In the summer of 1911, Edith Wharton was “digging away” at her “Big Novel,” The Custom of the Country, wondering if “dogged obstinacy” could “replace freedom & inspiration.” I’ve been rereading her letters, and I’m struck by her determination in this letter, to the art historian Bernard Berenson on August 6th, to make the best of things at an extremely difficult time in her life. That summer her husband Teddy was not well, and both the Whartons’ marriage and their time at The Mount, the house Edith designed and built in 1902, were coming to an end.
She signed her letter “The Hermit of Western Massachusetts,” yet she insisted to her dear friend Berenson that she wasn’t feeling sorry for herself, at least “as far as my actual geographical situation goes.” Even when she felt worn out by her problems with Teddy, she was still able to appreciate the beauty of the house and gardens she had created. She writes, “This place of ours is really beautiful; & the stillness, the greenness, the exuberance of my flowers, the perfume of my hemlock woods, & above all the moonlight nights on my big terrace, overlooking the lake, are a very satisfying change from six months of Paris. Really, the amenities, the sylvan sweetnesses, of The Mount (which you would have to see to believe) reconcile me to America.”
This letter reveals the tension Wharton felt about the direction her life was taking. She is trying hard to persuade herself as well as Berenson that she ought to appreciate where she lives, yet while she might be able to believe that she’s happy in the Berkshires, she is desperately unhappy in her marriage. And as long as that unhappiness continues, it seems, she won’t be able to find “freedom and inspiration” for her writing. Even a visit from Henry James—who “was wonderfully well & in such a high strain of discursiveness that one wanted never to have one’s tablets out of one’s hands”—is not enough to lift her spirits. She counts her blessings: good friends like James, Berenson, and Walter Berry, who stayed for two days; a beautiful place to live; and the prospect of future travel, to Salsomaggiore and then to Florence. Still, as she says after describing the beauties of The Mount, “my particular difficulty is not much helped by such mitigations.”
Today is Edith Wharton’s 151st birthday. She achieved so much in her life, as a writer, as a designer, and as a volunteer who helped refugees during the Great War. At this particular moment in 1911, however, she must have wondered if she would find “freedom and inspiration” again, or whether she would always have to continue to apply “dogged obstinacy” to her life as well as to her writing. Two years later, she divorced Teddy, and published the “Big Novel,” which many critics have called her masterpiece. Even when she was unhappy, she kept “digging” at her work, instead of waiting for inspiration.
Quotations are from The Letters of Edith Wharton, Ed. R.W.B. Lewis and Nancy Lewis (New York: Macmillan, 1988).