Arts Literature

The Literary Gardener: Edith Wharton’s Walks at Biltmore

By Carol Howard

It is August 12, 1908. Edith Wharton—already famous for her bestselling novel from three years earlier, The House of Mirth­—has just won several first-place prizes at the Lenox Horticultural Society show in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. Each year, flowers from the Wharton estate, The Mount, were entered at this high-society event. She herself had designed the celebrated French and Italian gardens of The Mount and considered them among her greatest achievements. Award-winning lilies, dianthus, hollyhocks, penstemons and other specimens were among the breathtaking annuals and perennials grown by the Whartons’ head gardener, Thomas Reynolds, and six under-gardeners.

Cristina Reitz-Krueger, artist

As the society columns of The New York Times reported the following day, Wharton’s competitors at the event were residents of other nearby “cottages” (the quaint term applied to the storied mansions of this affluent New England enclave). One of the larger rival exhibits was entered by William D. Sloane and his wife, Emily Vanderbilt, whose Elm Court was within walking distance of the Wharton estate. Renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted had designed Elm Court’s lawn and formal gardens two years before beginning work on the grounds of the Biltmore Estate for Emily’s brother George.

Born into the influential Jones family (who were said to have inspired the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses”), Wharton had an intimate knowledge of the rarified world that fueled her novels. Finding its domestic expectations for women stifling, she took refuge in writing and gardening—which were not idle hobbies, but passions, made possible by her inherited privilege and prosperous connections.

Wharton knew the Vanderbilt siblings in New York and the Berkshires as well as at the wealthy Rhode Island enclave of Newport. Her seaside home was near The Breakers, the mansion owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt II. Edith Stuyvesant Dresser (Mrs. George Vanderbilt) was born into Newport society. Her cousin Leroy King married Wharton’s cousin, Ethel Rhinelander.

Before renting George Vanderbilt’s Rue de Varenne apartment in Paris in the winters of 1907 and 1908, Wharton made two visits to Biltmore. During her Christmas 1905 stay, she wrote to a friend complaining about the long journey to the hinterlands of North Carolina, yet pronounced the estate a “divine landscape.” Captivated by the milder winter climate, she delighted in “the walks thro’ the park,” where she found “great sheets of fruited ivy pouring over terrace walls, yellow stars still shining on the bare branches of the nudiflora, jasmine, & masses of juniper, heath, honeysuckle, rhododendron & laurel.”

Wharton’s favorable impressions of Biltmore were not only those of a family visitor but also of a connoisseur. Five years before publishing her first novel, Wharton co-authored The Decoration of Houses (1897) with architect Ogden Codman. During her years spent abroad, she had formed a distinctive aesthetic vision characterized by simplicity and harmony. She borrowed European design elements, yet cautioned Gilded Age readers against cluttering their homes with imported furnishings and imitating Continental architecture without regard to the American landscape.

The same talent for discernment that Wharton brought to home and garden design also enabled her to be a shrewd observer of the manners and customs of her time. That talent, in turn, found expression in the unique literary style that characterizes her best fiction, including The Age of Innocence (1920), the first novel by a woman to win the Pulitzer Prize.

Carol Howard is associate provost at Warren Wilson College.

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