(The Mount, 1902 and 2007)
Henry James once told Edith Wharton that he felt the two most beautiful words in the English language were “summer afternoon.” Picture James seated on the cool, shaded terrace of The Mount, Wharton’s palatial summer home in
After his visit, James will write his hostess that he felt “surrounded by every loveliness of nature, and every luxury of art, and treated with a benevolence that brings tears to my eyes.” Such was civility at the turn of the century.
That was a long time ago, one hundred and three years to be precise; and all that remains of the two writers are their books—and Wharton’s house, which has undergone restoration and is newly open to the public under the auspices of the Edith Wharton Restoration, founded in 1980. http://www.edithwharton.org
A few years ago, while her house was still under repair, I walked the grounds of Wharton’s estate. Not far from Tanglewood, it was surrounded by the healing July silence, the tranquility of the trees, and the magnificence of her Italian garden. I pictured the two writers, who were together in Lenox in 1904 and before that in Europe, at Pavillon Colombe, Wharton’s château outside of Paris, and even earlier in Florence, where James spent many of his beloved summer afternoons at the Bellosquardo villa of Francis Boot, whose son-in-law Frank Duveneck painted in Gloucester. Looking back, those images seem sun-bleached, receding in time like faded photographs.
I, too, love summer afternoons. As a child I lay on top of the granite riprap that edged the
Once, sitting in the shade of the old baseball bleachers, we came upon a lone artist painting the view across the stadium to Rider’s Rocks. Crowding around him, we watched as his quick pencil sketched in the shapes of houses leading up to the granite outcropping of Rider’s, shapes he soon filled with transparent watercolors-soft browns, violets, magentas. Some kids shook their heads. “It doesn’t look like it,” they whispered of images that weren’t photographic.
Still, I was fascinated as the painting took on a life of its own. While not exactly the rocks I knew from the bruises on my legs as I climbed them, in the artist’s imagination the view had become more essential, magical even. Years later, attending a retrospective in
I read a lot on those summer afternoons, just as I do now. What is there about reading The Bounty Trilogy while seated in a mildewed canvas chair on the porch at