Edith Wharton in the News: The Mount and its Furnishings

From the Boston Globe

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The Mount, 2012. Photo by Donna Campbell.

ILenox, The Mount is the home and grounds of Edith Wharton (1862-1937) whose books were popular enough during her heyday that royalties paid for the house and its furnishings — no mean feat for a woman author at the time. The sprawling house and grounds (49 acres, down from its original 113) have since been used for other purposes or closed to the public from time to time, but The Mount has widened its appeal by becoming the residence of the summer theater group Shakespeare & Company, being the site of a summer-long outdoor sculpture exhibition, as well as being rented out for weddings and other events.

Like her good friend and fellow author Henry James, Wharton traveled extensively in Europe and developed a strong affection for European gardens and great houses, and she is believed to have contributed much of The Mount’s design. Her 1897 book “The Decoration of Houses” expressed many of her ideas about functionality, proportion, and symmetry, and Wharton “poured her heart and soul into The Mount,” says Susan Wissler, the executive director. “The house and grounds are autobiographical and provide a window into her mind and passions.”

The books most associated with The Mount are “The Age of Mirth” (1905) and “Ethan Frome” (1911), which she wrote there. The “Age of Mirth” tells a story of Gilded Age Manhattan, where Wharton lived off and on for much of her life before moving to Europe permanently in 1911. Wharton’s writing about life in the big city while living in the country might give some visitors pause, but consider that Herman Melville wrote his whaling story “Moby-Dick” not in New Bedford (where he lived for a time) but at Arrowhead, his Pittsfield home, also a literary tourist site.

Very little of the furnishings in The Mount are authentic — after the house was sold, most of the furniture was sold, too — although more effort has been expended trying to find Wharton’s actual belongings in the library (where she entertained friends) and the bedroom suite (where she wrote). Wissler claims that authenticity has its drawbacks, since “real things” might need to be cordoned off, with “security guards keeping visitors from getting too close.” The mostly period objects in the house offer a certain freedom to visitors, who can touch objects, “sit where you want to sit. I think it’s a good trade-off.”

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