Wharton Holiday: Pictures from a Literary Side Trip

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The Mount, Lenox, MA – July 5, 2013
all photos @ pamela1740, Badass Romance

In honor of summer vacations, a leisurely look at The Mount, the house Edith Wharton designed and built as her summer retreat, for writing, reading, and small house parties with good friends.

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Wharton may be sort of an odd fit for a romance blog, but I’ve always been fascinated by her. Neither her fiction or her real-life marriage and love affair(s) have much to offer in the way of an HEA.

But I have sometimes thought that a woman’s nature is like a great house full of rooms: there is the hall, through which everyone passes in going in and out; the drawing room, where one receives formal visits; the sitting-room, where the members of the family come and go as they list; but beyond that, far beyond, are other rooms, the handles of whose doors perhaps are never turned; no one knows the way to them, no one knows whither they lead; and in the innermost room, the holy of holies, the soul sits alone and waits for a footstep that never comes. (The Fullness of Life, 1893)

She wrote this early in her career, and in spite of her cynicism about love/marriage, I love how the passage embodies her psychological insight, gilded prose style, and use of architecture to explore deeper themes.

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Much of the main house has been restored, including her boudoir and library. Wedding business helps support the ongoing restoration and the stable is used as an event staging area.

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I knew that Wharton was one of the 1% in her day, born a Jones in New York’s late Victorian society (as in “keeping up with the…”). I didn’t realize she’s also one of the 5% — The Mount is one of only 5% of U.S. National Historic Landmarks dedicated to the life, work, and accomplishments of an American woman. A spectacular place for a daytrip this week that was relaxing, historic, literary, and inspiring.

Many people know Wharton’s novels (my favorites are The Age of Innocence and The Buccaneers), but fewer people know of her other life work as a designer and design theorist.  Her The Decoration of Houses was published in 1897 and has never gone out of print. The Mount is an immersive experience — you can walk and sit and gaze at the views in the spaces that embody her design principles, and it is easy to imagine the presence of her real life friends, her fictional characters, and/or the characters as they have been portrayed on film.

Happy summer! Wishing for all readers and writers the benedictions of delightful moments in shady gardens, ample book-lined rooms, and plenty of quiet, comfortable places to sit and write.

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Edith preferred to write in bed, though she was frequently photographed at a desk. After tomorrow when my kids return from camp, I won’t have much peace and quiet for reading and writing, but I’ll have memories of the Mount, and some nice pictures to look at!

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16 thoughts on “Wharton Holiday: Pictures from a Literary Side Trip

  1. Miss Bates says:

    Lovely pics! Miss Bates loved the tour, though she’s never … blush … read Wharton.

  2. JessieRM says:

    The Mount looks fabulous in these photos, which is encouraging to see. I recall at one point that this landmark was in trouble financially, but from what I see in these pics, the funding must have come through. Did you get any sense while you were there that the support necessary to keep this place up and running is still in question?

    • pamela1740 says:

      They spent years raising money for the restoration and it’s still ongoing. I guess it really fell into wrack and ruin in the 70s and 80s when it was the HQ and performance space for Shakespeare & Co (a theater group). The Wharton non-profit took it over in the early 90’s and did the fundraising, etc. Almost none of the furniture is original, but they had designers do the rooms as a Show House in 2002, with a mix of antique and replica pieces. This is nice because it means you can actually sit on the furniture in some of the rooms! But the books on the library shelves are Wharton’s — bought and brought back from France, where she lived from 1911 until her death. It was a delight to visit – well-informed, friendly staff; lovely cafe on the terrace, manicured grounds with lots of modern sculpture. Actually, I could have done without the modern sculpture.

  3. classicsjournal says:

    Beautiful photos! I love the bookcase and seeing the place-card with ‘Henry James’ written on it gave me a thrill. I imagine it wasn’t written by her? but the idea that they were friends is always so exciting. It’s such fun when great literary minds come together. 🙂

    • pamela1740 says:

      Thank you so much! The inset bookcases were a special design feature by Wharton herself – lovely. The dining room is set specifically for visitors to imagine being part of one of her intimate house parties – very fun!

  4. Gorgeous photographs! Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth is one of the most influential novels in my life. I stumbled upon it when I was about 19 or 20–I wasn’t even seeking “real” literature; I was knee-deep in discovering romance at the time–and I absolutely adored it. Wharton’s romantic tragedies and suffocating settings have always gripped me because they are stirred by the longings of Wharton’s heart. I find them a sharp critique of the world in which she was raised and lived, rather than just having “unhappy” endings. I’ve always wondered if women of her day were moved to bravery and self-reflection after reading her novels (and looking at Wharton’s life as a successful author).

