There will be some readers here who know very much more about Edith Wharton than I do and who will have read many more of her books than I have but for many years I have wished to visit her home The Mount in western Massachusetts. I have a collection of newspaper clippings about the house, its renovation plans and about her library of 2,600 volumes that finally arrived back at her American home in 2005 after 100 years spent in Europe.
On 14 September, the day we left Naulakha, we arrived in Lenox, the location of The Mount, and after a delightful lunch on the tree-lined main street we set off to find the house. It’s a little way out of town but handily placed just off the Highway. But once dropped off at the ticket office I was in another world of peace and comfort a million miles from the roar of traffic.
That Friday was the start of a weekend-long Wordfest a literary festival of writers and readers the first talk due to begin at 5pm. I’d checked this out in advance and been told that although the house would remain open to the general public there would be no guided house tours. Luckily, I arrived with minutes to spare before the final house tour of the week.
We assembled at the back of the house in a courtyard, which that day was covered with an awning to protect Wordfest members from either sun or rain, to be told about EW’s plans to build The Mount and their execution. As I heard more and more about this remarkable woman throughout the afternoon I began to think that here was another American polymath about whom I knew only the merest facts and of whose literary output I have read very little. (But I have seen several of her films!)
Edith Wharton collaborated with architect Ogden Codman to produce her first book The Decoration of Houses. Published in 1897 it was a denunciation of all the excesses of Victorian interior decoration and a plea for a return to classical proportions, harmony and simplicity. She designed and built The Mount according to these principles. She was able to move in in 1902 and spent the summers and autumns between 1902 and 1911 at the house (the rest of the year she lived in France). By 1911 her marriage to Teddy had failed and she moved to live permanently in France. That year the house was put on the market.
From the courtyard (which was to serve as a bridge between the outside of the house and the inside) we went in at the back door. The entrance hall was planned to bring the outside into the house. It was conceived as an artificial cave or grotto with statues and fountains. Here visitors wishing to see the great novelist had to wait to know whether they would be admitted to her presence or not. It was here that we learned that The Mount was modelled on the English 17th century Palladian-style Belton House in Lincolnshire and on neo-classical Italian and French examples.
Next time I will take you on a tour of the house but just now I want to show you what a lovely lovely place it is. After the tour free access is allowed throughout the house and grounds. There are room stewards handily placed who are able to answer any questions and Information Boards in every room.
Photography is allowed everywhere. There is a great gift and book shop in the basement scullery.
Some of the many book displays in the shop
Teas and other refreshments are served on the terrace and you may sit at tables on the front lawn.
The View and A Terrace Tea Table
The house from my terrace tea table
There are two interesting and entertaining exhibitions on the second floor.
You may walk around the estate and the gardens and even visit the mound where her beloved dogs are buried.
There’s a further exhibit in the Stables but these were being prepared and were already receiving the Wordfest participants.
All in all my time there was too short to take it all in and I’m definitely up for another visit if I can manage to pass by again in future. Because of the Wordfest event I decided not to return that same weekend.