Trespassing on Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton’s house, The Mount, Lenox, Massachusetts. Margaret Helminska, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons. I work in a blue-chip gallery, and it’s not unusual that I’m asked if I grew up in Newport when I say that I’m from Rhode Island. It often feels like a loaded question, more social barometer than casual inquiry, and it’s clear that my response will either indicate our mutual class affiliation or amplify the differences that I already know exist between us. Sometimes I can see the flare of pleasure that people feel when they say “Newport,” the word conjuring, as it must, visions of sailboats and private beaches, country clubs and rocky cliffs thrashed by the waves of a restless Atlantic. I always sense that there’s a secret on the other side of the inquiry, but I guess I will never know exactly what it is; I grew up half an hour west of Bellevue Avenue in a modest split-level ranch that my father built. I’ve seen only small slices of those gated houses, the quick flashes of stone and shingle that are revealed through a break in the trees. In high school I had a friend named Vanessa whose mother was a nurse at Newport Hospital. We would sometimes catch a ride with her and walk up and down Thames Street, where we shoplifted scented lotions from Crabtree & Evelyn and searched diners and parking lots for the town’s seemingly nonexistent boys. I don’t remember that we ever once considered spending an afternoon following Cliff Walk, the coastal path that wends its way past Newport’s eccentric archipelago of Gilded Age mansions. We liked looking at things we couldn’t afford, but only if we could fit them into our pockets, only if we could take them home with us to scrutinize within the privacy of our own bedrooms. I briefly moved back to Rhode Island following the collapse of my first marriage. It was the summer before I turned twenty-seven, and I spent three months hiding away in my childhood bedroom, grief-damaged and humiliated by the task of trying to figure out who and how I was supposed to be. My husband and I had managed to stay married for only four years, the last of which I spent watching from the sidelines as he enjoyed an unexpectedly rapid and very public rise as an artist. His newly minted success introduced a host of newly minted problems, and I drifted through most of that winter and spring weeping in the utility closet at the boutique where I worked and asking him where I fit into his life so many times that I eventually didn’t fit into it at all. By that July, we were completely estranged. I was living with my parents when his art dealer sent me a copy of The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton’s 1920 Pulitzer Prize–winning novel that lays bare the punitive cruelties of a leisure class as expert at collecting things as it was at discarding people. Partially set in the Gilded Age Newport where Wharton herself had summered from the late 1870s through the turn of the century, the book lifts a curtain’s edge on what once happened inside those hedgerow-protected compounds. I never asked the art dealer if he was suggesting that I was a May Welland or an Ellen Olenska, but maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe he was telling me that all bad marriages are exactly the same, that it makes no difference where you live or what you have, because even glamour cannot temper the pain of being left. I fell in love with Wharton during those lonesome months; I found fragments of myself in The Custom of the Country’s Undine Spragg, in The House of Mirth’s Lily Bart, in Summer’s Charity Royall, each one of them unable to foresee that folly follows when we expect too much. It wasn’t until many years later that I learned that the author who wrote with such precision about what transpires inside the unhappiest of homes had herself lived in a succession of them. Raised by a rigid society mother who was by turns remote and overbearing, Edith Newbold Jones was twenty-three when she married Teddy Wharton. The union helped her escape the control of a family that found her literary aspirations inconveniently vulgar, but so ill-matched were Teddy and Edith that Henry James once said that the marriage was, in retrospect, “an almost—or rather an utterly—inconceivable thing.” The young Mrs. Wharton soon realized that her new husband was a professional vacationer plagued by alcoholism and manic depression, a man who found his equilibrium indulging in the communal “watering hole amusements” that she went on to pillory with brutal accuracy in her novels and short stories. It was at Land’s End, the couple’s cliffside Rhode Island home, that Edith understood that she’d consigned herself to a new kind of domestic subjugation: a sexually and intellectually dissatisfying quasi-union that withered incrementally under the pall of Newport’s convivial excesses. “There are certain things one must possess in order not to be awed by them,” she wrote in 1900’s “The Line of Least Resistance,” a story, set in Newport, about a dissatisfied wife and

