Edith Wharton’s Workshop

This post was written by Natalie Dykstra.

Last summer, when director Susan Wissler asked me to be this year’s writer-in-residence at The Mount, I replied with a laugh and a rapid-fire “yes, yes, yes.” When asked what room I wanted to occupy during my two-week residency, I also didn’t hesitate: the library, with its French doors opening to the wrap-around terrace and a view of the Berkshire mountains, the same view I’d tried to commit to memory on my first visit to The Mount in the summer of 2012.

That year, I gave a talk on my book, Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life, as part of The Mount’s Summer Lecture Series. I arrived on one of those liquid-gold July afternoons, the light shimmering on the landscape. My talk was held in the converted carriage house, where Wharton had originally stabled her horses and later parked her cars that she liked to take on expeditions along winding Berkshire roads. I remember the faces in the crowd that day, as the lights dimmed and the first of Clover’s photographs (she was a gifted photographer in the early 1880s) was projected on a nearby screen. After my talk and a gracious service of tea, I ambled down the road through a canopy of trees to Wharton’s white stucco, three-story mansion for a treat: dinner with guests on that terrace facing Laurel Lake and the mountains beyond.   A Palladian staircase off the terrace leads to a sunken garden and a second garden planned by Wharton’s niece, the gifted landscape designer Beatrix Ferrand. That evening, as I heard the wind whoosh through the evergreen trees, I couldn’t believe my good fortune.

It’s been more than six weeks now since I’ve returned home from my residency at The Mount. The weather has warmed and spring is here. But I think often of those days in cold, snowy March. I’ve worked in some beautiful spaces over the years: the main reading room of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., with its high ocular ceiling and iron clock; the stately reading room at the Massachusetts Historical Society; the small but perfectly proportioned room in the Sturgis Library on the Cape, with Captain Sturgis’ 19th c. book collection lining the walls. But spending ten days writing in Wharton’s library was different somehow.

Here was my pathway every morning on the mansion’s second floor from the servant’s kitchen through the formal dining room and living room to the library – the last window is one of the library’s French doors.

Dining Room

This view, where the axis of each room lines up with the next to form an enfilade or corridor, is a distinguishing feature of the house, borrowed from the grand European homes.

The library itself is not imposing. Like the other rooms, its size feels just right, conforming to how Wharton described what a library should be in chapter XII of her 1897 Decoration of Houses:

The general decoration of the library should be of such character as to form a background or setting to the books, rather than to distract attention from them. The richly adorned room in which books are but a minor incident is, in fact, no library at all.

Library

The furniture, rug, and curtains are not Wharton’s, but all the books that line the three walls between four French doors are hers. They are all “good editions in good bindings,” as she prescribes in Decoration, and were purchased back by The Mount in 2005. The story of that purchase is itself a fascinating tale, as told by one of my favorite writers, Rebecca Mead, in the April 28, 2008 issue of the New Yorker. Every once in a while even now, a book comes back. Wharton’s copy of Jane Eyre came back 2½ years ago. Madame Bovary is still missing.

Books

I put my writing desk and chair next to where Wharton had placed hers, catching the light on my left and facing the far wall lined with more books and punctuated by the fireplace where Wharton and Henry James, a frequent guest, would repair after dinner to read and gossip. Wharton didn’t write in the library. She wrote The House of Mirth and Ethan Frome, her best known novels from her time at The Mount, in her boudoir, where she liked to write in bed in the mornings. Even so, I got a small sense of what she saw when she was in her library. Mostly, I had the view I most wanted – the terrace, pine trees, and the mountains beyond. I didn’t even mind all the snow. It gave the landscape a hushed, less hectic aspect I found comforting. Plus, if I’d been able to open those doors, I wouldn’t have been able to resist going outside, and I’d come to The Mount to work.

Terrace

I was left quietly alone my first week, as I settled in to finish an article on 19th century pressed flower albums, which I’ve titled “Enduring Beauty.” What are pressed flower albums, you ask? Perhaps you’ve run across a pressed flower in a book of poems or a novel. Prior to the advent of photography in the mid-nineteenth century, young women were encouraged to keep flowers, plucked and pressed and put in albums, as a way to remember the places they’d visited or special occasions. I’d first seen an extraordinary 1839 example, with the colors of its daisies and primroses still detectable, at the Massachusetts Historical Society while doing research for my book on Clover. I couldn’t stop thinking of it—I found those bits and pieces of nature, flattened between pages and often accompanied by a poem, incredibly moving.

My first days I did a lot of up-down, up-down. I call it “writer’s vertigo.” But when that happened, I’d take down one of Wharton’s books (carefully, I promise) to steady me. Many are inscribed and still more have her markings in the margins. Books of poetry, theater, and science, particularly those on evolution; the classics; books on travel, history, philosophy; a Bible prayer book, biographies, and, of course, lots of novels: a whole collection of George Eliot and Henry James, to name just two writers. Hermione Lee, Wharton’s biographer, says that the “most revealing and moving pages in these marked-up books are where Wharton has paused over something that seems to give her advice, on how to live or how to write, or has marked something that speaks to her own circumstances.” A favorite example would have to be a mark next to this passage by Keats: “Do you see how necessary a world of pain and troubles is to school an Intelligence to make it a Soul?” At what point did Wharton make this mark? Hard to know, but his words spoke to her much as her words speak to us. As Lee remarks, “her library is…her education, her inspiration, and her workshop.”

Two weeks in Wharton’s workshop surrounded by the beauty of The Mount and the Berkshires – it’s enough to inspire. Happily, my article is just about ready to be sent out for review – I’ll be sure to post a link at this blog when it’s in print.

Many thanks to Susan Wissler and all the wonderful people who run The Mount (you know who you are)—for the opportunity to spend this time with you, for your encouraging words, cups of tea, and invitations to dinner. Thank you to Nynke Dorhout, librarian extraordinaire, who first invited me to The Mount and for her expertise about Wharton’s books. A special thanks to Naomi and Roger Gordon, who let me stay in their beautiful home nearby. You can find out more about my book on Clover Adams at nataliedykstra.com and can reach me by email at ndykstra@hope.edu.

One more item: The Mount will be accepting applications for next year’s writer-in-residency, starting July 1. Be sure to contact The Mount for more information, and good luck to all the applicants!

Photo credit: Ellen Dykstra
Photo credit: Ellen Dykstra

Natalie Dykstra is an Associate Professor of English at Hope College in Holland, MI. She teaches one semester a year, and in the spring and summer lives with her husband in Waltham, MA. Her first book, Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life, was nominated for the Massachusetts Book Award in 2013.