“Decidedly, I’m a better landscape gardener than a novelist,” Edith Wharton once claimed. The gardens at her estate, The Mount, in Lenox, Massachusetts, are indeed a highlight of the estate, which I visited recently on a day trip with my husband and my mother-in-law. For an afternoon, we traveled to the turn of the twentieth century and envisioned life as Wharton knew it during her tenure as mistress of The Mount.
Wharton had a talent and a passion for architecture and landscape design. She was heavily influenced by her years abroad and drew on classical European design principles for both the house and gardens. Before she penned The House of Mirth, her breakout novel, in an upstairs bedroom suite at The Mount, she co-wrote a book on interior design, The Decoration of Houses, with architect Ogden Codman in 1898. Remarkably, the book is still in print.
The white, three-story mansion is reached by walking along a forested path, and we explored the house on a self-guided tour. Highlights are the library (right) with dark wood, carved bookshelves, where Wharton’s personal collection of tomes resides once again after being purchased from a European collector; the drawing room, the largest room in the house and the only one with ornate ceiling treatment; and the dining room, where a cushion placed beneath a Victorian table is reminiscent of one that Wharton kept there for her canine companions. (I was disappointed to find out that Wharton disliked cats and referred to them as sneaks in fur.)
Visitors are allowed on the second level of the house, although it’s currently undergoing restoration work. Wharton’s sitting room is the one that’s most finished, and it has vivid floral paintings set into the paneling, which came from Milan, Italy. One room has been designated the Henry James Guest Suite in honor of Wharton’s fellow writer, her good friend and traveling companion (they once toured France together, where one of their sojourns was to French scribe George Sand’s chateau).
After exploring the house, we had lunch at the Terrace Cafe on the wrap-around porch overlooking a glistening pond and the gorgeous gardens. A broad staircase leads from the terrace to a walkway lined with lime trees. On either end of the walkway are two formal gardens: a French-style flower garden circling a fountain in the shape of a dolphin and an Italian-style giardino segreto (hidden garden; at left) with stone walls and archways.
I was pleased to see there were a lot of people at The Mount on the day I visited, although it didn’t feel crowded because of the sprawling size of the estate. The Mount is open until October 31st. It’s still facing financial difficulties, and it could be a last chance to visit this exquisite place, which is unlike any other literary landmark in the United States. As Henry James said, perhaps while admiring the view from his guest room window, The Mount is “a delicate French chateau mirrored in a Massachusetts pond.” –Shannon McKenna Schmidt