Innermost Room: Edith Wharton at 150

Thursday May 24, 2012

LENOX -- "I have sometimes thought that a woman's nature is like a great house full of rooms," Edith Wharton wrote, "... and in the innermost room ... the soul sits alone and waits for a footstep that never comes."

She has touched readers for a century -- but who walked into her room?

She still walks into readers' minds and quiet places. In her 150th year, Wharton has received birthday wishes from across the globe.

As the Mount, Wharton's home in the Berkshires, launches a summer celebration of Wharton and contemporary writers, director Susan Wissler has found Wharton in a comparison of the Super Bowl's last quarter and a biography of Muhammad Ali. The Mount set out thinking about how to make the world aware of her birthday, Wissler said -- and they have found that the world knows.

Julian Fellows, creator of the British and American television series "Downton Abbey," told Wissler that he likes Wharton because, like Jane Austen and Proust, and unlike Dickens, she wrote what she knew from the inside -- she wrote her own world.

But how much does the world know about her?

While people are tattooing Wharton quotations on their feet, the Mount has set out to "unbutton some of her buttons," Wissler said.

Wharton's world was a wide and rich place. The Mount's newest exhibit, "A beautiful construction," sets out to chart it.

The show tells the "transformative tale" of her time in this house Wharton created, Wissler said.

Wharton arrived in Lenox depressed and unknown, and she left as the best-known and best-paid writer of her day. When she left Lenox for France, she was dining with Winston Churchill -- and slipping into corners with Theo dore Roosevelt when they came to the same parties, to talk about books and art.

Over her time in Lenox, she made conscious effort to build a life that fulfilled her, said Kelsey Mullen, public programs coordinator at the Mount.

"When you think about how great the change was," Mullen said, "it had to be a conscious effort. She builds a network of friends and mentors who push her... she has an affair."

Mullen, with Anne Schuyler, house manager, and Elizabeth Stone, curatorial assistant, has told Wharton's transformation in a show that reads the house itself as a primary source.

Mullen recalled walking through the show with Irene Goldman-Price, editor of a collection of newly discovered letters from Wharton to Anna Bahlmann, her teacher and companion of 40 years. Price told her: The house is full of people now.

In the library and dining room, parlor and bed chamber, Wharton's house now holds Wharton's friends and some of her thoughts about them.

Did any of them cross into her innermost room?

Did Morton Fullerton, the catalyst who stirred her desire after a long, unhappy marriage?

She was as giddy as a 16-year-old over him, Mullen said, for a time. The show makes his feeling for her more doubtful and less honest: Henry James said of him, "you are dazzling, but you are not kind."

Did James himself touch her, and did all her close circle of companions, sitting on the terrace at dusk, reading the newest poetry and talking about art?

Or did the man she called the love of her life -- her editor, Walter Berry -- who went canoeing with her on the lake at night and lies buried beside her in France? Only they know whether they ever held each other. But he inscribed to her a copy of Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" with a line of Whitman's poetry -- "Who can stray from me -- I follow you wherever you are, from the present hour."

One way or another, in the 10 years she spent at the Mount, Wharton learned to live -- and to write -- in a way she never had before.

And, watching her grow, the people at the Mount today have come to know her more closely.

Wissler has learned new elements of Wharton even in the last few months. She has met the woman who rode her bike 20 miles and came down fresh for dinner. Once, in France, Wharton sprained an ankle because she was so deep in thought, she failed to see an oncoming car.

The energy, attention and sharpness of mind Wharton grew into here, Wissler hopes Wharton will continue to teach.

"Be observant. Watch. Ask questions," she said. "Be alert. Work at it."

What: 'A Beautiful Construction' explores Edith Wharton's transformation into a fulflled woman and acclaimed writer while she lived in Lenox.

‘21st-Century Muse' season celebrates her 150th birthday: Readings, talks, music, theater.

Where: The Mount, 2 Plunkett St., Lenox

Schedule:, 413) 551-5100.


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