Recently, my husband and I visited The Mount, Edith Wharton’s home in Lenox, Massachusetts. The author of books such as The House of Mirth, Age of Innocence, and Ethan Frome, and my favorite short story ever “Roman Fever,” built The Mount based on design principles she set forth in The Decoration of Houses. Wharton used the knowledge she gained as an insider in the highest New York social circles to write books that showed the weaknesses and failings of that society.
Wharton and her husband lived in the house for just ten years. Their marriage was marred by their lack of suitability and her husband’s increasing mental health issues. Wharton left for France, where she continued to live until her death. She was very active in charities to ease the suffering caused by war, including work with refugees. She was allowed to travel to the front more than once to report on conditions there. She received the French Légion d’Honneur, a Pulitzer prize, and an honorary Doctorate from Yale University. She is buried in Versailles.
The house and grounds are beautiful, but they’ve gone through some rough times. In 2002, the centenary of The Mount, they hosted a designer Show House. Although no furniture from Wharton’s time was currently in the house, there were many, many photographs and letters describing how things were. Designers were given enormous latitude, provided that what they did was in keeping with how things looked in 1902. The living room, dining room, library, Wharton’s suite of bedroom, boudoir, and bathroom are the most fully decorated spaces. Other rooms are used for educational displays about Wharton and her era.
In the forty works that she wrote in her forty years as an author, Wharton had many a bon mot. One of her sayings has become rather well known: On peut répandre la lumière de deux façons : être la bougie, ou le miroir qui la reflète (ohn puh ray-pan-druh lah loom-e-air duh deuh fass-ohn: et-ruh lah boo-zhee, ooh luh meer-warh key lah ref-let), which means “There are two ways of spreading light: be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” I think Wharton was a candle, illuminating the good, the bad, and the ugly of privileged New York society. If you get a chance to visit The Mount, I would heartily recommend it.