Every year for nine years, when the birds flew south and the trees turned bare, Edith and Teddy Wharton and their household would pack up and leave The Mount for the winter. Although Wharton maintained that she would have preferred to write and live at The Mount year-round, Teddy was fond of society and disliked the New England winter cold, so they bid their summer home adieu and initially resided in New York for the winter months. In 1907, the pair began spending their winters abroad in Paris.
Although they rarely wintered at The Mount, Wharton clearly knew something about New England winters, as she was able to accurately depict the bitter, chilly brutality of wintertime in a fictional town for her 1911 novel, Ethan Frome. The Whartons actually did spend a winter at The Mount, between December 1905 and February 1906. According to biographer Hermione Lee, “The grimness of the remote, inaccessible New England farms and of the ‘mountain’ people’s lives in desolate little hill villages, particularly in the winter… stirred Wharton’s imagination quite as much as the life of the wealthy ‘cottagers.’”
So what was living at The Mount like in the winter? Cold. Heating has always been a problem at The Mount, and in Wharton’s time, the house was heated by a coal-fired furnace. It appears that the servants experienced the worst of winter conditions: Hermione Lee speculates that Wharton may have moved up her sailing date in January 1908 by a month to save her servants from the chilly living conditions at The Mount. Wharton also remarked in 1907 that the servants suffered very much the previous December, due to a hot-water furnace in the servant’s wing that functioned inadequately in very cold weather.
While times have changed, winter conditions in the Berkshires certainly have not, and The Mount continues to close its doors for public tours every winter, just as The Whartons once did. We’re excited to bid winter adieu and open for the 2015 season on Friday, May 1!