Tuesday, June 8, 2021

there weren’t many books anyhow, and she’d hardly read any of them - preparing to visit Edith Wharton's house

With any luck, I will, later this summer, visit The Mount, Edith Wharton’s home in Lenox, Massachusetts.  

Not bad, huh?

So I have been reading some Wharton, and hope to read a bit more before I set foot in the house.  Recently I read the novella Madame de Treymes (1906, about 60 pages in the Library of America edition) and Summer (1917, 150 pages).  They’re pretty good.

They both have kinda convoluted premises.  Let’s see.  Madame de Treymes is a Jamesian “American innocence versus European corruption” kind of thing.  The naïve American hero wants to marry the former Fanny Frisbee (!), now Madame de Malrive, if she can only divorce her morally poisonous French husband while keeping custody of her son, or as the French family thinks of him, the heir.  The path to the divorce goes through the sister-in-law, the Madame de Treymes in the title.  She is French, and also married to a corrupt French count, and to some degree corrupt herself, naturally, being French nobility.

The innocence versus experience business is ridiculous, Wharton doing James, but the James of thirty years earlier, and on the other hand who cares because she is having so much fun, as with the ludicrous Boykins, expatriate Americans too impenetrably ignorant to be corrupted by Europe, who “live in active disapproval of the world about them,” experiencing Paris like “persons peacefully following the course of a horrible war by pricking red pins in a map” (21).  

Or, for a simpler example, “one of the small gilt chairs which always looked surprised at being sat in” (same page).  A writer enjoying herself.  This Paris story has nothing to do with The Mount.

Summer does.  While creating the luxury of her estate, Wharton also got to know a bit of “the derelict mountain villages of New England”:

… grim places, morally and physically: insanity, incest and slow mental and moral starvation were hidden away behind the paintless wooden house-fronts of the long village street… (1002, Ch. 12 of A Backward Glance, 1933-4)

Ethan Frome
(1911) and Summer are both visits to these Berkshire hellholes.  Ethan Frome is famous for being so fatefully grim, like an American Hardy novel, but Summer is merely depressing, and surprisingly a bit creepy.  It is not strictly speaking the story of a girl groomed to be a much older man’s wife, but it has elements of that story.  The core story is more conventional: Charity Royall falls for the interesting young man who comes to town, in part on the merits and in part because her adoptive father figure has become a creep since his wife died; the nice young handsome boy turns out to be a dog; the father figure is a dog; men are dogs.

Wharton is explicit about male sexual desire and even about abortion in a way that surprised me.  Her scenes with the abortionist resemble those of Theodore Dreiser in An American Tragedy, but that book came out nine years later and everyone knew Dreiser wrote nasty shockers.  Perhaps Wharton, living in France, taking a break her work as a genuine French war hero, felt a little freer than usual, but the novel was published in an American magazine with no problem, so what do I know.

The main setting is a town with “no shops, no theatres, no lectures, no 'business block'; only a church that was opened every other Sunday if the state of the roads permitted, and a library for which no new books had been bought for twenty years, and where the old ones mouldered undisturbed in the damp shelves” (161, Ch. 1).  Our heroine Charity is the teenage librarian, among the world’s worst librarians:

… she replied that there weren’t many books anyhow, and that she’d hardly read any of them.  “The worms are getting to them,” she added gloomily (163).

That is part of the “meet cute.”  The first chapter is openly comic, and suggests a different way the novel could have gone.  It is the second chapter that takes a more disturbing turn.

“Well, I guess you made a mistake, then.  This ain’t your wife’s room any longer.”

She was not frightened, she simply felt a deep disgust; and perhaps he divined it or read it in her face, for after staring at her a moment he drew back and turned slowly away from the door.  (170-1, Ch. 2)

Charity is one of those Strong Female Characters many readers say they want, but one who is defeated, crushed.

I don’t know that wandering around the gardens of The Mount will give me much insight into Ehtan Frome or Summer, or vice versa.  Quite a contrast.


  1. What house, wow!

    These sound really fascinating for their times. I know little about Wharton's books beyond The House of Mirth. I didn't care for that one but she has a strong writing style that pulled me nonetheless. I think I might read Summer.

  2. Wharton was co-designer of the house and interiors, so it is very much her house. Then, as if so often the case, after finishing her dream house she gets divorced, moves away, and never sees it again.

    I hope you do read Summer. It has a number of interesting features. It is, for example, the earliest text I have read that features a couple going to the movies on a date.

  3. OMG -- I was just looking at flights and trains to Albany so I could visit The Mount in the fall! I'm very interested in your trip because this is one of the places I've been dying to visit someday. I'm also reading the massive Wharton bio by Hermione Lee and just finished the part where she decorated the house and gardens.

  4. The garden, the whole area, must be gorgeous in the fall.

    If you glimpse a distant mountain from the garden, that's where poor Ethan and poor Charity lived.

    I suppose I should read the autobiography, A Backward Glance. It has quite a lot about The Mount. The Lee biography would be good, too.

  5. You will find little to no evidence of Wharton's presence inside the rooms. Various rooms were turned over to local/interested interior designers to furnish in accordance with their interpretations of Wharton's taste. I was told on the tour that she left nothing behind. But you will get a sense of her stature compared with Henry James's when you see the dedicated guest room she set aside for him. The grounds are wonderful. And of course you're a stone's throw from Pittsfield, where you can see Melville's Arrowhead, where he wrote much of Moby Dick and which, unlike The Mount, contains a fair amount of actual Melvilliana.

  6. That is my understanding, too, that it all had to be redone.

    Arrowhead is such a good idea. I hope I can get to it, too. The Mount is an easier sell to other members of the party. I may have to sneak off to Arrowhead.

  7. I second the Arrowhead suggestion; it's the most evocative writer's home I've ever been in.

  8. Replies
    1. So I went back over your many Melville entries and see that you haven't reported on Pierre, which is really just the type of book that's up your alley. It's Melville at his most whacked-out Melvillian. If you do go to Pittsfield, take a small side tour out of town to see Balance Rock (it's just a glacial erratic), but Melville re-named it the Memnon Stone in Pierre, and maybe it will give off Melvillian vibes. The Melville room at the Pittsfield Athenaeum is also worth visiting, if your fellow travelers can stand it.

    2. I haven't read Pierre or Israel Potter. Pierre is likely too much for this summer, or any summer.

      An Athenaeum, though, that sounds easy enough.

    3. I loved going to the Athenaeum when I lived in Pittsfield; they have some great sales as well as a fine local history section. If you go, do check out the splendid former building a couple doors away (top picture here).

  9. The Mount looks quite impressive; even without a strong Wharton presence, I may have to add it to my someday list. The little I know about Wharton was that she was also a gardener - do you know if the Mount's gardens still represent her tastes, or have those been modified as well?

    Also, I should really read more Wharton...

  10. Wikipedia sez: "After the Whartons left, the house was a private residence, a girls' dormitory for the Foxhollow School, and site of the theatre company Shakespeare & Company. It was then bought by Edith Wharton Restoration, which has restored much of the property to its original condition and oversees the running of the property." (There's a section "Paranormal activity" that talks about "unexplained noises and experiences" and says "Actors reported the same unexplained sounds and sightings of figures in period dress"; as it happens, my wife worked for Shakespeare & Company in those days, so I asked her if she'd heard anything about that, and she said no, adding "They're actors, what do you expect.")

    1. Languagehat, thanks for the information! It's always interesting to see how places change over time, and how our understanding of what 'was there' is represented now (or not).