The Custom of the Country, Dramatic Licence and Edith Wharton and The First World War

Writing these posts about my visit to The Mount has made me want to revisit as I now feel that I missed a lot.  I spent two hours there and after the 50 minute tour I rather hurried round the rest of the house and the gardens and took twenty minutes or so out of my remaining time to have a cup of tea. If I am ever fortunate to have the chance to pay a visit to The Mount again then I’d try to spend the greater part of a day there. I suppose this post consists of things I missed or very nearly missed or was only able to scan very quickly.

The Custom of the Country was the title (taken from an Edith Wharton fiction title) of the result of an American Vogue fashion shoot by Annie Leibovitz that had taken place at The Mount and was published in the September (2012) Issue. Copies of the 18 page feature were piled up around the house, presumably for the paid-up attendees at the Berkshire Wordfest 2012 event that was due to start at 5pm that very afternoon. Copies of the full size magazine were for sale in the shop – all 916 pages of it, weighing in at just under 5lbs – I could hardly lift it let alone consider packing it in my suitcase to bring home with me!  Anyone who has seen the fly-on the wall documentary The September Issue will know just what I’m talking about here. To be featured in the magazine at all is one thing; to feature in the September Issue is an achievement indeed and Edith Wharton has done it and deserves it. There’s been a bit of hoo-ha that male writers and actors appear as various men in the sets but that Wharton herself is played by a model but I don’t want to get into that discussion here.

Dramatic Licence is the name of one of the two ongoing exhibitions on the top floor of The Mount.

Room 1 : The Henry James Suite at the top of the stairs has been transformed into a movie theater. After you enter the room turn to your left to start the journey through the trials and triumphs of Edith Wharton’s early attempts at adapting her own work and later efforts by others. Please sit in our vintage 1905 theater seats and watch a special Mount production of trailers and clips from films made of Wharton’s works. 

[I watched a few minutes of The Age of Innocence before moving on]

Room 2 : Teddy Wharton’s bedroom now hosts a bevy of beauties who have starred in adaptations of ‘The Age of Innocence’, ‘The Buccaneers’ and ‘Summer’. Given Mr Wharton’s reputed eye for the ladies, we think he would have approved. This room features material from the 1993 ‘The Age of Innocence’ on loan from screenwriter Jay Cocks and director Martin Scorsese.

Teddy Wharton’s bathroom depicts the interior of the ‘Ethan Frome’ kitchen based on a set design from the 1936 hit play based on Wharton’s tragic masterpiece.

The notes then go on to list the six films still available as DVDs, a note about lost movies, a list of books still in print and available from The Mount Bookshop.  There were lots of other relevant titles in the shop.

The Edith Wharton and The First World War exhibit speaks for itself. I knew that Wharton had lived much of her life in France and that she is buried in Les Gonards Cemetery in Versailles. In fact I wanted to find her grave when I was there in May but didn’t have time. I had not realised just how involved she was during the First World War.

Coincidently, even just the brief overview of the exhibit brought to life the poignant story of Molly and Tom the characters that I had just finished reading about in my friend Diney Costeloe’s book ‘The Ashgrove‘. Much of the action in the book takes place in a French convent.

Edith Wharton was profoundly affected by the First World War. This year, The Mount has designed an exhibition which examines her reaction to the devastation of the world she knew. Using images, artifacts, music, and the written word, it presents aspects of Wharton’s experience as a woman and a writer that are less well known to the public.

By throwing herself tirelessly and energetically into work, both literary and charitable, she was able to make use of her talents in ways previously unknown to her. Her charities, which included hostels for refugees and orphans from Belgium, workrooms to help widows and women who had lost their jobs, and hospitals for TB patients, benefited from her amazing organizational and fundraising skills. She used her great talent as a writer to send back reports from the Front detailing the horrors of war, in order to influence the United States to join the conflict.

By highlighting these two aspects of her war experience, we hope to bring a new understanding of Edith Wharton to the public.

In the Book Shop were several titles by Edith Wharton about the the War and her experiences.

A Step from the House is a Step into Nature : the Grounds and Gardens at The Mount

Wharton carefully planned the grounds of The Mount, which during her ownership comprised 150 acres of drives, woodlands, orchards, meadows, wildflower fields and formal gardens. Her niece, the noted landscape architect Beatrix Farrand, assisted by designing the maple-lined drive leading to the house and the elaborate kitchen garden that occupied the field in front of the stable. Wharton’s restored greenhouse still stands near the original gates.

The formal gardens around the house were designed by Wharton herself. Completely overgrown for many years, they now appear much as they did when the were new. At this time she was also writing her book Italian Villas and Their Gardens.

A broad Palladian staircase leads down from the terrace to gravel walks which descend to a lime walk of linden trees. The Lime Walk serves as a connecting hallway between the two major garden rooms. 

To the right when facing away from the house, the walled garden is an Italian “giardino segreto”. Wharton completed this garden with the proceeds from her first best-seller “The House of Mirth”.

