Mounting the Mount: A Birthday Visit

We have to make things beautiful; they do not grow so of themselves. ~ Edith Wharton

I believe I know the only cure, which is to make one’s center of life inside of one’s self, not selfishly or excludingly, but with a kind of unassailable serenity—to decorate one’s inner house so richly that one is content there, glad to welcome anyone who wants to come and stay, but happy all the same when one is inevitably alone. ~ Edith Wharton

‘The Mount’ was Edith Wharton’s home and garden for about ten years of her life. She lived there with her husband (in adjoining rooms) in the time before their marriage finally fell apart. It remains a gorgeous estate, and for my birthday this year we made the quick drive into Lenox, MA on a gloriously sunny day.

Ms. Wharton is best known for her written work, particularly ‘The House of Mirth’, ‘The Age of Innocence’, and ‘Ethan Frome’. (Forgive the apostrophes around titles on this blog, but there’s no way to do italics in this format. Well, there may be, but I can’t be bothered to figure out formatting right now.) She was one of my favorite authors in those formative years when what we read somehow seeps into who we become. Her stories were of people trapped, but still trying valiantly to do the right thing, torn between what society demanded of them, and what their hearts desired. And while being trapped is not something to which I could particularly relate at the time (tricksters never get trapped – they always find a way out), the notion of societal expectations was something that struck me.

In many of Wharton’s works, those who dare to defy such constrictions are doomed to live unhappy, lonely lives – but the alternatives are even more harrowing. Lives lived in loveless marriages (Newland Archer) or lives cut short when marriage is put off (Lily Bart) – there are no easy choices, and no decisions are made without some sort of loss or compromise. That cuts through to everyone, whether it’s high-society old New York, or modern-day hum-drum middle-class Albany.

Her first major work, however, was not a scathing work of fiction, but rather a book on interior design – one of the first of its kind in this country. ‘The Decoration of Houses’ was a guide she wrote with Ogden Codman, and many credit the pair with beginning the decorating craze of America. She was, in a way, the forerunner of all things HGTV and Martha Stewart, guiding with a sure hand, sound advice, and practical ideas. She took European notions, but simplified them, reducing the baroque baggage for a more elegant presentation and less cluttered feel. Her gardens maintained a rigid formal structure, but they took in the wild Berkshires as their beautiful backdrop, a vista of untouched lake was the view of her backyard, and the winding casual slopes of woodland walks surrounded the estate.

Looking out over her backyard from the terrace, it was not difficult to understand her love for the place, but beauty can only heal so much.

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