A TALE TO TELL
American homes with a grand literary past
“Right, right, right,” I tell myself until it becomes a mantra. I’m driving white-knuckled on the wrong side of the road, chary of deer and skunk, while trying to locate the homes of great writers via Google Maps. But what better way for a bookworm to spend a day in New England on the northeast coast of the US? I begin in Connecticut. Indeed, so many 19th-century writers called Connecticut home that a writer’s museum was contemplated in the so-called Nutmeg State.
MARK TWAIN HOUSE, HARTFORD, CONNECTICUT: Since reading Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn as a pimply teen I’ve been a disciple of seminal humourist Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. Clemens was not raised in Connecticut but Hannibal, Missouri, which provided the backdrop for his most famous books. He toiled as a printer before turning to journalism and later became a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi — “mark twain” is a measured river depth of two fathoms and safe water for a Mississippi steamboat. Heading west he later tried his hand at mining before returning to journalism. His first success as a humourist came with the publication of The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County (1865), based on a yarn he’d heard at a miners’ camp. It brought Twain international acclaim and was even translated into classic Greek. So my first pilgrimage is to Hartford, Connecticut.
Sam and Olivia “Livy” Clemens moved here in 1871. Harbouring strong opinions about her new home, Livy sketched ideas and sought counsel from friends about its design. Completed in the American high gothic style, it was the Clemens family home from 1874 to 1891. Sam spent the happiest and most productive years of his life here. He wrote, “To us, our house was not unsentient matter — it had a heart, and a soul, and eyes to see us with; and approvals and solicitudes and deep sympathies; it was of us, and we were in its confidence, and lived in its grace and in the peace of its benediction.”
Oddly, we are guided around by a volunteer resembling an ageing line-backer. He sweats and pants as he ushers us from room to room. One couple have brought their children who are absorbed by a quiz. The kids trail our group with clipboards, wide-eyed and looking for clues around the house to earn prizes from the gift shop. It’s a hot day and I do wonder if our leader will make the stairs as he periodically wheezes. After reaching the landing, he points a feeble finger to a room and groans, “This is the bastard’s bedroom.”
Sam and Livy had their magnificent walnut bed handcarved in Venice and Sam was so enamoured of it he slept facing the headboard, an eccentricity that further endears me to the author. The grand dining room is dark and Victorian. It’s here Sam and Livy hosted lavish diners for diplomats and bohemians (ultimately sending the couple broke). It was at these dinners Sam perfected his wry Twain stage persona. Sequestered at the top of the house is the billiard room. It’s here the author spent most of his time penning his classics Tom Sawyer (1876), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), The Prince and The Pauper (1881) and the aptly named Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). I can almost see him at his desk, whisky in hand and puffing on a cigar, smiling wryly. As our guide steers us to another room, I remain, absorbing the moment and offering a silent thank you to Sam for the joy his books have brought me.
We are shepherded next to the library, the social centre of the Clemens family. Sam and Livy purchased its large oak mantelpiece from Ayton Castle in Scotland. Sam added a brass smoke shield with the inscription, “The ornament of a house is the friends who frequent it”, a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson. Here Sam would read from his work or tell yarns. Storytelling was the fam- ily’s most cherished entertainment. I’m drawn to the sound of trickling water from the fountain in the conservatory. Peeking through the window I can see my next house. No Google Map required.
HARRIET BEECHER STOWE HOUSE, HARTFORD, CONNECTICUT: Stowe’s writings undoubtedly made her the most influential American woman of the 19th century. Best known for her anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), she wrote numerous important tomes. Stowe was born in 1811 to a prominent family in Lichfield, Connecticut. When she lost her son at 18 months it made Stowe empathise with enslaved women who’d had their babies ripped from them at the auction block. What began as a short piece on slavery for a newspaper developed into a 45-chapter novel that became Uncle Tom’s Cabin. So powerful was the book, it dragged a previously fringe abolitionist movement into the mainstream.
Our guide for the day is an African American woman, who lends our tour an added poignancy. Encircled by Victorian-style gardens and kowtowing trees, Stowe’s house underscores the popularity of the gothic-revival style in the 19th century. The house seems diminutive compared to Twain’s but the facade was designed to make the house appear smaller than it actually is, resulting in a welcoming effect. “No work of art can compare with a perfect home,” wrote Stowe.
In contrast to the Clemens home, the Stowe house has been arranged as if the family had just stepped outside. The kitchen is left as if someone was interrupted making a cake, with food on the table and cloth napkins draped across plates. Interestingly the kitchen is modelled by Stowe’s domestic guide The American Woman’s Home (1869). She wrote, “There was no style of living to be compared with the simple, dignified order of a true New England home ...”