Trespassing on Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton’s house, The Mount, Lenox, Massachusetts. Margaret Helminska, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

I work in a blue-chip gallery, and it’s not unusual that I’m asked if I grew up in Newport when I say that I’m from Rhode Island. It often feels like a loaded question, more social barometer than casual inquiry, and it’s clear that my response will either indicate our mutual class affiliation or amplify the differences that I already know exist between us. Sometimes I can see the flare of pleasure that people feel when they say “Newport,” the word conjuring, as it must, visions of sailboats and private beaches, country clubs and rocky cliffs thrashed by the waves of a restless Atlantic. I always sense that there’s a secret on the other side of the inquiry, but I guess I will never know exactly what it is; I grew up half an hour west of Bellevue Avenue in a modest split-level ranch that my father built. I’ve seen only small slices of those gated houses, the quick flashes of stone and shingle that are revealed through a break in the trees.

In high school I had a friend named Vanessa whose mother was a nurse at Newport Hospital. We would sometimes catch a ride with her and walk up and down Thames Street, where we shoplifted scented lotions from Crabtree & Evelyn and searched diners and parking lots for the town’s seemingly nonexistent boys. I don’t remember that we ever once considered spending an afternoon following Cliff Walk, the coastal path that wends its way past Newport’s eccentric archipelago of Gilded Age mansions. We liked looking at things we couldn’t afford, but only if we could fit them into our pockets, only if we could take them home with us to scrutinize within the privacy of our own bedrooms.

I briefly moved back to Rhode Island following the collapse of my first marriage. It was the summer before I turned twenty-seven, and I spent three months hiding away in my childhood bedroom, grief-damaged and humiliated by the task of trying to figure out who and how I was supposed to be. My husband and I had managed to stay married for only four years, the last of which I spent watching from the sidelines as he enjoyed an unexpectedly rapid and very public rise as an artist. His newly minted success introduced a host of newly minted problems, and I drifted through most of that winter and spring weeping in the utility closet at the boutique where I worked and asking him where I fit into his life so many times that I eventually didn’t fit into it at all. By that July, we were completely estranged. I was living with my parents when his art dealer sent me a copy of The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton’s 1920 Pulitzer Prize–winning novel that lays bare the punitive cruelties of a leisure class as expert at collecting things as it was at discarding people. Partially set in the Gilded Age Newport where Wharton herself had summered from the late 1870s through the turn of the century, the book lifts a curtain’s edge on what once happened inside those hedgerow-protected compounds. I never asked the art dealer if he was suggesting that I was a May Welland or an Ellen Olenska, but maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe he was telling me that all bad marriages are exactly the same, that it makes no difference where you live or what you have, because even glamour cannot temper the pain of being left.

I fell in love with Wharton during those lonesome months; I found fragments of myself in The Custom of the Country’s Undine Spragg, in The House of Mirth’s Lily Bart, in Summer’s Charity Royall, each one of them unable to foresee that folly follows when we expect too much. It wasn’t until many years later that I learned that the author who wrote with such precision about what transpires inside the unhappiest of homes had herself lived in a succession of them. Raised by a rigid society mother who was by turns remote and overbearing, Edith Newbold Jones was twenty-three when she married Teddy Wharton. The union helped her escape the control of a family that found her literary aspirations inconveniently vulgar, but so ill-matched were Teddy and Edith that Henry James once said that the marriage was, in retrospect, “an almost—or rather an utterly—inconceivable thing.” The young Mrs. Wharton soon realized that her new husband was a professional vacationer plagued by alcoholism and manic depression, a man who found his equilibrium indulging in the communal “watering hole amusements” that she went on to pillory with brutal accuracy in her novels and short stories. It was at Land’s End, the couple’s cliffside Rhode Island home, that Edith understood that she’d consigned herself to a new kind of domestic subjugation: a sexually and intellectually dissatisfying quasi-union that withered incrementally under the pall of Newport’s convivial excesses. “There are certain things one must possess in order not to be awed by them,” she wrote in 1900’s “The Line of Least Resistance,” a story, set in Newport, about a dissatisfied wife and her rich but gormless husband. One is left to wonder whether the line refers to objects or to women.

