Sunday, July 24, 2011

A taste of Wharton society

Edith Wharton, the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, spent ten crucial years of her life in Lenox, MA at her custom-built estate, The Mount. Wharton designed the house as both a congenial home for guests (like Henry James) and a retreat for herself. She wrote some of her most important books there, including Ethan Frome and House of Mirth.

Before traveling to Albany this weekend for my pilgrimage to Lenox, I read some of Wharton's classics. I re-read Ethan Frome this winter and was thrilled to rediscover how cold and stark the story is. A great winter read. Then I read House of Mirth and Age of Innocence just before traveling, and they were both beautiful experiences (man, could that woman write) and wonderful introductions to Wharton's life in upper society New York. Given all the frivolous class preoccupations that she skewers in both novels, it's easy to see how Wharton treasured her time at The Mount, away from the brass materialism and snobbish distinctions of Fifth Avenue society.

Wharton did all of her writing in bed (posed pictures at her desk notwithstanding), and obviously made the most of her life of leisure. But she was also a divorcee in Paris when the Great War broke out, and she worked tirelessly to promote relief efforts and to publicize the civilian cost of the war.

Right: Wharton's bedroom

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Princess Nijma

Princess Nijma