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.