***

Wharton’s writing frequently draws parallels between the claustrophobia of an overstuffed parlor and that of marital suffering, and it is often through a rejection of architectural convention that her heroines express their hunger for freedom. (Think of would-be divorcée Ellen Olenska setting up house in her bohemian West Twenty-Third Street apartment.) In the late 1890s, Wharton, fatigued by the disorganized ostentation that she felt was transforming Newport into a “Thermopylae of bad taste,” began examining the relationship between architecture and psychology, ultimately developing a philosophy that called for the union of symmetry, classical proportions, and elegant utility. She outlined this trifecta of principles in her 1897 book, The Decoration of Houses, and later realized them in the construction of the Mount, the Lenox, Massachusetts, compound she codesigned following the sale of Land’s End in 1901.

Lenox, which lies in the shadow of the Berkshire Mountains, had already established itself as a summer enclave for wealthy New Yorkers by the time the Whartons purchased their 113 acres of lakeside farmland, but for Wharton the area retained a vestige of “hideous, howling wilderness,” as one unnamed traveler had described it two centuries prior. The outskirts of the land were still populated, albeit sparsely, by insular pockets of the “Swamp Yankees”—local vernacular for New England mountain people—that haunt the pages of Summer and Ethan Frome.

Wharton found in the countryside a respite from New York’s surveillance, relief from Newport’s extravagance, the freedom to choose her own company, and material. It was on Hawthorne Street that Wharton’s friend Ethel Cram was fatally injured by a horse kick to the skull, an event that served as the impetus for her 1907 novel, The Fruit of the Tree. One can drive past the train station where Wharton received out-of-town visitors like Henry James and English novelist Howard Sturgis. The steep decline from the town square was the site of the deadly 1904 sledding accident that inspired Ethan Frome. Kate Spencer, an assistant librarian at the Lenox’s public library, was injured in the accident; visiting the library this past fall, I found myself imagining the hours Wharton must have spent quietly studying her young friend’s scarred face and limping gait, searching her for evidence of the distance between public and private pain.

“It was only at The Mount,” Wharton recalled in her 1934 memoir, A Backward Glance, “that I was really happy.” The two primary—and parallel—themes that run through its pages are the histories of her writing and of her homes, mutually informative and enmeshed passions that surface even in her earliest recollections. The Mount is presented as the site that allowed Wharton to consolidate her power as a novelist, a house on a hill from which she could regard, from a slight distance, the life she was born into yet was savagely critical of.

In 1980, nearly a half century after the memoir’s publication, a cache of three hundred letters written by Wharton to a protégé of Henry James’s named Morton Fullerton was brought to market by a Dutch bookseller. Dated between 1907 and 1915, the letters—long thought to have been destroyed—offer proof of an extramarital affair with Fullerton that began at the Mount when Wharton was forty-five. Though the painful longing and ecstatic satisfaction that ricochet through these private missives is predictably missing from the memoir, the experience clearly inflected her recollections of the house and shaped the novels she wrote there. “You told me once,” she wrote to Morton in 1908, “I should write better for this experience of loving.”

Regardless of the revelations borne out by the affair, it was only after discovering that Teddy had embezzled nearly fifty thousand dollars from her trust to fund a Boston apartment for his mistress and the pleasure of several chorus girls that Wharton brokered a deal for her escape. She let go of the Mount to let go of the marriage, leaving in 1911, after handing the deed to Teddy in exchange for her freedom. By the time her boat arrived in France, the house had been sold.

