A weekend in the Berkshires celebrating our 25th. wedding anniversary brought us to this place, Edith Wharton’s home in Lenox, Massachusetts: The Mount.
We toured the beautiful grounds under a perfect June sun – warm with a lovely breeze, just like the day twenty five years ago when we walked down rows of hydrangeas all in bloom to the river behind my parent’s house and exchanged our vows. It wasn’t quite tourist season yet, and so there were just a few of us taking in the garden views and admiring the grace of the house itself, as stately and elegant as the woman who had dreamed and then planned and finally willed it into existence. Lovely woodland walks meandered through woods awash in the deep greens of periwinkle, ferns and pine. The house was always visible somehow, beckoning visitors to come inside and experience its perfectly proportioned rooms.
The Mount is slowly being restored to the way it was when Wharton lived there and had each room designed to fit her exacting eye. We savored each room and tried to imagine it in Wharton’s day – which of these dining room chairs was Henry James’ favorite? Where did Edith herself like to position herself on the terrace? What was it like to motor up the long drive way, trunks filled with provisions for the summer season?
When we came to the library, I found myself really moved. Wharton’s original collection is slowly making its way back to The Mount
(which is a fascinating story all of its own). Here were books she read as a young girl in her father’s library, thrilled to have been given permission to enter the realm of ideas and poetry and philosophy and fiction at last. How wonderful that must have been for her! Here were books she had read carefully, noting her thoughts and calling attention to this or that line and idea. Hermione Lee, who has written a wonderful biography of Wharton, said this of Wharton’s collection of books:
“Her whole social milieu, her private affairs and her literary career can be discerned from her collection, Wharton’s flyleaves show her progression from Edith Jones to Mrs. Edward Wharton to Edith Wharton, as she turns herself from a society girl into the much-admired and somewhat daunting internationally famous author.”
As the rest of our small tour group prepared to leave and follow our guide into the next room, I wished I could stay a bit longer, perhaps even reach into one of the shelves for a volume to explore through all by myself, examining annotations and asides. I wondered what Wharton must have felt, sitting at her lovely antique desk, surrounded by all the books that had informed and developed her.
- She must have felt enormous pride and satisfaction in the fact that this beautiful house and all its contents owed its existence to her creativity and her vision…not to mention her ability to make money of her own at a time when women of her social status did very little at all. She did not live here very long, just under ten years all in all. And once she left, she never returned. Walking through the house, however, I felt she was every where…especially in this room.
- Many years after she had left The Mount, she wrote:
In spite of illness, in spite even of the archenemy sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways.
- Wharton certainly sought out change and ways to satisfy her intellectual curiosity. She was interested in big things no matter where she lived or whose company she kept. And, in this house, this library, she had found “small ways” to happiness – through this amazing collection of books.