Jeannine Atkins: 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.