November 12, 2006

The Mount

Autumn at "The Mount", Edith Wharton's Estate in the Berkshires
as photographed by Kevin Sprague

Although born into the quintessential Victorian "Old New York" family, Edith Wharton (1862-1937) managed to overcome this heritage to become one of the most influential women writers of her time. Indeed, her masterpieces "The Age of Innocence", "Ethan Frome" and "The House of Mirth" continue to be reprinted - their popularity perpetuated by full length feature films that created an entirely new audience for her work. Her output of over 40 books in 40 years put her firmly in the category of major American writer, an honor enhanced by academic achievements including a Pulitzer Prize, an Honorary Doctorate from Yale and a full membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

But it is one book, a collaboration with the designer Ogden Codman Jr., entitled "The Decoration of Houses" published in 1897, that established her in an entirely different field. Firmly believing that the "design of a house [and gardens] should be treated architecturally and should honor the principles of proportion, harmony, simplicity and suitability" she stood in direct contrast to the decorative excess' of the Victorian era. To this end, she began the construction of her beloved estate "The Mount" in Lenox, Mass, in 1902. Here she practised the design principals she preached, while writing her best selling novels and works of non-fiction.

In 1911 Edith Wharton divorced her husband, Teddy Wharton, and moved to Paris to live full time until she died of a stroke in 1937. Like many proto-feminist American women of the era, she found the artistic freedom she craved in Europe. There, she was not obliged to be simply a "wife", but could pursue her intellectual and creative impulses with abandon. She studied languages, literature, theology, and architecture, she travelled widely, she had a passionate love affair with Morton Fullerton, she lived life.

"The Mount" is now operated as a foundation dedicated to promoting Edith Wharton's writing and her theories of design. The house and gardens are open to the public and are slowly being restored to their former glory after suffering from years of neglect. The news that "The Mount" was able to re-purchase Miss Wharton's original library from a British book dealer and bibliophile is considered one of the "100 Top Treasures" of 2006 by Art and Antiques Magazine. The 2,600 volume library offers not only special copies of her own works, but rare and valuable editions by writers she admired. Thanks to a very generous benefactor, the library at "The Mount" will now look just as it did when she lived there and scholars will have a new window into the mind of this extraordinary woman. Scholar or not, a visit to "The Mount" has always been fascinating, and with this new acquisition, even more so.

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