House of Mirth

Spicy chocolate ice cream wasn’t my only reward for visiting with the folks at Ventfort Hall in Lenox, Massachusetts (50 people attended, and they seemed enthusiastic about my picture-talk on Love, Fiercely: A Gilded Age Romance).

Today I visited The Mount, Edith Wharton’s gem of a home nearby. I’ve been there before but it has been seriously spruced up in the meantime and most of her library has been reclaimed at auction (at grave financial risk to the organization that owned the house, but it all turned out okay), so the experience wowed me all the more. Gil and Maud fell under the place’s spell as well.  The house is all clean lines and airiness and balance, designed by Wharton in conjunction with two different architects, and there is nary a Victorian wallpaper in the joint. It is as if all that 19th century fustiness simply blew away when the dial hit 1900 (The Mount went up in 1902).

Fans of  The House of Mirth (like me) will foam at the mouth when they see the early pages of the novel spread out over the bed in Wharton’s sunlit bedroom.

House of Mirth Draft

Yes, Wharton wrote propped up in bed every morning, casually casting aside her finished pages as she went. She actually had photos posed with her sitting at a desk with inkwell and paper, thinking it more dignified, but the truth is she stayed prone, warmed by the little dogs she loved.

The Wharton Dogs

To enter her room and be able to get that close to genius! People were looking so I couldn’t lie down on the bed.

Ghosts have been glimpsed in the house. The only sign I saw of one was in the bathroom adjoining the bedroom where Wharton’s single houseguests found accommodation. Henry James, who occupies the apex of literary achievement, for me, visited frequently when he came over from Europe. Here is the bathtub into which the Master would have lowered his robust, aristocratic frame. I think I saw a wisp of something ghostly, but maybe it was some stray moisture from the faucet…

The Henry James Honorary Bathtub

The veranda offers an exquisite view of the grounds (as well as iced tea and salad), and might well have been the location for James’ comment as remembered by Wharton: “Summer afternoon — summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.”

And while that is one of the most beautiful statements ever made, James was so full of wordly wisdom I might as well offer another:

“We work in the dark — we do what we can — we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”



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Filed under History, Jean Zimmerman, Love, Fiercely, Writers, Writing

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