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The Inner House: The Life of Edith Wharton

Yesterday was one of those warm but not steamy days that led Edith Wharton to spend summers in a home she called the Mount in Lenox, Massachusetts. My friend Ann, a first grade teacher, took a break from looking for caterpillars and putting up monarch displays to go with me to see a play called The Inner House.  The Wharton Salon one woman play was beautifully performed by Tod Randolph, who truly seemed to channel Wharton’s grace and strength. It was adapted by Dennis Krausnick from Wharton’s memoir, A Backward Glance, with occasional quotations from her fiction. The title comes from a short story in which the narrator compares a woman’s nature to “a great house, full of rooms… full of treasures and wonders.”

The play was performed in the shadow of a grand house and gardens that we’re told Wharton loved more than any other place: yet she lived there only about five years. It seems to be at least partly a mystery why she left. Some things we’ll never know, and perhaps some things are revealed that she wouldn’t have chosen for us to know. The play begins with silence and looking that suggests the life of a writer, then the actress recounts Edith Wharton’s youth, speaking of a girl who loved books before she could read them, holding them sometimes upside-down as talismans that let her tell stories. I don’t think her mother was ever described without the word cold before her name. We hear of marriage to a man who was sweet but troubled, and with little in common except for a love of animals. We hear of the affair Edith had in her mid-forties, and the pain riddled through both these relationships.

Edith Wharton was sensual, stoic, and tragic, no surprise to anyone who’s read The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence, Ethan Frome. or one my favorites, Summer, which shows the richness and pleasures of that season followed by the harshness of a New England winter.  The play quotes from a letter to Edith from a reader imploring that if she knows of even one contented woman, couldn’t she write about her?  It seems those weren’t her stories to tell. Rather she often concentrated on the tragedies brought about by a society she considered frivolous, in good part because of the narrow choices then offered to women.

Yesterday was the last scheduled performance of this play at the Mount, celebrating the 150th year of the novelist’s birth, but the Wharton Salon will perform elsewhere,

so please check out their website!  After the play, Ann and I walked through the magnificent gardens, then strolled around picture perfect Lenox, stopping for quiche, coffee, and meringues (I want to use the word magnificent again) at Patisserie for a taste of Paris where Wharton lived for many years. 


Wharton's books are challenging to get through (for me), but I adore her short story Roman Fever.
Roman Fever is one of my favorite stories ever! I think I must reread.
I visited The Mount for the first time in May - the experience , I think, allowed me to see Wharton in such a different light. She had so many layers, didn't she? And, at the end of the day, her true home was in France! Wasn't Teddy's study interesting....it said so much of what Edith thought of him, I think. The play sounds fabulous...as does your celebratory repast after...so civilized!
Tara, I'm so glad you got to visit here. I love how they're trying to keep it alive by doing plays, and events like music and readings. The play really brought alive all she did during WWI, especially for suffering women and children -- something I knew about, but the actress brought out the feeling and sacrifice of that. Yes, what a rich and complicated life.
Magnificent! Oh, I am so happy for your lovely experience. I was thinking of you! Thanks for the reminder about SUMMER. Ever since our visit, I have been wanting to create something beautiful and inspiring in my backyard. I just love how being at the Mount made me FEEL. Thanks for sharing this! xo
It was fun to walk through the gardens with my friend, and you and your father were in my mind. I'm glad you feel inspired. I'm afraid Mrs. Wharton would be quite horrified by the tangles around here. But the allee and topiaries -- could see how they made her feel more like she was in Europe than Mass, and makes me feel better about her leaving a beloved home for Paris.
Oh, that reader letter! I'm glad Wharton wrote the stories she needed to write. Though I will admit that reading a lot of Wharton can make me feel a bit desolate, and sometimes claustrophobic as well. But I suspect that's what she wanted to convey. Thanks for this insight into her world.
Yes, one has to be in the mood for desolation and claustrophobia! I think these aren't so much books for mothers with growing children. I liked her in my early twenties and like her now, admiring her skills and sometimes grim humor and insight. I taught Ethan Frome a few times in the hills south of her home, and many of the 15 years said, um, yeah, this sounds familiar....