Saturday, February 23, 2008

Foreclosing On Edith Wharton

Literature students may not have a love of Edith Wharton, having been forced to read Ethan Frome at too early an age. One has to have a few years on them to fully appreciate the sense of despair.

There is despair in Lenox, Massachusetts. Ms. Wharton's first home, the one she shared for a time with her husband until she had enough, was turned into a museum some time ago. The house and property are about to be foreclosed. Rather like a House of Mirth, as it turns out.

Directors of the site had been borrowing for years to fund operating expenses associated with operating the Mount. Then there was the loan taken out to purchase Ms. Wharton's huge library from a British book collector.

Like Lily Bart, they relished the elegance but had no means to pay for it. Taking advantage of debt financing only delayed the inevitable, as loans will come due and banks will ask for their money. Donations from Ms. Wharton's many fans does not begin to cover the expense of borrowing, just as Lily Bart learned that the lifestyle she wanted was not within her means.

The Mount is a listed building, and someone might wish to own the home, but as a private residence and not a public place where writers could come and soak up the atmosphere that inspired Edith Wharton.

A new board of directors was installed over a year ago, filled with people who know something about business and less about literature. Given a debt-riddled property to manage, the directors may have arrived too late to salvage the Mount unless someone with deep pockets comes forward. If not, the Mount will die as a public venue, as Lily Bart died in penury.

A fitting end, in a way. Edith Wharton wrote The House of Mirth at the Mount.

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