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THE REAL DIRT ON: Edith Wharton's Pursuit of Excellence

By Carol Buckley.

When one thinks of the novels of Edith Wharton—and indeed, her friend, Henry James—one thinks of Americans abroad meandering through Italianate gardens flanked by fountains. It should come as no surprise, then, to learn that they might have actually been interested in the gardens they walked through. It turns out Wharton was.

The Early Years

Edith Newbold Jones was born on January 24, 1862, to a prominent New York family to which some attribute the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses.” Wharton spent her first years mostly in Europe, but returned to New York in 1872.

The sunken Italian Garden at The Mount.

At age sixteen, she published Verses, her first book of poetry, but her parents did not encourage her literary tendencies and pushed her to make her debut the next year. She married Edward “Teddy” Robbins Wharton when she was twenty-three, already bordering on being an old maid at the time.

Wharton's Scholarship, Design, and Gardening Endeavors

Wharton’s first major publication was a book on interior design which she cowrote after designing her house, The Mount, in Lenox, Massachusetts, in which she and Teddy began living in 1902. She wrote of her gardening endeavors (undertaken with help from her niece, Beatrix Farrand, the only woman founder of the American Society of Landscape Architects): “I am amazed at the success of my efforts. Decidedly, I’m a better landscape gardener than novelist, and this place, every line of which is my own work, far surpasses The House of Mirth.”

Edith was as unconventional in her garden design as in life. Louis Auchincloss wrote in his introduction to a recent edition of Wharton’s autobiography, A Backward Glance (1998): “In gardens and houses where it was fashionable to be haphazard and cluttered, she was chaste, classical and historically sound.”

Landscape designer Betsy Anderson wrote: “In her literature Wharton never associates stability with another person: stability must always be found within oneself, and interaction with nature through gardening is a means of cultivating inner strength as well as outer beauty” (Edith Wharton and the American Garden, 2009).

Edith’s Italian Villas and Their Gardens, commissioned by the editor of The Century Magazine and illustrated by Maxfield Parrish, was published to great acclaim in 1904. Wharton’s scholarship is considered superb; she studied the gardens of over seventy-five villas from many regions of Italy to compose the book, observing as any fine landscape architect would the relation of the buildings to the gardens and then to the surrounding landscape. She traced the original gardens, which had been designed in the Renaissance and Baroque eras, beneath the stylish eighteenth-century designs, and she noted that the word "villa" encapsulates the gardens as well as the buildings they surround.

The bibliographical information in Italian Villas was extensive, including the biographies of over fifty architects and landscape gardeners from the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries. In Edith’s chapter entitled “Italian Garden-Magic,” she suggested that readers apply the principles of Italian gardens at their homes without attempting to actually reproduce the gardens themselves: "A marble sarcophagus and a dozen twisted columns," she warns with some severity, "will not make an Italian garden." Rather, travelers should take home the "informing spirit—an understanding of the gardener’s purpose, and of the uses to which he meant his garden to be put.”

Post-World War I

After her divorce in 1913, Edith moved to Paris, where she was awarded the French Legion of Honor in 1916 for her war reporting and assistance to Belgian refugees. After the war, she moved to St. Brice-sous-Forêt, a suburb of Paris, and later bought a retired convent in the south of France. Throughout her life—and unlike the women of her era, who were supposed to be amateurs—Edith always pursued excellence, becoming the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence in 1921. She died in the summer of 1937, and was buried in Cimetière des Gonards in Versailles.

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