On the left, the French-style flower garden has eight boxwood bushes arranged around a pool with Wharton’s dolphin fountain. Over 3,000 annuals and perennials have been planted here to suggest Wharton’s design. The trellis-work niche was recreated from photographs.

I wish I had had more time to wander the grounds at The Mount. I never visited the greenhouse, the woodland and the walled garden but I did walk up the small mound where Edith’s beloved dogs are buried.

Reminded me of the little gravestones of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s pet pugs at Le Moulin de la Tuilerie.

“A Delicate French Chateau Mirrored in a Massachusetts Pond” : A House Tour of The Mount

Note and acknowledgement : All sections in italics are taken from the leaflet Welcome to the Mount : Self-Guided Tour

GROUND FLOOR

In my last post the tour group had just arrived in the Entrance Hall. Just as the forecourt was designed to be an extension of the house into the landscape, the entrance hall was an extension of the landscape into the house. It was conceived as a grotto, or artificial cave, with stylized plaster-work simulating mossy walls and dripping water. 

MAIN FLOOR

GALLERY

The Gallery was inspired by similar rooms Wharton had admired in Italy. It is essentially a circulation space, allowing separate access to all the surrounding rooms and cross ventilation in the heat of summer. Here Wharton displayed a collection of Objets d’Art from her travels.

TEDDY WHARTON’S DEN

This room was Teddy Wharton’s office. A bookcase displays treasures from Mrs Wharton’s book collection, which can be viewed in the Library through the “hidden” doorway. It maintains original hardware (ordered from France), mirror, marble fireplace, cast-iron fireback, French doors and parquet floor.

EDITH WHARTON’S LIBRARY

The design of Wharton’s library follows recommendations in ‘The design of houses’ that the primary decoration of a library should be its books [I can’t argue with that!], and that the shelves be organic built into the walls rather than freestanding furniture. The panelling is oak. 

Although Wharton is photographed several times sitting at her desk, she actaully did most of her creative writing in her bedroom. The library was a place for solitary study, or for entertaining close friends with readings before the fire.

The books on the shelves are Wharton’s own, having returned to The Mount in January 2006, after almost a century in Europe.

DRAWING ROOM

The largest room in the house (36ft x 20ft) it also the only room with an elaborate ceiling treatment, which was completely recreated in 2002.

The room features a beautiful French marble mantel with cast-iron fire-back depicting Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Isaac. The terrazzo floor was covered by a carpet, probably an Aubusson from France.

Books in the Drawing Room

DINING ROOM

The one photograph of the dining room in the Wharton’s time reveals a round Victorian table with white-painted French armchairs. A cushion under the table was provided for a favourite dog. This has been recreated today. It is an intimate space that bears no relation to the dining tables in all the many other stately homes that I have visited. Attached to the back of each chair is a label indicating who was sitting there enjoying Edith’s food and wine and, above all, her stimulating company.

BEDROOM FLOOR

HALL

The hall, which is approximately 95 feet long, was decorated plainly in Wharton’s time, in keeping with her belief that a hall was principally a passageway and not a living space.

WEST GUEST SUITE

The suite of two adjoining  rooms on the western, or forecourt [courtyard], side of the house was probably used by Wharton’s married guests.

HENRY JAMES GUEST SUITE

The novelist Henry James was Wharton’s most honoured guest, and it is likely that he stayed in this, the best guest room during his three visits to The Mount. James was deeply impressed by the beauty of the estate, which he called “a delicate French chateau mirrored in a Massachusetts pond”, and by the Whartons’ hospitality. 

TEDDY WHARTON’S BEDROOM SUITE

Just as Teddy Wharton’s den is smaller than his wife’s library, so is his bedroom suite smaller, as if to emphasise his secondary position in the household.

EDITH WHARTON’S BOUDOIR & BATHROOM

Wharton’s boudoir, or sitting room, is the most elaborately decorated room on the bedroom floor. It is dominated by eight floral still-life paintings set into the panelling, which came from Milan in Italy. Original furnishings included a desk, a sofa, and a daybed, with curtains and upholstery in Toile de Jouy. The original paint colours have been restored, and the room will soon be furnished as it was in Wharton’s time.

EDITH WHARTON’S BEDROOM

This room was decorated simply; the treatment “most fitting” for a bedroom. 

Wharton did most of her writing here; she would awaken early and write in bed, dropping the finished pages to the floor to be collected later for typing by her secretary.

Other rooms included a sewing room, closet for Mrs Wharton’s dresses, a butler’s pantry, a brush room for cleaning shoes and outdoor wear, offices for household management, kitchen, scullery, servants’ dining room and laundry – now the Book and Gift Shop.

Every effort has been made to make the visit enjoyable and informative with the added touches of flowers and books relating to the decoration of this and any house and appreciation of those who have been involved in bringing the house back to life again as nearly as possible as it would have been during Edith Wharton’s time. The renovations and improvements are ongoing.

The Decoration of Houses : a Visit to Edith Wharton’s New England Home : The Mount

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.

and

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.

The Stables

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.