American author Edith Wharton’s greatest work, in her own eyes, was not her wildly successful novels but rather her adaptation of Italian gardens at her New England home, The Mount.
In 1904, Edith Wharton published a collection of travel articles that, within a century, would become her gardening manifesto. Italian Villas and Their Gardens did more than describe destinations from the author’s tour of Italy; it laid out timeless principles for landscape design. Significantly, Wharton wrote them from The Mount, her estate in the Berkshires, while she was designing her own, Italian-influenced garden, adapting it to New England’s climate. Today, these acres in western Massachusetts allow visitors to grasp firsthand Wharton’s convictions: gardens are meant to be lived in; they demand architectural structure; and they yield, as their great reward, a “charm independent of the seasons.”
To understand Wharton’s garden philosophy, it helps to understand Wharton. Born Edith Jones, to the New York family that inspired the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses,” Wharton felt stifled by the pretentiousness of her society, abhorring the very clutter of its rooms, the absence of intellectual challenges accorded its women. Yet privilege enriched her aesthetics. A childhood spent in Italy and France instilled in her a lifelong desire for beauty.
Later in life as a married woman, Wharton frowned on the conspicuous consumption of her day. Artifice was not for her, nor was ornament without purpose.
“The garden-lover,” she wrote, “who longs to transfer something of the old [Italian] garden-magic to his own patch of ground at home, will ask himself…what can I bring away from here? And the more he studies and compares, the more inevitably will the answer be: ‘Not this or that amputated statue, or broken bas-relief, or fragmentary effect of any sort, but a sense of the informing spirit – an understanding of the gardener’s purpose, and of the uses to which he means his garden to be put.”
She chose for her own first home, instead, the quieter town of Lenox, Massachusetts, where she found a piece of property encompassing a limestone hill, giving on to a lake. In these woods she began to shape her ideal: a garden that would serve as an extension of the house, a series of outdoor rooms to frame the natural landscape and grow more informal as they approached its wildness. It was from the garden that one could best view both house and panorama. And, as one walked through its graduated terraces, each turn would reveal a vista, a surprise: an allée of linden trees; a grass stairway; a sunken garden (giardino segreto); thousands of annual and perennial flowers.
What were the essential elements of Italian gardens, in the eyes of Wharton? Evergreen, stone, and water. She believed these three, working in concert, recreated that “garden-magic” which travelers longed for, having returned home from Italy. She was sufficiently self-taught to know that the Renaissance architect viewed house and garden as of one piece; their architectural lines must adjoin. She admired axes, symmetry, harmony. Perhaps most acutely, Wharton loved that Italian gardens were lived in – “a use to which, at least in America, the modern garden is seldom put,” she lamented.
For a garden to be livable year-round, she felt, it must rely on the more permanent species of verdure.
“The Italian garden does not exist for its flowers; its flowers exist for it,” she insisted. Yet she grew enamored of her own penstemons, hollyhocks, delphinium, primrose, aubrieta and lilacs, which she set off the central axis in a French-style garden bordered by arborvitae. She intended their statement to be bold: a “mass of bloom” and a “riot of color.” Her fervor for the earth seemed to surprise even herself.
“I am really growing besotted about gardening!” she wrote to a friend in 1905. And later, Wharton enticed her to visit: “I have 32 varieties of phlox in bloom…Doesn’t that tempt you?” Among the “ruling passions” listed in her diary, she ranked flowers just behind books.
In a 1911 letter, she would give her garden its greatest compliment: “Decidedly, I’m a better landscape gardener than novelist, and this place, every line of which is my own work, far surpassesThe House of Mirth.” Within months, however, the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for fiction would return to France and be forced to put her home on the market.
Today, the Edith Wharton Restoration fund has restored the formal gardens Wharton painstakingly designed, including nearly 3,000 annuals and perennials in her flower garden. It has refurbished most of her estate’s rooms. It has even purchased her library, after a century’s hiatus in Europe. And yet, in October 2008, this National Historic Landmark may no longer be open to the public. A fundraising effort called “Save The Mount” is on a mission to maintain Wharton’s legacy.
Which begs a fair-minded question: why preserve the homes and gardens of our great thinkers anyway? Surely their ideas will live on in their writings. Perhaps the aim is to capture something ineffable: the sensibility of the dweller. If few visit Monticello for decorating tips—which bison should I hang in my entrance hall?—few will tour The Mount for its snapdragons. But they might walk its paths, to know Edith, to apprehend why she would wake here and write: “This place of ours is really beautiful…the stillness, the greenness, the exuberance of my flowers, the perfume of my hemlock woods… Really, the amenities, the sylvan sweetnesses, of the Mount (which you would have to see to believe) reconcile me to America.”
To find out more about how you can help save The Mount, please visit www.edithwharton.org.