Edith Wharton had one thing I’d love to have (but that likely won’t happen) and many things that I’m happy not to have. I’d love a Pulitzer or some literary recognition, and I’m grateful to not have any other part of her sad life. Last week, I toured The Mount, Wharton’s home between 1901 and 1911, where she had her most prolific writing period. The weather during the tour can only be described as Bronte sister gray: rainy, cold, ominous. Outside fit the mood inside. Entering the halls of The Mount, I was initially excited: classic Italian architecture, literary history, the ghost of a giant lingering in her own halls. But as we walked from room to room, I felt increasingly sorry for Edith Wharton, and that’s when the interior of the house started to feel like the weather.
Sure, she was born into money; I’m first-generation middle class. She was the first woman to win a Pulitzer in 1921 at age 59; I’m still trying to write my first novel at age 41. She preferred dogs; we have cats. But for all her financial comfort and literary success, she had a lonely, very interior life, or a life I found exceptionally lonely and too interior for me. An empty marriage. No children. Affairs with wealthy men who liked to keep their options open. Ornate dog bowls in every single room of the house because the dogs were her children, her constant companions always in her arms or on her lap, appearing in far too many photos. I got the sense Mrs. Wharton spent way too much time indoors, lost inside her head. She was a player in the Gilded Age, a pioneer in a field dominated by men, but I left the tour with a reduced opinion of her and thankful I wasn’t trapped in that era of corsets and expectation.
There’s a lot of old money in the Berkshires. You see it; the old estates sit like proud lions on hills. You smell it; the food is thoughtful, not rushed. You hear it; people talk about books, business, travel, not reality TV shows or sports. You touch it; hotel linens are crisp yet soft, sofas and settees are velvety. Down the road, while Mrs. Wharton’s servants were unpacking her belongings, Blantyre was being built. It was 1901, a new century and new beginnings at these two estates designed to echo what America still loved about Europe. Blantyre is where I spent last week, hiding out from moody skies, eating too much bacon and drinking too much wine. For six days, I wandered around Blantyre with a side trip to The Mount, thinking about old-money families with their big, airy houses, their little dogs, their multi-course meals, feeling thankful for my more scrappy upbringing, my happy marriage, my small 1926 colonial with its clawfoot bathtubs and erratic power circuits, my healthy, quirky tween-age daughter. While at Blantyre, I paid off my student loan, nearly $50,000 in debt that had been trailing me since 1996. No one paved my way, and when I was in my 20s that annoyed me. But after walking around Edith Wharton’s house the day after that final payment, I felt grateful. Living small, I thought, feels good.
The problem with the Berkshires is that I keep enjoying it through windows, usually the windows of very beautiful places like Blantyre and The Mount. I was there in January visiting Kripalu; I returned in November and spent most of the week indoors at Wishing Stone Writers Workshop, which is worth every penny, and that’s coming from a gal who didn’t start out with a lot of pennies.
As wonderful as Wishing Stone was, for the most part I again experienced the Berkshires from the inside looking out. I didn’t hike the mountains; I looked at them from a window. I didn’t walk through the leaves; I watched them fall while sitting in an ornate music room critiquing stories. The branches were bare after my week there, as if fall had finished falling while I was inside reading and writing. Twice when I walked back from the main house to my room at the carriage house by the end of the road, I stood outside looking at the gibbous moon until I was too cold, grateful to have the long walk back just to walk about. Did Edith Wharton ever feel that way? Did she ever look out her window and worry the seasons were passing too quickly and she was missing out? I love burrowing into a good book on a cold day, but the Berkshires makes me want to stay outside longer even when the temperatures suggest otherwise.
So I will go back to Western Massachusetts. Again. And again. And again. Spring. Summer. Another autumn there and definitely more of winter. While visiting The Mount, I wondered, did Edith Wharton enjoy the seasons as I do? Did she find beauty in small things? She struck me as a woman so consumed by her wealthy lifestyle, her books, her dogs. She didn’t come across as someone I would enjoy talking to or want to know. But that’s the problem with history; you’re not there to tell your own story. Maybe she’s a peach.