“ A woman’s nature is like a great house full of rooms: there is the hall, through which everyone passes … 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 …..”
― Edith Wharton, “The Fullness of Life”
Nestled amongst the piney Berkshire hills, The Mount, remains a solid architectural homage to its mistress, famed author, Edith Wharton. Upon first sight, the Lenox, Mass. estate seems a rather staid abode. A simple Georgian facade fits the aesthetic expectations of good taste and good design. But simple, The Mount is not. In reality, much like Ms. Wharton herself, The Mount is an intricate convergence of classic principles, subtle romantic fancies, and modern innovations.
Women living at the dawn of the 20th century were restricted. Like the stays of their whale-bone corsets, expectations were rigid: a compliant daughter was expected to become a compliant wife, and eventually, a compliant mother. The “Gilded Age” was a peculiar time, a strange confection of glittering manners and harsh social realities. Adherence to the the unwritten “codes” of deportment allowed one to flourish during the Belle Epoque, but failure to follow societal expectations could mean ruin and social ostracism.
With her sumptuous tales of robber barons, delicate socialites, and salons of overstuffed chintz furniture, no writer was better able to recreate the cruel beauty of this world than Edith Wharton. In her own life, being both a”career woman” and a divorcee, meant that Ms. Wharton danced dangerously close to the edge of propriety. But while her forlorn heroines often drowned in the eddies of social constraints, Edith Wharton rose to the occasion. And while Ms. Wharton was far from a damsel, there is little doubt that The Mount was most definitely her beloved castle.
Like any good Victorian lady, The Mount presents a rather pretty, if timid face.Blue-green shutters and painted brick walls shield the facade from view, a coquettish shyness much like a fluttering fan protecting a debutante’s smile.
But a few steps to either side of the estate reveal rather more lively and exuberant views of the Wharton home. White stone paths that zig and zag lazily across the property reveal a striking architectural amalgamation, somewhere between a French chateau and an Italian villa. Moving under rows of perfectly trimmed Linden trees from one end of the property to the other, one stands in a Versailles-esque flower garden at one moment, and a wonderfully Italianate sunken garden the next. The melange of tastes should clash, but at The Mount they are seamless. Each flowering area is different, yet the repetition of greens, lavenders, and whites gives a colorful unity to every acre.
During our visit, Laurie Foote, the House Manager of The Mount, brings Edith Wharton, and her times to life. Foote is a trove of Wharton factoids: listing off the scientific names of the author’s favorite flowers, as well as the names of the author’s many famous acquaintances. Ms. Foote does this at such a pace that it surely would have impressed even the most accomplished and “in-the-know” New York socialite.
Trudging down the “Lime Walk,” Foote stops to point out the amazing symmetry of The Mount. In particular she notes how the interior of the house perfectly mirrors the layout of the gardens. Employing her amazing intellect and foresight, The Mount’s mistress laid out hedges, trees, and other plant life to mimic the walls and windows of the house. It is a genius of horticultural geometry. Nothing at The Mount is happenstance. Everything is planned, but nothing is “over done.” Though assisted by architects and designers, The Mount was the brain-child of Wharton. A child of whom she was extremely proud, remarking in a letter, “I am a decidedly better landscape gardener than I am a novelist. With this house every line of which is my own far surpasses the House of Mirth.”
Landscape designers and Wharton historians have labored intensively to recreate what the grounds looked like at the turn of the century, from planting flora preferred by the author to repairing the original bubbling stone fountains . This attention to historical accuracy does not make the landscape fussy. An adjective never used to describe the author herself. Foote notes that, “she didn’t design the gardens for the flowers, she considered them an ephemeral detail.” Instead the grounds are governed by loose principles of hue and subtle aquatic elements, which allow the landscape to maintain an almost semi-wild appearance. A sense of organic freedom permeates the grounds, and one can almost imagine Wharton rambling about the 113 acres in her beloved 1904 Pope-Hartford motorcar. Edith was an avid devotee to the horseless carriage.
