Joan Wickersham

The writer’s house

What are we looking for when we visit?

Edith Wharton in the library of The Mount in 1905. Edith Wharton in the library of The Mount in 1905. (The Mount)
By Joan Wickersham
May 27, 2011

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WHEN I went to London 30 years ago, I wanted to visit Charles Dickens’s house. I don’t know what I expected to find. The place was perfectly pleasant — rooms, furniture, some artifacts displayed in glass cases. But it also seemed weirdly empty. The thing I wanted wasn’t there. What are we looking for, when we visit a writer’s house? Sometimes it’s a landscape — the Brontes’ moors, Robert Frost’s New Hampshire pastures. Sometimes it’s a set of conditions (Jane Austen, writing her books in the midst of family life in those small rooms at Chawton). But often, what we want is indefinable and irrational. We’ve read the books and we’re still hungry — we want to get even closer to the writer. We want to see the beds the writers slept in, the tables where they ate, the desks where they wrote, and the windows they must have stared out of when the words didn’t come. But there is something futile about a visit to a writer’s house. The thing we’re looking for eludes us. Whatever happened there happened invisibly, in the terrain of the imagination. The house — even if it has seven gables — is just a house.

Still, the impact of The Mount, the Lenox home of novelist Edith Wharton, is nearly as gracious and powerful as “The Age of Innocence’’ or “Ethan Frome’’ or any of Wharton’s other great works — which makes sense, as the house is one of her works. She designed it in 1901, together with the architect Ogden Codman, who had collaborated on her first book, “The Decoration of House,’’ published in 1897.

Though Wharton and Codman had a falling-out during The Mount’s construction (she was outraged when he raised his fee; he was outraged that someone so rich would quibble over costs), the house exemplifies the principles outlined in their book. Instead of stuffy Victorian ostentation, Wharton believed in lightness, order, functionality. She contended that decoration was not a matter of superficial adornment, but rather should be part of, and harmonious with, architectural proportion. A house should “analyze and express’’ its owner’s needs, and “the desire to be comfortable in one’s own way.’’

The Mount is both extroverted and introverted, expressing Wharton’s enjoyment of guests and her need for privacy as a writer. The house is huge but not overwhelming, its graceful flow of rooms bounded on one side by a long gallery and on the other by a long veranda looking out over formal Italianate gardens and distant hills. It is a place for leisurely house-parties like the ones described in “The House of Mirth,’’ which Wharton wrote at The Mount, in her bedroom, situated at the end of the hall off a small vestibule so that the servants could tidy her bathroom and boudoir without disturbing her.

“The House of Mirth’’ is the story of Lily Bart, who has grown up in Wharton’s rarefied upper-class world, but without Wharton’s money. Lily belongs in a house like The Mount, but only if she marries a rich man. And the suitors Wharton creates for her are dismal — passive, or conventional, or coarse. Lily is too fastidious to settle for any of them. Saying yes would be self-sabotage, but so is saying no. The tense, perfectly balanced tragic beauty of the novel comes from watching her throw away all her chances to marry these men, while you hope she won’t throw herself away by marrying any of them.

Visiting The Mount, I could see Edith Wharton in all her aspects: upper-class lady, architectural historian, private and disciplined novelist. Walking along the hallway, it was easy to imagine Lily Bart walking ahead of me, her skirt trailing, about to go downstairs to join the dinner guests whom she at once deplores and longs to be on equal footing with.

But thinking about Lily Bart made me realize that, as exceptionally rich and interesting as The Mount may be, it shares the virtues and limitations of any writer’s house. It can evoke the writer, but its greatest gift is to fall short of the books, and to make you itch to read the books again. The Mount is worth a visit, but the place where Edith Wharton really lives is in “The House of Mirth.’’

Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Her website is