Thursday, October 10, 2013

Edith Wharton's Home, The Mount

Edith Wharton did not write happy endings. Her stories feature the lost chance; her characters yearn for someone to join them in that innermost room of the soul. Whether Wharton achieved that in her own life, and with whom, is a story as mysterious and captivating as any of her fiction. [from a sign inside The Mount, Edith Wharton’s home from 1902 to 1911]

Ethan Frome was required reading when I was in high school. Since then I have read about Wharton’s characters’ yearnings in The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence. I admire Edith Wharton’s writing but knew little about the author, so we took a tour of The Mount in Lenox, Massachusetts.

We began by walking a winding road past a rather elegant white stable building and through beautiful forests and myrtle-covered knolls. Modern-art sculptures along this long path in to the classic-architecture house looked odd on formal grounds. There’s modern, abstract art inside the house, too. Our guide said the designer justifies this by thinking Edith Wharton, if she were alive today, would have supported modern artists. In my opinion, she probably would have supported the artists themselves, but she may not have wanted her house to be a modern art museum, whatever “modern” meant in various eras. She had strong personal preferences and in fact, coauthored a book on home design. In designing her house, Wharton rejected the style of her time (Victorian) to preserve the classical symmetry and balance she preferred. For example, she placed some front shutters with no windows behind them, just so the house front would look balanced; in the interior, what looks like a double door is functionally a single door because she wanted it to match what was opposite in the room. As much as I like some of the modern sculptures, they seem out of place there.

Wharton was born into the Jones family, old New York society, although not among the absolute richest. She did not have formal schooling, but her father had an extensive library, and she loved to read. She had traveled with her family in Europe, was fluent in English, French, German, and Italian. She adapted what she liked in Europe when she created The Mount, “a cottage of the gilded age,” her own home, in 1902. She could afford electricity and indoor plumbing, a Ping-Pong table and a telescope. The Mount had beautiful plaster relief art on the ceilings and walls. I lost count of the number of fireplaces, but many of them had carved scenes on the back panels. When the fire was lit, it illuminated the scene on the back panel.

Wharton had a close circle of friends, and Henry James was among regular guests. She wrote nine books at The Mount (1902–1911). Although she posed for publicity photos writing at her desk, she actually wrote her stories on her bed between 9 and 11 a.m. She balanced an ink pot on one knee, held a beloved dog under one arm, and wrote with the other hand. She tossed completed pages on the floor. At 11, an assistant came in and picked up all the tossed papers, put them in order, and typed them up.

In all, Wharton wrote 38 published books. In 1920 The Age of Innocence earned a Pulitzer Prize. She was also an accomplished gardener. During World War I she visited the front lines and fed and housed 600 Belgian refugees. In recognition of her humanitarian efforts, France awarded her the Cross of the Legion of Honor.

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