Up a rather grand palisade stair, behind closed doors, the interior of The Mount maintains Wharton’s principles of geometry and style. In design she governed by one principle, “all good architecture and good decoration…must be based on rhythm and logic.” It’s no coincidence that The Decoration of Houses, a guide to tasteful interior decoration, was Edith Wharton’s first major publication in 1897. Both Decoration of Houses and The Mount apply her strict codes of decor, and out-rightly reject the suffocating style of the Victorians. Of the popular heavily upholstered salons and sitting rooms common to the late 19th century home, Wharton remarked that the “overstuffed furniture [of these rooms were] fit for a lunatic’s cell.” Instead Wharton advised simplicity.
Passing from a tastefully simple dining room, we enter into an almost sparse, by Victorian standards, sitting area. Decoration and ornamentation is kept to a minimum. Ms. Wharton chose simple Louis XVI style furnishings for her beloved estate. Fine art too is minimal, with only a smattering of oil paintings and Brussels tapestries on the walls. The only hint of Ms. Wharton’s decadence is found in the wonderfully intricate, and amazingly restored, plaster details on the walls and ceilings.
Exiting these rooms, one enters an Italianate hallway, the wonderfully colored stonework puts one into mind of a Florentine villa rather than a New England country home. Adding to The Mount’s pastiche of styles, is the library. With beautifully carved dark wood paneling, this is the one “Victorian” room of the house. Edith departed from her modern sentiments in a rather touching homage to the reading room of her father’s original estate.
Ms. Foote leads us up some rather fantastic French iron stairs to the upper floors to explore the suite of rooms which were “Edith’s.” Next to her simple bedroom is a toile adorned nook, what we would today dub “Ms. Wharton’s office.” At a simple writing table the author penned some of her most famous works. It is an ironic, if cruel twist of fate that the revenues of 1905’s House of Mirth would provide the Whartons with the funds to complete their own increasingly unhappy home in the Berkshires.
Like many of her protagonists, Edith’s marriage to Edward “Teddy” Wharton was never the heady romance a la Newland Archer and Countess Olenska, but rather a union of convenience common for New York’s “old money.” But as with many of her ill-fated heroines, Wharton’s own marriage soured, leading to separation and divorce, prompting the author to relocate to Paris.
More devastating than the dissolution of her marriage was the loss of The Mount, when in 1911 and without her consent, Teddy sold their New England home. Edith Wharton would go on to decorate two more beautiful homes while living abroad, but none would so capture the public’s imagination as The Mount.
After 1911, Edith Wharton’s beloved estate passed from owner to owner, at one time a dormitory for a girls school, at another the playhouse for a troupe of Shakespearean actors. But by the end of the 20th century the house had fallen into disrepair. Despite water damage, sinking foundations, and years of monetary setbacks, The Mount has been restored. It now sits, a proud and fitting artifact, a temple to an exceptional artist, as well as a singular woman.
Thousands of visitors make their way to The Mount each year. As a National Historical Landmark and cultural center, The Mount, through the immense efforts of patrons, artisans, and the Edith Wharton Restoration, Inc. seeks to maintain the literary legacy of its mistress with seasonal lectures, literary programs, and an array of public engagements.
To join a tour, access its calendar of events, get involved, or simply find out more about The Mount go to: http://www.edithwharton.org/
Visiting Hours: May 14 – October 31st: 10:00 AM – 5:00 PM
A special thanks to Laurie Foote and all the staff at The Mount
Wilson, Richard Guy. Edith Wharton at Home: Life at The Mount. The Monacelli Press, 2012.
Wharton, Edith, and Ogden Codman, Jr. The Decoration of Houses. New York: W.W. Norton, 1978.
Written by Mallory O’Donoghue
Graphics by Patricia Lesyk
All Photography by Patricia Lesyk and Mallory O’Donoghue