I think you always feel a certain connection with your favorite writers, and I feel a particular kinship with Edith Wharton. Besides being an accomplished novelist and chronicler of Gilded Age New York, she was also passionately interested in decorating. In fact, her very first book was about decorating, and she once described herself as "a better landscape gardener than novelist". Wharton's pièces de résistance was The Mount, the Massachusetts country home that she designed herself, and where she lived and wrote from 1902 to 1911.
For all of her life Edith was keenly aware of the physical environment and the way it affected people. A particular awareness for setting permeates her fiction: witness, for example, her description of Countess Olenska's little house in The Age of Innocence, which helps to establish the character as someone fascinating, exotic, and outside of the normal world of New York society.
The Mount, which she began designing in 1901, was a place to escape from the large, overly formal social gatherings of her moneyed milieu, and ramble about the country and engage in intense conversations with her circle of writers, artists, and politicians, which included novelist Henry James, painter Maxfield Parrish, Teddy Roosevelt, and her architect, Ogden Codman. She had a hand in designing the garden, the house, and its interiors, and was very pleased with her efforts. She wrote to her lover Morton Fullerton: “I am amazed at the success of my efforts. Decidedly, I’m a better landscape gardener than novelist, and this place, every line of which is my own work, far surpasses The House of Mirth.”
In fact, it was while at the mount that Wharton wrote The House of Mirth, her first published novel, which began to establish her reputation as one of the great writers of her time. Every morning she would rise at 6 AM, write in bed until 11, and then spend the rest of the day picnicking and motoring with her guests.
Edith Wharton and her husband, Edward, separated in 1911, and she sold the house and moved to France, where she lived for the rest of her life. But it was a place she never forgot. Years later, she wrote: "It was only at The Mount that I was really happy."
Want to know more about The Mount?
- Vogue did a photo shoot at the home, with modern-day actors, writers and artists playing Wharton's set. The accompanying article gives a lot of background on Edith's relationship with Morton Fullerton and the dissolution of her marriage.
- Richard Guy Wilson's book about The Mount is full of stunning photographs.
- Slate's list of summer entertaining tips from Edith Wharton is a fascinating account of a typical day at the Mount.
- And if you're ever in Lenox, Massachusetts, the home is open for tours, so you can walk where Edith Wharton walked.