Friday, February 3, 2012

Edith Wharton at 150

Bar Harbor's Main St., 1881.
by Brad Emerson, The Downeast Dilettante

Several things I intended to do in the last few days have slipped past me — although seemingly fully conscious and alert, I forgot to go to a lunch that I was looking forward to  — I have been forgiven, but feel like a cur — and I forgot to post this little bit about Edith Wharton and her visits to Maine, as I had intended to on January 24th, her 150th birthday.

Young Edith Wharton.
Significant events of her early life played out here, and of course those of us who are partisans of this part of Maine indulge in speculation about what would have happened had it been Maine, rather than Lenox, where she had chosen to live after departing Newport. Ethan Frome might have been a Lobster fisherman, and under the influence of the good clean Maine air, Lily Bart might have married a college professor who summered in Northeast Harbor and lived happily ever after.

In 1880, the future Mrs. Wharton's older brother Frederic Jones and his wife Mary Cadwalader were putting the finishing touches on Reef Point, their new summer house on the Shore Path in Bar Harbor.  Their architects were a leading Boston firm, Rotch & Tilden, who were to be designers of a number of Bar Harbor's grander estates.

That same summer, the senior Joneses and young Edith forsook their usual Newport season, spending it instead at Bar Harbor. 

Accompanying them was Harry Leyden Stevens, the son of social parvenu Mrs. Paran Stevens. Harry Stevens was rumored to be engaged to Edith, although friends, who called him her 'shadow', felt it would not last.  
Reef Point, the Jones cottage at Bar Harbor.
The Shore Path, like the Cliff Walk at Newport, traversed between the ocean and large estates, a favorite destination for late afternoon walks.
The next two summers were spent in Europe, where it was hoped that the climate would prove beneficial to Mr. Jones' health. It did not, and he died there in March of 1882. Returning to Newport, Wharton's engagement to Harry Stevens was officially announced, and nearly as soon ended, apparently by the interference of his mother (on this score, Wharton would later exact her revenge by using Mrs. Stevens as the model for the comic Mrs. Lemuel Struthers, the arriviste widow of a shoe polish manufacturer, in The Age of Innocence).

In 1883, Lucretia Rhinelander Jones, wishing to put the sad events behind them, took Edith once again to Bar Harbor.
Steamers at the wharf in Bar Harbor c. 1880. The buckboards transported arriving visitors to the hotels. It is likely that Wharton & Walter Berry rented their canoe here (Courtesy MCHP).
That July in Maine, two of the defining relationships of Edith Jones' future life were begun. Bar Harbor was reaching its stride as a major stop on the summer rounds of Society, the anti-Newport, (relatively) simpler, (relatively) less formal, with healthy emphasis on outdoor activities, and with less rigid chaperoning of  young people, it was considered an ideal spot for romance.  

Pastimes included dances at the big hotels, notably Rodick's, where the huge lobby was known as 'The Fish Bowl", hiking on the mountain trails, and canoeing.  It was against this backdrop that Edith met and fell in with Walter Berry, a well connected young lawyer and budding aesthete staying that summer at the Rodick Hotel, whom she would later refer to as 'the great love of my life'.
A Canoe Party, from 'Bar Harbor Days' by Mrs. F. Burton Harrison 1886.
Whether their friendship was actually ever romantic has ever been a subject of speculation, for Wharton later destroyed most of her correspondence with Berry.  A surviving letter from Berry to Wharton in 1923 hints cryptically at that summer, and of a previous conversation: 

"Dearest — The real dream — mine — was in the canoe and in the night afterwards, — for I lay awake wondering and wondering, — and then, when morning came, wondering how I could have wondered, — I a $-less lawyer (not even that yet) with just about enough cash for the canoe and for Rodick's bill —

And then, later, in the little cottage Newport, I wondered why I hadn't — for it would have been good, — and the slices of years slid by.

Well, my dear, I've never 'wondered' about anyone else, and there wouldn't be much of me if you were cut out of it. Forty years of it is you, dear. W."
The Rodick Hotel, newly enlarged to 400 rooms in 1881, as it appeared when Walter Berry stayed there. Its 500-foot wooden veranda was a favorite spot for flirtation and gossip.
Berry's tennis holiday came to an end, and the friendship begun in Bar Harbor was apparently not picked up again until the 1890s in Newport, but no matter, for on the scene appeared an old friend of Edith's older brother Harry, Edward Wharton of Boston, a 33-year-old gentleman of leisure.

Though he had known Edith since childhood, it was that summer at Bar Harbor that he began to pay her court, and two years later they were married. Only by chance of timing did another of Mrs. Wharton's great friendships not receive its initial spark. Only days after the Joneses left Bar Harbor that summer, Henry James arrived for a visit. That friendship instead would have to wait until the latter part of the decade.

Edith Wharton in 1905 at The Mount.
In 1898, by now a published writer, suffering from bronchial complaints and at odds with her editors over publication of some short stories, Mrs. Wharton and Teddy went up to Bar Harbor for a change of scenery, visiting her sister-in-law, now divorced from Frederic Jones.

To supplement her reduced income, Mary Jones was by now the manager of Henry James' literary affairs in America, and would be Edith's agent, and her daughter Beatrix was embarked on her career as a landscape designer.

Though the weather was not always reliable (the very definition of a Maine summer — leaving damp Newport for Maine would be analogous to carrying coals to Newcastle), Wharton recovered.

While on Mount Desert, the Whartons visited Teddy's cousin Mrs. Gardiner, whose cottage was to Edith an 'ideal of a country place', and inspired her desire to have a place away from the seashore, culminating in her purchase of the land at Lenox where she would build 'The Mount' (which bore little resemblance to the plain shingle style of the Gardiner house).

Within a few years of course, Wharton the renowned novelist, would give up America entirely and remove herself to France. Although she remained devotedly close to Mary Jones and Beatrix Jones Farrand, her closest relatives, Wharton did not again visit Bar Harbor, although over the years she did send more than one of her fictional characters there in the course of their navigations through the Social waters.
Pavilion Colombe, St. Brice-sous-Forêt, France, where Edith Wharton died of a stroke in 1937.
For many facts in this piece, I am indebted information gleaned from the works of Wharton's excellent biographers – R.W.B. Lewis, Hermione Lee, Eleanor Dwight (who herself summered on the Shore Path in Bar Harbor), Louis Auchincloss, and Shari Benstock.