***

The Mount, a gleaming white H-shaped jewel dressed in candy-striped awnings and marble balustrades, is located two miles from Lenox, and accessed via a winding, wooded driveway. Incorporating elements of French, Italian, and English styles and built into the side of a large hill, the building is a master class in visual harmony. I visited this past fall with my second husband, my first time there since the eighties, and joined a late-afternoon tour group that convened under the golden light of a slowly dipping sun. Outside the house, our tour guide, a fifty-something woman with a no-nonsense bob, sensible shoes, and a large yellow service dog, pointed out Wharton’s devotion to symmetry, evident not only in the labyrinth of formal gardens that bloom in the summertime with phlox, lilies, hydrangea, and dahlias, but also on the building’s facade, which features a set of dummy windows that compensate for an architectural imbalance. I thought it an unusual gesture, though I soon realized it wasn’t so for Wharton; inside the house are false doors, decorative panels that feign access to nonexistent rooms, and strategically placed mirrors that offer the illusion of depth. I was reminded of Lily Bart’s fatal reliance on artifice and of my own desire, all those years ago, on reading the novel for the first time, to believe until the very end that she might actually survive in spite of it.

Our group of eight included two teenage boys, a woman nestling a small curly-headed poodle to her breast in a baby sling, an elderly couple, and a man who did not once remove a pair of wraparound sunglasses. We entered the house through a grotto-style front hall finished with stucco walls and a terra-cotta-tiled floor, and then went up a staircase to a vaulted-ceilinged gallery on the main floor, outfitted with a series of arched doors. From there the rooms unfold enfilade, redirecting traffic flow away from Edith’s private rooms, the places Henry James referred to as the Mount’s “penetralia.” In her lifetime, Wharton was frequently accused by both friends and critics of an impulse to reveal much about the lives of others while giving away very little about her own, and the latter is evident in the way she policed her personal spaces. “It shall be born in mind,” she once wrote, “that, while the main purpose of a door is to admit, its secondary purpose is to exclude.”

In Edith’s bedroom, the two young men in our tour group, who had at some point produced what looked like a photographer’s light meter, began running the device over the room’s bed, a vase of flowers, a mirror, an empty bureau, a disconnected telephone, and a small stack of books. I watched the lights on the device flicker anemically, emitting yellow and green flashes in short bursts that seemed to indicate nothing at all. “Is anyone here?” one of them asked. “Are you here?” They were not looking for Edith Wharton—just her ghost. “They shouldn’t do that!” I said to my husband, loud enough for everyone in the group to hear. “The House of Mirth was written in this room!” By this point my spoilers had begun to fatigue our guide, a nice woman whom I had unfortunately made an enemy of with my repeated interruptions and various usurpations, with my impulse to anticipate future turns in the tour’s script without concern for how it made either of us look. She didn’t seem to mind when my husband and I opted to linger in Wharton’s room so I could look out through the window at the forest and the lake, and no one said a word when we decided to break off from our group and head out on our own.

Walking the property’s grounds, I thought about what it means to be allowed entry into a stranger’s Eden, how impossible it is for the dead to protect themselves from the violence of our curiosity once we are allowed access to their private spaces. I thought of the hours I’d spent scouring passages from The Life Apart, the secret erotic diary the author kept for the duration of her affair with Morton Fullerton and the only place where the author was ever able to address her own carnal appetite. From the sentimental little hill of the family pet cemetery, I looked out to the mountains at the view that inspired Wharton to revisit a short story she’d written in French many years before. It was 1910, and the writer’s turbulent relationship with Fullerton had reached its inevitable conclusion. Provided with the distance to compare an unhappy marriage with the thrill of elicit erotic distraction, Wharton began to write Ethan Frome, coding herself as the title character, her husband as his infirm wife, and Fullerton as Mattie Silver, the servant with whom Ethan is in love. Wharton so often wrote about herself that we don’t need to pry to find all the things she never meant for us to see. There is a short passage in Ethan Frome that I return to, sometimes, when I feel my curiosity becoming caustic, when my fascination turns invasive, when I begin to run my ghost meter over someone’s life just because I can. “I had the feeling,” the narrator states, “that the deeper meaning of the story was in the gaps.”

Alissa Bennett’s essays and short fiction have appeared in Vogue, Ursula, and the New York Times. With Lena Dunham, Bennett cohosts the podcast The C-Word, a show that examines and dismantles the mythologies culture erects around public women. She is currently writing a film about the life of Edith Wharton.