Thursday, August 11, 2005

A writer's other great passion, restored
Edith Wharton's garden reblooms

By Carol Stocker, Globe Staff | August 11, 2005

LENOX -- The mistress had a corner bedroom so she could look down on her flower garden while writing longhand in bed. This she did each day from about 6 a.m. to noon, often with a dog propped under one arm as she dropped each completed page on the floor to be collected by her maid and typed by her secretary.

This was how Edith Wharton wrote ''The House of Mirth" at The Mount, her vacation home in the Berkshires, 100 summers ago. Her novel about Lily Bart, a sincere and vulnerable young woman destroyed by the hypocrisy of high society, became a record-breaking bestseller and gave Wharton the confidence to pursue a career as a writer.

To celebrate the centennial of Wharton's first literary masterpiece, her beloved flower garden was replanted at The Mount this June through a $500,000 grant from an anonymous Boston foundation.

''You don't often get a chance to plant a 3,000-perennial garden in this day and age. It's very exciting," said Susan Child of Boston, who designed the garden with former associate M. Christopher Alonso.

The magnificent garden looks like it was planted years ago. Hundreds of fragrant lilies, old-fashioned mignonettes, and stately delphiniums recreate the luxurious abundance that hallmarked the Gilded Age. The color scheme is sparkling white, vivid blue, and deep purple with bright splashes of pink from the garden phlox that Wharton especially loved.

Tall filigree thalictrum and filipendula contribute the airy effect that Wharton sought in defiance of her era's convention of compact and regimented plants. Asters and fall-blooming anemones are among the many flowers designed to carry the garden through October, when The Mount closes for the season. The four large rectangular borders enclose a rebuilt fountain. Child describes the scene as ''exuberance within the confines of rigor."

The flower garden is the climax of a $35 million restoration project that has brought The Mount back from the brink of collapse. ''This garden is the crown jewel of the entire restoration project," said project manager David Andersen. ''The flowers cost $150,000. But it cost four times that for the layers upon layers of work in this garden that people never see, such as the archeology, the engineering, and the irrigation."

Wharton often spent her afternoons gardening. Despite 10 live-in gardeners and groundskeepers, she liked to get her hands dirty, said Child, ''something women of her class never did." Though her childless marriage proved unfortunate, Wharton lived a very full life here, entertaining her friends and managing an elegant ''great house" with 35 rooms and a staff of 20.

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