This Is Where Edith Wharton Wrote The House Of Mirth

Real Estate

Edith Wharton built The Mount in Lenox, Massachusetts in 1902 as a country retreat for herself and her husband, Teddy Wharton. The 1,700 square foot house – half of which was given over to servants and their work – was modeled after European manses in which guests entered via an anteroom, where they waited to find out whether they would be received by the lady of the house. No gaudy entries or vulgar grand staircases for Wharton, who wrote The Decoration of Houses before she published best selling novels that include The Age of Innocence, Ethan Frome and The House of Mirth

Wharton was an unlikely writer: her upbringing was in the elevated circles of old New York society, where women’s intellectual ambitions were discouraged. Her maiden name was Jones, as in “Keeping up with the Jonses;” the phrase was literally coined about her family.

But Edith defied expectations and not only wrote best sellers, but became the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize as well as the first woman to receive an honorary doctorate of letters from Yale University.

When she built The Mount, Wharton used the architectural and landscape design theories she had previously published in The Decoration of Houses. She thought that good architectural expression included order, scale, and harmony. The house exterior is a striking white stucco, with clusters of gables and white chimneys rising from a roof capped with a balustrade and a cupola. The design of the gardens were as important to Wharton as that of the house; they include a sunken Italian Garden, a gravel promenade, annual and perennial beds and a Rock Garden that includes molded grass steps cut into a sloping hill, a landscape feature rarely seen in America.

This is where Wharton wrote two of her best-loved books, Ethan Frome and The House of Mirth. But she and Teddy were not destined to live happily ever after. Teddy, who was mentally ill and maritally unfaithful, sold The Mount without his wife’s permission. In 1911 Edith Wharton divorced him and moved to France, where she lived for the rest of her life. 

After many years in which the house served as a school, a theater company headquarters and a designer show house, The Mount has been restored to its appearance during Wharton’s time there. The house and grounds are home to a summer lecture series, weekly bird walks, concerts, theater performances and outdoor sculpture exhibits. Best of all, Edith Wharton’s library has returned to the house. Included are 22 first editions of her own work. It took the non-profit foundation that now owns the house a long time to raise the $2.6 million needed to buy the 2,600 books from George Ramsden, a British rare book dealer who assembled and painstakingly cataloged them. Most important, he resisted pressures to break up the collection and sell it piecemeal. He decries as “cultural vandalism” the dispersal of formerly intact libraries of such celebrated authors as Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad and Henry James.

With her gardens and her library restored, Edith Wharton would be happy here today.

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