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Thu July 11, 2013
The Mount: Edith Wharton's Estate in the Berkshires
If ever a house could serve as an autobiography, The Mount is it. The home of novelist Edith Wharton, it is Edith Wharton. Situated on a hill overlooking a lake in Lenox, Massachusetts, she conceived The Mount from the ground up. She dreamed its location, guided its aesthetic principles and designed her elaborate gardens. It was in a sense, her own House of Mirth—a novel she wrote while living here.
Kelsey Mullen, Public Programs Coordinator at The Mount, told us, “This house was an opportunity for her to really do things the way she thought they ought to be done, and that was to really champion a return of classicism, symmetry, balance, proportion, lots of light and really opening up spaces, and to make them livable.”
We spoke with Mullen in Wharton’s Drawing Room—the house’s largest room when it was built in 1902, she used it to entertain frequent guests like fellow writer Henry James.
“They were very, very good friends and she matched him in literary skill, I think, towards the end. And he was a frequent guest here at the Mount—came any times, often for weeks at a time,” Mullen said.
Wharton designed her home practically—no space went unused. It was large, but not grand. And it favored her predilection for privacy. Despite carefully crafted images of Wharton as a writer staged in her library, she actually wrote elsewhere.
“Edith Wharton had always done her best work writing in bed,” said Mullen. “That was where the creative genius inspired her and so I think in building the Mount, she created a space where she could have the privacy she needed to get her best work done.”
She did love her library though—and a full two-thirds of her collection has been returned to The Mount.
“[Her library has] been a remarkable window into Edith Wharton’s intellectual life,” Mullen said. “She was reading across genres, really a voracious learner. And she was reading in five different languages, sometimes Ancient Norse when she was feeling up for a challenge. And she was reading books on astronomy and theology.”
Her books are riddled with marks, notations…and destruction. Dismayed with one publisher’s choice to feature illustrations in one of her books, she found a remedy.
“In her own copy of The House of Mirth, you can see on the title page she has crossed out the name of the illustrator in pencil and then all of the illustrations had been razored out of the book,” said Mullen.
Amazingly, Wharton considered herself a better landscape gardener than novelist. Although that’s slightly less astonishing when you see her gardens which, fully recreated, appear as Wharton saw them.
“She built the garden in stages as she was receiving advances from her books. And it was during that time that she’s taking these European ideas and placing them in an American context, and fitting together a French garden with an Italian garden and an English lime walk all on the shores of the Massachusetts Lake,” said Mullen.
All of this is a welcome second chapter to The Mount’s history. Threatened with foreclosure just five years ago, the home has managed to climb out of its fiscal abyss.
The Mount’s Executive Director, Susan Wissler, told us, “We’ve cut our debt to almost $9 million down to less than $4 million. We are $1.5 million in the black as opposed to $4 million in the red, and our programming is robust.”
A footing regained, today The Mount is positioning itself as the Berkshires literary hub, drawing the attention of writers the world over. Its champions also include former First Lady Laura Bush whose most recent visit was days before ours.
“People read Wharton and realize that in fact, while a lot has changed, a lot is very much the same. She’s so clean and muscular in the way that she expresses it and observes, that her writing is still relative today than it ever was,” said Wissler.
Meaning this is Edith Wharton’s renewed age of resonance.