Edith Wharton's books have been restored to her country estate in the Berkshires

Email|Print| Text size + By Sean P. Murphy
Globe Staff / April 30, 2006

LENOX -- At The Mount, it's easy to imagine Edith Wharton gliding through the perfumed gardens of her country estate, Henry James at her elbow, absorbed in conversation.

Here, you can almost picture a bejeweled and begowned Wharton, author of ''Ethan Frome" and ''The Age of Innocence," welcoming tuxedoed dinner guests arriving by horse-drawn carriage to her magnificent 35-room mansion.

And starting next weekend, it will be easier than ever to envision Wharton (1862-1937) and her friends enjoying an evening around the fireplace in her elegant library.

A bit of imagination goes a long way while exploring this 50-acre period piece tucked away in the Berkshires.

You can have high tea, as Wharton did, on the terrace overlooking French- and Italian-inspired gardens, with a beaver pond in the distance, and layers of blue hills piled up beyond, the air scented by thousands of flowers.

You can crane your neck in admiration of the vaulted ceiling of the gallery where Wharton received her guests and trod its terrazzo floor, stroll through the great drawing room, and meander in and out of the somewhat compact bedroom suites upstairs, all the while being told Wharton's life story by well-versed tour guides.

And, for the first time, you can stand in the library that Wharton built in 1902, the epicenter of her life while she lived here. The restored library is graced with the 2,600 books Wharton, one of the most important and imaginative of all American writers, left at her death at 75. Long divorced and childless, Wharton willed her books to the historian Sir Kenneth Clark, in trust for his son, Colin, who was her godson.

The library scattered over the years, only to be painstakingly collected and cataloged by George Ramsden, an English bibliophile and bookseller who sold the whole lot last year for $2.6 million to the nonprofit Edith Wharton Restoration, which operates The Mount.

The books cover a vast array of topics: Wharton read in English, French, German, and Italian; she feasted on astrology and world religions and the ancients. Here, you will find Proust and Chekhov and Melville.

The volumes also reveal personal intimacies. Wharton's journalist lover, Morton Fullerton, affectionately pledged himself to her in one book dedication. In another, Theodore Roosevelt gently needled Wharton for the many years she lived abroad after leaving Lenox. James, one of Wharton's dearest friends, presented her with gifts of his books.

The library also contains a first edition of James Joyce's ''Ulysses," Walt Whitman's ''Leaves of Grass," and many more literary gems.

''It was the most important acquisition we could possibly have made," said Stephanie Copeland, president of the Edith Wharton Restoration, when announcing the purchase of the library last December. On Monday, First Lady Laura Bush, a former librarian who called Wharton a favorite author, toured The Mount to help celebrate the library's return.

A daughter of New York high society, Wharton was educated privately here and abroad. Hers was a world in which a woman's name was supposed to appear in print only three times in her life: announcing her birth, marriage, and death. Success was measured by a proper marriage and she married properly in 1885.

Wharton, however, defied convention and went on to write nearly 50 books, becoming the highest-paid author in the United States in some years. She became the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, for ''The Age of Innocence," and was the first woman to be awarded an honorary doctorate of letters from Yale University. Critics rank her among the country's greatest novelists.

''Was she a feminist?" I asked Copeland, who acted as my tour guide during a private showing of the library last month.

''Yes, in how she lived her life," Copeland said.

Wharton could also have been called, for a while, the Martha Stewart of her day. She coauthored the first American guide to home decorating and gardening, ''The Decoration of Houses," in 1897. She designed The Mount and its elaborate gardens as a testament to her sense of taste and design, acquired largely during periods spent in Italy and France.

It was for France that she left Lenox and the United States and her husband, who had for some time been physically and mentally ill, in 1907. After she had settled permanently in France, the Whartons divorced in 1913, and she lived there until her death. She bore witness to the slaughter of World War I, traveling to the trenches along the front lines to file dispatches to American magazines. Later, Wharton's tireless efforts on behalf of starving refugees prompted the French to award her the Medal of Honor.

She wrote ''Ethan Frome," one of her masterpieces, in French as an exercise, before rendering it in English. She also wrote travelogues, writing guides, poetry, criticism, short stories, and other hugely popular and influential novels, including ''The House of Mirth" and ''The Custom of the Country." Still a staple of high school English classes, Wharton's work has never been out of print.

Through it all, there were books.

''Books have souls, like people," she once wrote.

Even under a slate gray sky, the Berkshires, when they begin to gather around the Massachusetts Turnpike a few miles west of Springfield, are a pleasant sight for a couple leaving the city and teenagers behind.

Two hours on the road without a single cellphone call restored my wife and me and gave us a chance to ponder Wharton's legacy.

In her day, the gentry favored Lenox -- ''Newport without water," some called it (though Wharton had summered in Newport as a child and had two homes there with her husband). Downtown Lenox is classic New England, with its village green and whitewashed building facades. One might wander into the public library, with its handsome grandfather clock and other antiques, to get a sense of the town and its history. Today, Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, keeps Lenox on the cultural map.

As we approached The Mount, situated just outside town amid dense woods, my wife read aloud from Oxford scholar Hermione Lee, whose biography of Wharton is to be published next January: ''Edith Wharton was a person of great, sustained and informed passion: for friends, travel, architecture, gardens, France, Italy -- and above all for books.

''She read her way through a lonely and rather unhappy childhood, and began her collection in her teens. She took refuge from a difficult marriage in books. She built her friendships on conversations about and exchanges of books. Many of her books are gifts from other writers, from family, friends and admirers."

At its heyday, The Mount was a working farm, as well as a country estate, staffed by a couple of dozen hands. And so it still appears, with its surprisingly capacious servants wing, the stables, and superintendent's house.

The Mount passed through many hands after Teddy Wharton sold it against Edith's wishes in 1911. Over the years it served as home to a girls' school and to a theater company performing Shakespeare.

For decades, it sagged and crumbled and generally fell apart, its gardens completely overgrown. Then the Edith Wharton Restoration wrested control of it. Steady fund-raising has restored the superintendent's house (now staff offices), the principal rooms of the main house, and the formal gardens. More than $3 million went into restoring Wharton's original garden design, including crushed marble pathways, terraced garden ''rooms," and statuary. Fund-raising continues, as much work is still needed on the 25-room main house and stables.

As we walked the quarter-mile down a winding roadway to the secluded main house (past the little knoll marked with tombstones for Wharton's beloved Pekingese and Papillon dogs), Copeland said that most of the 30,000 annual visitors to The Mount are women, and that, while children love to frolic in its gardens, this is no Disney World.

For $18 per adult, all the grounds are open all day. You can have a nice lunch and a glass of wine at the Terrace Cafe from mid-June to Labor Day and weekends in the fall, or picnic in a spot of your choosing. Guides schooled in Wharton, her work, and her times lead small groups (fewer than 20) into the main house.

It's a not-quite-finished museum of sorts. Some rooms are bare. There is no original furniture. However, modern designers have been commissioned to interpret Wharton's aesthetic in furnishing the restored rooms, and the result is a feast for the eyes.

Acquaint yourself with Wharton's life beforehand for a more enjoyable tour. She was 40 when The Mount was built, her career flowering and her marriage already withered. Besides the genius and toil of Wharton the writer, these rooms contain echoes of her personal heartache. Tour guides will provide you with details of long ago betrayal, blackmail, and embezzlement.

Wrote James of this jewel of the woods: ''An exquisite and marvelous place, a delicate French chateau mirrored in a Massachusetts pond . . . a monument to the almost too impeccable taste of its so accomplished mistress."

Contact Sean Murphy at

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