally divorced him in 1913.
Wharton moved to France after her divorce and the manor was sold to private owners and eventually to a girls’ school and later to the Shakespeare & Co theater group which still puts up performances on the grounds. After a long period of disrepair, it is now being restored to its former glory. The renovation is a work in progress and is being done with scrupulous attention to detail. As most of the home contains reproductions of the original furnishings, you can wander around freely at your pace and even sit on the chairs and couches.
As soon as you step into the entry foyer of the three- storied home you are struck by the welcoming and informal atmosphere. The first floor has the entry foyer which resembles a grotto, a kitchen and a bookstore. On the second floor are a study, a library, a drawing room and a dining room surrounded by a wrap- around terrace with stunning views of manicured lawns, parterres, wetlands and woods.
The dining room has an informal look with no chandelier and a round table instead of a long rectangular one to facilitate conversation.
The library is the only place cordoned off as it houses her original collection of books.
The third floor has the sewing room, the bedrooms of guests including the one where Henry James used to sleep and Edith Wharton’s own boudoir, bathroom and bedroom. Her bedroom has facsimiles of drafts of her novels in her own handwriting with words and lines crossed out.
The tour was made more interesting by the personal anecdotes shared by the docent. Apparently Wharton wrote in bed every morning letting the pages fall to dry when she had finished and one of the servants would pick them up and send them to be typed. The docent also gave details about her infamous love affair with Morton Fullerton. They picked late-blooming witch hazel in the woods ( perhaps as a symbol of their late-blooming love) a sprig of which he sent her in a billet- doux and which marked the beginning of their adulterous relationship. Another interesting tidbit was the fact that the expression ‘Keeping up with the Joneses” was originally made in reference to the wealthy relatives on the maternal side of Wharton’s family.
After the tour of the house, I stepped outside to take the garden tour. As it was still raining, I was the only one on the tour and was able to have an in-depth conversation with the docent, who, much to my delight had read the same Wharton books as I had. To the left of the house is the symmetrical French garden with a profusion of colorful blooms. The garden has been recreated with the same flowers planted at the time of Wharton’s stay after researching her correspondence and conducting interviews with people who knew her. I have always thought of Edith Wharton as a kindred spirit for I share her love of the written word and of Romance Languages and an affinity for European culture along with an interest in gardening. Imagine my joy then to discover this little detail that like me she preferred tall phlox in her garden beds to the short groundcover phlox!
To the right of the house is the walled Italian garden connected to the French one by a linden allée. The Italian garden was intended to be a place of serenity and therefore the color scheme is green and white with only the green leaves and white flowers of plants like climbing hydrangea and hostas. On one side of the garden is a pergola covered with Concord grape vines from where you can see a spectacular view of the Berkshire mountains.
Edith Wharton’s excessive wealth afforded her privileges not available to other women of the era but she carved her own reputation by dint of her talent. Not only was she a prolific writer who wrote more than forty books in forty years, she was also a humanitarian and philanthropist who helped refugees in France during World War 1. I knew Edith Wharton the writer but I left the property knowing Edith Wharton the person. Her legacy lives on and is honored through artistic and literary programs and events on the grounds. There are jazz performances on Friday and Saturday nights and plays put up periodically by Shakespeare & Co.
As I was leaving the property, I tried to imagine how it would have been to be Edith Wharton and live in a bygone era. I could picture myself living on the Mount with an enviable coterie of servants, gardeners and footmen, riding on horseback, strolling in the gardens with the dogs and sipping cocktails on the terrace with distinguished guests like Henry James. Truth be told, I wouldn’t have even minded being one of the servants waiting on Edith Wharton for I would still have had access to the tranquil and beautiful property.
Although Edith Wharton led a life of luxury, she was far from happy which reminds us of the adage that money can’t buy happiness. Her novels convey the same sense of unfulfillment she experienced in her life. Her stories are about love and loss, lost chances in life and regret. I left the property in a rain- tinted haze feeling the weight of all the unresolved emotions of the author and all her fictional characters. I am glad it rained for in some strange way it enhanced my experience of Edith Wharton’s home, life and work and made it all the more poignant.