The last time I visited The Mount was in early autumn, as the leaves began to fall to the ground — which, considering its location in the middle of New England, might be the best time of the year to visit the place Edith Wharton (who was born on this day in 1862) called home. I’d been to the estate in New Lenox, Massachusetts a few times before, and was familiar with its nods to Tudor-era, French, and Italian architecture, the perfectly kept grasses, flowers that had a few weeks left in them, and the spirits that Wharton said haunted the premises. I knew abut Wharton’s obsession with creating and decorating a beautiful home, read her work and wrote enough about it that another visit to the place where she once lived might qualify me as a bit of an Edith Wharton obsessive, except I did have a mission in mind on this particular visit: I wanted to see her pet cemetery.
Literature has its dog lovers: John Steinbeck wrote about traveling with Charlie, Virginia Woolf found comfort in dogs throughout her life, preferring mixed breeds to purebreds, and Emily Brontë was so fond of her dogs that she used to sketch pictures of them. Perhaps you’ve seen Grasper, from life, her portrait of the small Irish Terrier the family owned when the eldest of the famous sisters was a teenager.
But Edith Wharton’s love of her dogs really eclipses all others. Her passionless marriage to her husband, Teddy Wharton, may have had something to do with the fact that Wharton’s dogs served as both her companions and her children — but her love for her canine friends went deeper, even, than that.
One of the gravestones in the pet cemetery reads, “Died in January of 1902 — Mimi,” and can be seen from the place in her home where Wharton would sit and compose some of her greatest works. It was right after her Chihuahua passed away that Wharton got to working on one of her most famous novels, The House of Mirth. Although there might be no obvious connection between Mimi the Chihuahua and Lily Bart, I find that of all her major novels, it’s The House of Mirth that is most suffused with both tragedy and empathy. Would Lily Bart, who is attempting to achieve the delicate and elusive balance of finding wealth and love in the same person, have had her lavishly decorated cake and eaten it too if Wharton had not been mourning her dog? Instead, as the book’s protagonist descends to ever more desperate depths, it seems to the reader Wharton feels bad for her — something we can’t say of the social climbers in The Custom of the Country or The Age of Innocence‘s poor, handsome Newland Archer, who is so in love with Countess Olenska will inevitably end up in a loveless marriage that might or might not have been influenced by Wharton’s own.
With Mimi in the earth, Wharton still had the company of her sister Miza, as well as Teddy’s dog, Jules. But two wasn’t enough, and Wharton brought a white Papillon to The Mount. As the story goes, Mitou got her name because Wharton was convinced the dog barked, “Me, too!” if the other dogs were fed first. She liked Mitou so much that she picked up another Papillion named Nicette. Soon, the Wharton family consisted of one marriage without any heat and a bunch of dogs who took their meals while positioned atop silk pillows underneath the table in the main dining room and slept on cozy beds by the fireplace.
Wharton had loved dogs since childhood. In the book Shaggy Muses, Maureen Adams points out that the two Papillions Wharton purchased may have resembled her first dog, Foxy, with their curly tails and pointed nose. The connection the future Pulitzer Prize winner had with Foxy likely helped the young Edith Jones to cope with the fact that she wasn’t very popular with the other children, and had a strained relationship with her mother. Dogs filled a wide void throughout Wharton’s lifetime, so much so that she used her fame to speak out against euthanizing them, and was a founding member of the ASPCA. Yet there is nothing more convincing of the love and connection that one of our greatest writers felt with her four-legged friends than looking out the window from where she wrote some of her greatest works, and seeing the small hill where her dogs are buried.