At Home With Edith Wharton

Back in the mid 1980s when I was driving through Massachusetts on a holiday, I had no idea I was within striking distance of Edith Wharton’s old home near Lennox.

Edith Wharton and her husband escaped there from Rhode Island in 1901 when they bought a 113 acre site overlooking a lake. They set about transforming it into The Mount, an estate heavily influenced by European design traditions, but adapted for the American landscape. Edith designed the grounds herself and specified the external and internal design of the house.

Edith Wharton the gardener and architect? That was a surprise to me but apparently she’d built quite a reputation for herself in the field of design, long before she gained success as an author.

The first book she wrote (actually co-authored) was The Decoration of Houses, a non fictional work that aimed to advise the newly wealthy families of New England how to build and decorate houses with nobility, grace, and timelessness.

At The Mount, she put her philosophy about design and architecture into practice, taking inspiration from European traditions but adapting them to suit the American landscape. She strove for order, scale, and harmony in the house design and its surrounding gardens. She told her lover, Morton Fullerton, that she was amazed by her success with the project.

Decidedly, I’m a better landscape gardener than novelist, and this place, every line of which is my own work, far surpasses The House of Mirth…

The Whartons lived at The Mount for ten years. They welcomed the cream of American literary society to their home, including novelist Henry James, who described the estate as “a delicate French chateau mirrored in a Massachusetts pond.”

During that time she wrote two of her most renowned books: The House of Mirth (1905) and Ethan Frome (1911). Her professional triumph was however marred by personal turmoil when her husband’s depression became a more acute condition. When the marriage disintegrated under the strain of his condition, they sold The Mount and Edith Wharton moved permanently to France.

The Mount was owned by a succession of families until 1942 when it became part of a school for girls. The school ceased operating in 1976 and the property, became the base for the theatre company Shakespeare & Company.

It was subsequently bought by Edith Wharton Restoration, which began a substantial restoration project in 1997. Today, The Mount operates as a museum and a literary hub, hosting readings, book launches and panel discussions.

It sounds a delightful place to wander around. The main house has a striking facade of white stucco and dark green shutters, capped with a roof top balustrade and cupola. It’s surrounded by gardens that Wharton envisaged a series of harmonious outdoor “rooms”.

But of course, my main interest would be the library. It’s the place where she did her writing. The books on the shelves are from Wharton’s own personal collection, representing every period of her life, reflecting her wide variety of interests. And there are some copies of her own works, complete with her pencil corrections.

Sounds magical doesn’t it? Sadly I can’t see a return visit to Massachusetts on the cards for me any time soon.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on July 17, 2020, in Book Reviews and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. My name is Rebecka and I am the Communications Director at The Mount, Edith Wharton’s Home in Lenox, Mass. Thank you for the lovely post on Edith Wharton and The Mount. I wanted to share that we are doing a series of behind-the scenes “Glimpses” of The Mount. These short videos give viewers quick insights into different facets of the estate. You can view them on our Vimeo channel or on Facebook and Twitter @TheMountLenox. We also have a full roster of free, online programs which you can register for at EdithWharton.org. I hope you join us for these great virtual ways of experiencing The Mount and we look forward to welcoming you for an in-person visit in the future.

    • Thanks for getting in touch Rebecka. Your video project sounds a great initiative. I’ll have a look for them and will try to add them into the post.

  2. I’ve been in the general vicinity of The Mount a few times but never when I could take a side trip. This is one of my remaining bucked-list travel sights. Thanks for the reminder.

  3. She seems like quite a genius – gardener, architect, and writer. Very impressive!

    • She wasn’t like many women of her generation who “dabbled” in gardening alongside other things. Wharton took it seriously and the fact she was as well respected for her design expertise as well as her fiction is astonishing

  4. A beautiful house and gardens. It would definitely be worth a destination trip.

    • apparently it was in a very bad condition once the school abandoned the estate so the fact it has been restored so well is wonderful. I’d love to be there for a literary event

  5. I really wanted to visit when I lived in New England but I never got around to it. Someday!

  6. I was impressed with Ethan Frome, even though that’s the only Wharton I’ve read, and apparently one of her favourites. Is there another shortish novel or novella you’d recommend to go for next? I’ve way too many chunksters to read as it is.

  7. Oh man…I don’t see a trip to Mass anytime in my near future either. I would love to tour that house!

  8. Clearly a woman of many talents. Beautiful gardens!

  9. Thanks for sharing this, Karen:)

  10. And I thought the best authors lived in garrets.

  11. Interesting! Too bad there isn’t a virtual tour. At least I didn’t see one. I wished I lived on the east coast so I could visit as your proxy!

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