The ground floor has a front parlour for receiving guests. Here the Stowes gathered to read, take tea and enjoy family time. The dining room is formal and Victorian. I particularly like the floral paintings Stowe did in her later years that reveal her connection to the tranquillity of gardening. Our guide indicates Stowe’s desk in a corner. It’s a thrill to see the actual setting where Uncle Tom’s Cabin was conceived along with other important works championing women’s rights.
The second floor comprises bedrooms and a lone bathroom. Photographs of classical ruins and Stowe’s pretty sketches adorn the chambers, coupled with handpainted furniture and her paintings. A terrarium in Stowe’s bedroom underscores the author’s passion for bringing nature into the home. And the attic holds the old servants’ quarters, which are not open to the public. I then drive northwest for 90 minutes to Massachusetts and my next literary pilgrimage site.
I can almost see him at his desk, whisky in hand and puffing on a cigar, smiling wryly
EDITH WHARTON HOUSE, THE MOUNT, LENOX, MASSA
CHUSETTS: Unlike Stowe, Wharton was rich ... as in Gina Rinehart rich. But like Stowe she was born into a society that discouraged women from achieving anything beyond a suitable marriage. A woman of the so-called Gilded Age, Wharton broke through to become one of America’s greatest writers. She was also the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, an honorary doctorate of letters from Yale University, and a full membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1885 she married Edward Robbins (Teddy) Wharton. Though not ideally matched, the couple filled their early years with travel, houses and dogs. Despite Teddy displaying early symptoms of mental illness, Wharton’s time at The Mount was mostly a happy one. Wharton designed the house according to the principles in her bestselling book
The Decoration of Houses (1897). The house and gardens were an integral part of her life and she was proud of her achievements. “The core of my life was under my roof, among my books and my intimate friends ... I am amazed at the success of my efforts. Decidedly, I’m a better landscape gardener than novelist, and this place, every line of which is my own work, far surpasses The House of Mirth,” she wrote.
The Mount, despite its 35 rooms, four floors and formal gardens, was modest for a Gilded Age home. But in- tegral to her design theory was that a house shouldn’t be a showplace but a real home. Our guide for the day is an elegant woman dressed in twinset and pearls. She explains that the entrance was designed to make the house appear larger (in contrast to Stowe’s home). We follow the drifting scent of her Chanel No 5 and head to the wood-panelled library where Wharton’s good friend Henry James was a frequent guest.
The Mount’s interiors show mostly Italian and French influences. In The Decoration of Houses she argues that interior design cannot exist independent of structure: “If proportion is the good breeding of architecture, symmetry, or the answering of one part to another, may be defined as the sanity of decoration ... Before beginning to decorate a room it is essential to consider for what purpose the room is to be used.”
We are soon led to the writer’s bedroom. This is important as it’s here Wharton wrote The House of Mirth, usually working in the morning while lying in bed. We enjoy afternoon tea on the expansive terrace, an Italianinspired enhancement requested by Wharton. It’s all very civilised as the afternoon light casts shadows across the formal gardens. But as her marriage disintegrated under the weight of Teddy’s mental instability, The Mount was sold in 1911 and the couple divorced in 1913. Teddy lived with his sister in Lenox. And Edith moved permanently to France. She would pen more than 40 books in as many years, including The Age of Innocence (1920), Ethan Frome (1911) and authoritative works on interior design, architecture and gardens. MARK TWAIN LIBRARY, REDDING, CONNECTICUT:
That evening I happen upon a lecture at Connecticut’s Mark Twain Library. Richard Zacks’s book Chasing the
Last Laugh (2016) follows Twain’s Lazarus-like rise from the dead in the 1890s. As we know, Twain loved to entertain chums with lavish parties that ultimately sent him broke but he endeared himself to the public and saved his legacy by paying back creditors every penny. He even came to Australia and wrote about his worldwide “comedy” tour in Following the Equator (1897). In Australia he was billed as “the funniest man in the world”. And Australians adored his dry humour and ripping yarns. The evening’s bash is organised by a cadre of chipper local dames all with matching Stepford Wives haircuts. I feel underdressed in my Yellow Submarine T-shirt. At lecture’s end, wine and cheese are served. I devour more than is acceptable for an antipodean interloper.
American high gothic style of Mark Twain House, left; Twain’s study and conservatory, above; his library, with its Scottish mantelpiece, below left
From above left, Harriet Beecher Stowe House; bedroom in Edith Wharton’s house; grand passageway in the Wharton abode