    • pamela1740 says:

      I haven’t read Glimpses of the Moon – thanks for bringing it up! The tour guide we had said that Ethan Frome, House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence are “the big 3” which made me smile for some reason. I really do love the Buccaneers, and some of the stories in Roman Fever. The Fullness of Life is kind of odd, but has some amazingly revealing passages, including the one I quoted. I agree completely that her fiction overall can be seen as a very sharp critique of the world she was born into. Some think that the critique is also directed at her mother, who pushed her into the socially appropriate but emotionally unfulfilling marriage with Teddy Wharton.

      • You’re welcome. TGoTM isn’t as sharply written as her other books (I assume it was her attempt to write something flapperish and modern a la Fitzgerald…though the protagonists do have hints of Lily Bart and Lawrence Seldon–they couldn’t have a HEA in the early 1900s, but could in the 1920s?) but it’s amusing.

        I think Summer could be considered one of the Wharton’s major novels. Perhaps the four novels/novellas in Tales of Old New York too.

        Interesting bit about her mother! I’m ashamed to admit that I haven’t worked my way through all of Hermione Lee’s massive bio of Edith Wharton, but I will rectify it immediately to see what she has to say!

  5. Allison says:

    So happy to see these pix of The Mount. I was there in 2002, and some of the rooms were still decorated as part of the designer showcase. Many of the rooms on the upper floors were in a state of disrepair. I had heard that the mounting debt, pardon the pun, could be The Mount’s undoing. But glad they have a new board and new director and have paid down a lot of the debt. Tonight, there was a segment on The Mount on The Emily Rooney Show on WGBH in Boston. I was happy to learn that it is a center of literary events for the Berkshires in addition to its other uses. I adore Edith Wharton, have read just about all her novels (though there were a few that were regurgitated themes and kind of unreadable). The House of Mirth and The Custom of The Country remain my two faves.

  6. neversaydiebeauty says:

    Gosh, my long comment disappeared. I’ll try again. Thank you for the wonderful pix of The Mount. So happy to see it in summer and looking so “healthy”. I was there in 2002, and some of the rooms in the house had been decorated for a designer showcase and were lovely. Other rooms, especially those on the upper floors, were in serious disrepair. On the Emily Rooney Show on WGBH this evening, Jared Bowen – the arts reviewer – did a segment on The Mount. He interviewed the new/current director and mentioned that there is a new board of directors. Glad they have a manageable debt and have figured out how to make/raise money to support the house. Happy to hear it’s a center of literary events for the Berkshires now. I adore Edith Wharton, and other than Glimpses of the Moon which I’ve been unable to endure, I love almost everything she wrote. My faves are The House of Mirth, Custom of the Country, and The Buccaneers. Thanks for this lovely post. PS. How did you get the WP “follow” button on your blog? I’ve been struggling with how to do it. Can’t find the plugin.

    • pamela1740 says:

      Thank you so much for visiting the blog and your wonderful comments! I can’t believe I finally made it to the Mount and Emily Rooney did a segment about it this very week — now I have to see if I can find a clip online. Our tour guide said they had kept some of the rooms from the 2002 show house, but now rooms up near the bedroom/boudoir area are nicely used for small exhibitions related to her volunteer work in France, and Wharton’s novels in popular culture. I loved having iced tea on the terrace and I hope I have the chance to go back sometime when they have “Wharton Wednesdays” with actors reading from her books out there, with cocktails…! Doesn’t that sound like almost Too Much Fun for English major types? 😉
      The Follow button must have been a widget… I will look and see if I can remember how I got it to appear. Loved visiting your blog, too!

      • neversaydiebeauty says:

        Now, I’m going to have to make a return visit to see all the changes at The Mount! I love the idea of “iced tea on the terrace”. There wasn’t much in the way of refreshments when I was there. You can catch the Emily Rooney segment on WBGH tonight at either 11 or 11:30pm I think, or go to her show’s website/section of wgbh.org and maybe it’ll be there. Definitely listen to the Studio 360/American Icons podcast on The House of Mirth. Regarding the Follow button, I discovered it comes with wordpress.com and not with wordpress.org, self-hosted blog, boo hoo!

  7. neversaydiebeauty says:

    Here’s the link to the segment on The Mount, Jared Bowen for The Emily Rooney Show: http://www.wgbhnews.org/post/mount-edith-whartons-estate-berkshires It showed up in my email today!

    • pamela1740 says:

      Thank you!! I missed the re-airing the other night – you are so kind to come back and post the link!

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