We have a thing for author pilgrimages. We tromped to Asheville, N.C. to visit Thomas Wolfe’s home (so central to his masterpiece Look Homeward, Angel); to Key West to visit Ernest Hemingway’s home and his six-toed cats (we also followed him to Petoskey and to Sun Valley) and had a memorable moment in dusty Salinas paying respects to John Steinbeck.
But until now, our favorite of favorites had eluded us. The CE and I discovered Edith Wharton back in the 1980’s and our affection for her has never waned – I think he has read The House of Mirth at least three times, and I fully intend to re-read The Age of Innocence. For us, Edith Wharton defines the Gilded Age, and while Henry James is the go-to for many on that subject, I am of the opinion that Henry (Edith’s close friend and literary rival) falls short by taking too long to unravel his plots. By the time I recently finished The Wings of the Dove, I was ready to do in Milly Theale with my own bare hands. So I am decidedly Team Edith.
So much so that I even spent a precious morning in Paris back in 2011 tracking down Edith’s address on the Rue Varenne, to whence she fled after the irrevocable breakdown of her husband and thus, her marriage.
But that all came later.
What we’ve long longed to see is The Mount, the Berkshires retreat Edith built in 1902 in Lenox, Massachusetts. It was a summer home where she could entertain – Henry James was a frequent guest – but also a place where she could escape the social rigors of her class and, with her little dogs at her side – write, write and write. It was here that she wrote both The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence.
The Mount is somewhat modest compared to other Gilded Age mansions, in keeping with her determined view of it as a place to which she could withdraw. In a 1904 letter to a friend, Edith wrote “How I miss that beautiful white silence that enclosed us at the Mount, & enabled me to possess my soul!”
The tour was 5 star excellent with a wonderfully engaged docent. Since none of Edith’s own furniture occupies the home (she packed it all up and sent it on to Paris when she departed The Mount in 1911) we were actually encouraged to sit on the chairs, which allowed us to experience the rooms as if we were truly Edith’s guests.
Of particular interest was Edith’s library…
and her dining room, where she broke from the tradition of a long grand table in a firm belief that a smaller group at a round table made for a more convivial gathering.
The most significant room, however, is Edith’s bedroom, where she lay in her bed writing each day from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m., dropping the finished pages on the floor to be collected and typed.
This is the bucolic view she had from her bedroom:
I think what I love most about Edith Wharton’s books is the way she portrays the small, personal calamities of life that we all experience. She knew of what she wrote. A complicated relationship with her domineering, social-climbing mother was a constant trial for Edith, and led her into a disastrous marriage. Teddy Wharton checked all the boxes – wealthy family and social standing – for Edith’s mother, but his crumbling psyche spelled doom for their relationship. It is now widely believed that Teddy was bi-polar.
Edith’s dogs, pictured above with Teddy, lent the comfort to her days that her marriage could not.
The pups are a prominent and whimsical feature of the house tour:
But whimsy was ultimately in short supply. Just as her masterpiece The House of Mirth ends in tragedy, so did Edith’s time at The Mount. The home she had built as a refuge had to be sold when she left her marriage and decamped to Paris as an independent, self-supporting woman. Our docent told us that Edith never returned to have a look at The Mount, likely because the memories of what she had and lost were too painful.
Edith was never to be happy in love, but she found a measure of happiness in her life in France and was ultimately awarded the French Legion of Honor for her charitable and advocacy work during World War I.
If I could sit at that round dining table at The Mount and invite anyone to dinner, Edith would be at the top of my list.