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Gilding the Ages: Edith Wharton’s Berkshire Sanctuary

September 14, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Edith Wharton’s novels rarely go more than a couple of years without a film or television adaptation. They are certainly never absent from high school and college curricula. Wharton was a taste-maker in other ways -- she wrote popular books on both interior decor and gardening. WGBH visits her Berkshire home, The Mount.
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JARED BOWEN: Even today, Edith Wharton occupies a place as one of America’s leading literary ladies.  She was born into the upper crust of old New York in the mid-1800s—a member of high society who also exposed it through the prism of her pen. Wharton wrote more than 40 books in 40 years including “Ethan Frome” and “The Age of Innocence” for which she became the first woman awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Today she is also remembered for her home, The Mount.  And if ever a house could serve as an autobiography, The Mount is it. Situated on a hill overlooking a lake in Lenox, Massachusetts, it was conceived by Wharton 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”—which she wrote while living here.

KELSEY MULLEN/PUBLIC PROGRAMS COORDINATOR, THE MOUNT: 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.

JARED BOWEN:  We spoke with The Mount’s Kelsey 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.

KELSEY MULLEN: They were very, very good friends and she matched him in literary skill, I think, towards the end.

JARED BOWEN:  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.

KELSEY MULLEN: Edith Wharton had always done her best work writing in bed. 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.

JARED BOWEN:  She did love her library though—and a full two-thirds of her collection has been returned to The Mount.

What does her library tell us about her?

KELSEY MULLEN:  It’s been a remarkable window into Edith Wharton’s intellectual life, //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.

JARED BOWEN:  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.

KELSEY MULLEN:  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.

JARED BOWEN:  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.

KELSEY MULLEN:   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.

JARED BOWEN:  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 hole and is now running in the black.  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 who first fell in love with “Ethan Frome” as a West Texas schoolgirl.

SUSAN WISSLER (EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, THE MOUNT):  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.

JARED BOWEN:  Meaning this is Edith Wharton’s renewed age of resonance.