Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Motoring Through Wharton Country

I'd almost forgotten the joy of "motoring", an old-fashioned word suggesting a carefree drive--in this case, across Edith Wharton country. My husband and I were driving his Mercedes-Benz, but it might as well have been Henry Montgomery's 1925 yellow Buick touring car. You'll remember Henry's car from my novel Bandeaux Creek. We had not completely avoided the interstates and turnpikes driving up from North Carolina, but once we arrived at the Berkshires, we took the swervy-curvy roads and motored first to Blantyre in Lennox, Massachusettes. Blantyre is a beautiful country house hotel, one of the Berkshire "cottages" built in 1902 during the Gilded Age by a wealthy entrepreneur to resemble his wife's ancestral home in Scotland. But what really made the trip for this writer was visiting Edith Wharton's home The Mount nearby and seeing first-hand where one of the twentieth century's greatest women writers lived and worked. Interestingly, one of my characters in Bandeaux Creek was based on Wharton. Unless you are familiar with Wharton's biography, you may not recognize her. Wharton was a divorcee at a time when divorce was still frowned upon. In my novel, Henry Montgomery, Maggie Lorena's editor, asks his friend Evelyn Armstrong (Wharton's counterpart) to review Maggie's manuscript for her work in progress. Armstrong's (Wharton's) critique is not favorable. You see, I had gone to great lengths to research women writers of the era, and discovered this possible link; i.e. that Maggie might identify with Wharton and think of divorce as an option by which she could stay in Boston permanently. If you've read Bandeaux Creek, you know that does not happen.

It was exhilerating to be in Wharton's home for other reasons. She was an architect, giving great attention to the design of her garden, her home and its furnishings. I don't think she was formally trained, but she spent much of her life studying architecture, traveling in Italy and France, and hobnobbing with the best architects of the time. In her home, every room was as much a part of the outside as the inside. Her views while working on her masterpieces were simply incredible. As a homemaker, gardener and writer, to a certain extent, I could identify. My bedtime reading on this leg of our trip was Wharton's The Age of Innocence.

From Lennox, we "motored" over to the Hudson River Valley to tour Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt's homes in Hyde Park, New York. In researching my third novel, A Chosen Few, I read several Roosevelt biographies. I was intrigued because Penderlea was a the first New Deal Homestead resettlement community, and Eleanor Roosevelt had visited there on June 11, 1937. We were in her cottage, "Val-kill" on the Roosevelt estate exactly 74 years later. It was a thrill for me because I admire her as a First Lady, humanitarian, and as a writer. If you'd like to read an interesting perspective on Franklin and Eleanor during the war years, I highly recommend Doris Kearns Goodwin's No Ordinary Time. The book is available in audio and made for enjoyable listening on our journey.

More later!