Magazine article The Spectator

House of Misery

Magazine article The Spectator

House of Misery

Article excerpt

You won't find a grander monument to failed marriage than the Mount, the New England picture-book palace built by Edith Wharton a century ago. Wharton was a house and garden designer first, a novelist second. She wrote The Decoration of Houses in 1897, almost a decade before she embarked on the novels.

Belton House in Lincolnshire, a Christopher Wrenesque gem built in about 1685, was Wharton's model for the Mount. With its accentuated centre bays and wings, dormer windows and cupola, Belton is the inspiration for the brown country-house symbol on motorway signs.

Wharton kitted out this distinctly English house with French shutters and awnings to keep the Massachusetts sun -- stronger than Lincolnshire's -- at bay.

The Mount's front entrance and forecourt are French, too, borrowing from the Petit Trianon at Versailles. She added an American feel by painting the whole thing in Colonial Revival white. The white is particularly striking against the turning leaves of autumn, here in the prime leaf-peeping country of the Berkshire Hills.

Her efforts at beauty, though, were confounded by her marriage. Her husband, Teddy Wharton, whom she'd married at 23, had the right strain of Bostonian blood, but the wrong sort of philistine temperament. He preferred hunting and fishing to reading, and never touched her after the first fortnight of married life. Thought now to have suffered from bipolar disorder, he verbally abused his wife, while embezzling money from her trust fund and spending it on a Boston house for his mistress.

The final straw was when he sold the Mount without her permission while she was crossing the Atlantic in 1911. She never again saw the house she had designed, or her garden 'rooms' -- a walled, sunken giardino secreto connected to a flower garden and rock garden by a lime walk -- all planted 30 years before Vita Sackville-West began work on Sissinghurst. In 1937, Wharton died in France aged 75.

It's no coincidence that the Mount, where Wharton wrote her first great novel, The House of Mirth (1905), became a house of misery. Misery was the grit in Wharton's oyster; the better fitted-out the oyster shell, the deeper the misery.

The House of Mirth, like many of her books, is about a woman torn between marrying for love and marrying for status.

Like Wharton, her heroines and heroes -- Lily Bart in The House of Mirth, Undine Spragg in The Custom of the Country, and Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence -- went for status, to their cost. …

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