Thursday, December 17, 2015

Historic Houses - The Mount, Lenox, MA - Edith Wharton's Home

Impatient to view the glory of fall colors back in October, I decided to take a short road trip north into the Berkshires where nature's annual art show was at its peak. I didn't want to just drive for the sake of it though so I did a little research online to see whether I could find some other justification for the trip. In the process I came across the website for The Mount, the former home of novelist Edith Wharton. I was surprised to learn that not only did Edith Wharton write novels but she was also considered an authority on travel, architecture, gardens and interior design, and was closely involved in the design and building of The Mount. 

The original property was over 100 acres and the house itself is set a considerable way back from the road. A pleasant path through meadows and woodland leads from the gatehouse to the forecourt of the main house and the main entrance. 

I was not that impressed by my initial view of the house, it looked rather stark but, unlike many large houses, the main entrance is at the back of the property and the view from the front is altogether different:

The huge terrace is now used as a restaurant and offers wonderful views of both the formal gardens designed by Wharton and the surrounding countryside. 

To the right of the house there is a walled garden offering a secluded hideaway.
 A tree-lined walkway (Lime Walk) connects the Walled Garden to the more formal Flower Garden. A dolphin fountain set amidst a colorful array of flowers provides a contemplative place to sit and while away a sunny afternoon. Given how pleasant it was in October, I can only assume that the garden is spectacular in the summer. 

Guided tours of the inside of the house are available, but I decided to look around on my own. Given the time period in which it was built I was surprised by how light the house was, with every room having numerous large windows. 

The drawing room
The hallway to the main floor
The bedroom 

With the exception of Wharton's bedroom and boudoir, the upper floor has been converted into a series of exhibition galleries which focus on particular aspects of her life. One is given over to details of Wharton's humanitarian efforts in Paris during the first world war. She set up workrooms for unemployed seamstresses, convalescent homes for tuberculosis sufferers and hostels and schools for refugees, especially those fleeing Belgium. After the war she was awarded France's highest honor, Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, in recognition of her work. She was also one of the few journalists or writers allowed behind front lines and she wrote both articles and a book 'Fighting France' about the horror of war.

Until I visited The Mount I knew little about Edith Wharton other than she was an author, but was so impressed by the life story outlined in the exhibits that I bought a copy of her autobiography A Backward Glance from The Mount Gift shop. While I enjoyed reading it, I was surprised at how much of the book was given over to details about her social life, travels and friends - especially Henry James who receives far more mentions than even her husband - with little space devoted to her house building or war efforts. 

With regard to her war efforts she wrote, "Everything I did during the war in the way of charitable work was forced on me by the necessities of the hour, but always with the sense that others would have done it far better;", a comment which, given she was obviously both a formidable organizer and a compassionate person, I found astonishing in terms of her humility. While she stated that originally she was asked to help by a friend she also describes how one of the greatest difficulties was determining which of the volunteers could be counted on and which would lose interest after a week or so - the latter option one which presumably she would not consider herself no matter how boring the task.  

Altogether, the visit offered a fascinating insight into a woman who became one of America's most highly regarded authors and, after the publication of  The Age of Innocence, the first female winner of the Pulitzer prize for literature.


  1. Fabulous review of your visit, Mel! I'll keep this in mind for future places to explore.

  2. Gorgeous home. It's had a few uses over the years. I wanted my son and his fiancé to have their wedding here but they chose something else. The house supposedly has ghosts as well, as any great New England house should. Thank you for the inside look Mel. Glad you're posting :)