Previous literary pilgrimages can be found here.
How I loved Edith Wharton! We were like two peas in a pod. True, she grew up stifled by the social conventions of Old New York at the turn of the century, and I grew up on an Adirondack commune during the Age of Aquarius. But we both felt such claustrophobia; her in the drawing room, me with the hippies.
Like me, her characters longed to escape their too-tiny worlds. Everyone loves House of Mirth or The Age of Innocence best, but my favorite of Wharton’s novels is Summer, which I first read in college. In Summer, which Wharton called “the hot Ethan Frome,” we are introduced to Charity Royall, Wharton’s feistiest female character. The first line of the novel is “A girl came out of lawyer Royall’s house…,” and Charity spends the rest of the novel trying to stay out. I could so easily identify with her bursting anger, her desire for freedom and passion. When the novel ends with Charity returning to that stifling house in “the cold autumn moonlight,” I nearly wept in frustration.
When I read Jonathan Franzen’s New Yorker essay on Edith Wharton a couple of years ago, I couldn’t agree with his point that it was hard to relate to Wharton because she was unattractive, rich, and conservative. I admired the fact that she had accomplished all she had without the benefit of good looks. Yes, she was rich, but in a way her money was yet another fetter that could have stifled her. Conservative? To me, she was a rebel, who — unlike Charity — had escaped her dull marriage, led a life of adventure in Europe, and had an affair with a bisexual journalist in mid-life. Based on the flood of responses to Franzen’s essay, I did not seem to be alone in sympathizing with Edith Wharton.
Last summer I planned a pilgrimage with my best friend to Edith Wharton’s country house, The Mount, in Lennox, Massachusetts, the same rural area where Summer is set. “No one fully knows our Edith who hasn’t seen her in the act of creating a habitation for herself,” Henry James, one of her closest friends, once remarked. I wanted to see this place she called her “cottage,” in order to better know and understand her.
On arrival I looked up, and up, and up at the four-story Georgian face of the mansion, with its black shutters and white walls, everything rigidly symmetrical. We toured Wharton’s ballroom, then the pale green-and-gold domed upper hall where Henry James and her other friends would drink champagne. Replicas of Greek statues stood on marble pedestals, and stripes and circular patterns repeated on the burnt sienna marble floors. Our next stop was Wharton’s chandeliered dining room, complete with a bed for her dogs to sleep. In her library, we learned that Wharton’s copy of Leaves of Grass was worn from much use.
The house made me wonder who Edith Wharton really was. She had designed and decorated this intensely formal “cottage,” which seemed to me just the kind of place her characters might long to escape from. But in truth Wharton believed her house was an homage to simplicity, an act of rebellion against the prevailing aesthetics of the day. In The Decoration of Houses, the book she co-wrote with Ogden Codman, Jr., she rails against the vulgar effusion of the Victorian aesthetic, the “turkey” carpets upon carpets, the rooms crowded with knick-knacks, the “piling up of incongruous effects.” Edith preferred the “wise moderation” of the Greeks. Yet while The Mount was chotchke-free, it still seemed haughty. I thought of what Franzen wrote of Wharton: “privilege like hers isn’t easy to like.”
I had noticed a plaque in one of the rooms with a quote from one of Wharton’s letters to her lover, Morton Fullerton: “Decidedly, I’m a better landscape gardener than novelist, and this place, every line of which is my own work, far surpasses The House of Mirth…” Later, we walked out the wide back veranda to view what Wharton considered her masterpiece. It looked like a mini-Versailles with its neat rows of shrubbery, all the trees pruned, clipped, and lined up in military order. Henry James said that Wharton was “almost too impeccable.” As I walked down the paths, all at right angles, I thought, Maybe I’ve been misreading Edith Wharton all these years. Maybe she was actually deeply invested in the constricting, hierarchical social structures her characters rebelled against. Maybe it satisfied her to prune her characters’ desires, relegate Charity back to the conformity she had spent an entire novel trying to escape.
And maybe Jonathon Franzen was right, not about Wharton’s lack of beauty making her difficult to sympathize with, but about his claim that Edith Wharton was always in league with the man. In his essay, Franzen reminds us that after Wharton wrote in bed each morning, she tossed completed pages “on the floor, to be sorted and typed by her secretary.” Thinking of this, I kicked one of her perfectly round shrubs in frustration.
In the farthest right corner of the stately gardens, there was a little area enclosed by stone ivy-covered walls. A fountain made from a tumble of rocks stood in the middle. We sat down in the alcove on a crooked Adirondack bench facing a distant pond. I hadn’t noticed the wilderness pond before; it had been blocked by rows of trees. Here, meditating on the reedy pond, the view framed by the stone arches, I finally felt I could commune with my Edith Wharton. Here, to me, was a physical embodiment of what I most loved about her work, the way she held in tension the desire for order, harmony, and the desire for wildness.
In her autobiography A Backward Glance, Edith Wharton wrote: “On a slope overlooking the dark waters and densely wooded shores of Laurel Lake we built a spacious and dignified house.” Although the property was no longer so wooded, in this secret garden I could see what she was going for — the play between the density of the wilderness and the dignity of the house and gardens.
It’s true that since my visit to The Mount I’ve come to realize that Edith Wharton’s deepest allegiance was to order, both in culture and in aesthetics. The man who brings Charity back home from her wild adventures tells her, “Do you know what you really want? You want to be took home and took care of. And I guess that’s all there is to say.” Wharton’s own foray into wildness, her affair with the journalist, ended badly. Her heart broken, she wrote to Fullerton: “My life was better before I knew you.”
But her true genius was that she knew the cost of harmony, the high price one pays for order. Franzen wrote, admiringly in the end, of Edith Wharton as “that girl, perverse, yearning, trapped…inside all her best novels, straining against the conventions of her privileged world.” That girl grown into a woman could always see the wooded shores of Laurel Lake in the distance. For her, “each step away from the house should be a nearer approach to nature.”
I can imagine Edith in her long white nightgown with shell buttons and tatted lace, her hair in a dark braid down her back, stepping onto the veranda one evening in the moonlight. While her guests sleep in their rooms, she draws closer and closer to that darkly shining pond. She stands under the stone arches, poised at the very edge of her classically inspired garden, longing to wade into the muck, yet already turning back toward the house.
Micah Perks is the author of a novel, a memoir, and many short stories and essays.