WHEN I think about novelist Edith Wharton, as I do often, it is not about her books, much as I admire them, but of her houses and gardens. A love of architecture, landscaping, and flowers was instilled in Mrs. Wharton as a child. She lived on the Continent during her formative years and was exceptionally bright and sensitive. She quickly developed a sense of order and an aesthetic responsiveness which were admirably expressed later on in her own houses and gardens. Even Pencraig Cottage on her family's property in Newport, R.I., where she went as a bride, was totally unlike the houses of many Americans then, with their dark, stuffy, overembellished rooms. It was light and airy and its amiable furnishings included painted Venetian chests and chairs, discovered in Italy long before anyone else had recognized their decorative possibilities. A knowledgeable acquaintance observed that the little cottage was quite as beautiful, in its small way, as any of the great Newport mansions, which even today set a standard for splendor.
An inheritance soon enabled the young Whartons to buy a house of their own, on a promontory on the opposite end of the island from Pencraig. Its view of the Atlantic was magnificent and the house, although rather ugly and poorly arranged, was thought to have potential.
The couple asked Ogden Codman, a clever young Boston architect whose family also had a place in Newport, for assistance. This was somewhat of a departure. Architects of that day looked down on house decoration as a branch of dressmaking and as the province of upholsterers. Out of this experience came not only a gracious house but also the recognition that both Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman shared a dislike of ``sumptuary excesses'' and the conviction that decoration should be simple and architectural.
The result was their collaboration on a book credited with launching the interior-design profession as it exists today. Published in 1897, ``The Decoration of Houses'' sold out, went on from edition to edition, and still is in print. The book not only had the benefit of Mr. Codman's upbringing among the great examples of architecture in France, but also of Edith Wharton's photographic memory and ability to research 56 volumes on architecture and design in French, German, Italian, and English, not to mention her writing skills.
Before a year had passed Mrs. Wharton had begun to be depressed by the damp climate of Newport and what she referred to as its ``watering place triviality.'' Moreover, she yearned for a real house in the country. In 1901, she bought a farm on the outskirts of Lenox, Mass., where, with Ogden Codman to help carry out her ideas, she began to plan a house.
Modeled after Christopher Wren's Belton House in Lincolnshire, England, it was situated to look out from the crest of a slope, over two miles of meadow and woodland, to a lovely little lake. Although she changed architects when she decided that Mr. Codman's fees were too high, she asked him to come back to assist with the interior.
Work on The Mount, as the house was called, followed closely advice given in ``The Decoration of Houses.'' Though large, the frame and stucco house was informal and unpretentious. With its high-walled forecourt, enclosed stairways, ground-floor conservatory-reception room, and second story main floor, it had many of the features that distinguished the houses in Europe in which Edith Wharton had been most comfortable as a child.
A gray and scarlet marble and terrazzo-paved gallery opened into all the principal rooms which, in turn, were connected by French windows with a brick-paved, balustraded stone terrace. The wrought-iron stair rails and ormolu hardware were made for the house in France. All of the rooms had fireplaces with simple mantles of veined marble of various colors and cast-iron French firebacks, not only to reflect heat but also to produce lively patterns from the flames on their raised-surface decoration.
The service areas, with their bustle, chatter, and cooking odors, were concentrated in their own wing. Food was delivered by dumb waiter from the ground-floor kitchen to a serving pantry adjacent to the dining room.
The 18th-century French and Italian furnishings were light in feeling and of superb quality. Country air and sunlight filled the rooms by day and firelight and candlelight after dark. And always there were flowers.
The Mount expressed Edith Wharton's concern for harmonious transitions. A maple alley led from the tall white picket fence and gate house on the street, past a splendid stable, orchard, and kitchen and cutting gardens, through a vinca-carpeted woodland of tall pines to a broad clearing and the entrance forecourt at the rear of the house.
Mrs. Wharton's niece, the distinguished landscape architect Beatrix Farrand, helped design the landscaping, including the stream bordered by irregular drifts of forget-me-nots, and the Italian and Red Gardens and connecting Lime Walk, just below the terrace.
The Whartons had only eight summers in the stunning house which Henry James referred to as ``a delicate French ch^ateau mirrored in a Massachusetts pond.'' Because of her husband's failing health and inability to manage the property, Mrs. Wharton finally decided, with deep regret, to sell the Mount and to live from then on in Europe.
During the strenuous years of World War I, when she devoted herself to aiding refugees, Edith Wharton lived in rented houses in Paris. Even before the cessation of hostilities, however, she had bought a house. ``At last I was to have a garden again,'' she wrote in her autobiography, ``A Backward Glance,'' ``and a big old-kitchen-garden as well, planted with ancient pear and apple trees, espaliered and in cordon, and an old pool full of fat old gold-fish; and silence and rest under big trees.''
She was to have all of these, and more, at Pavillon Colombe, a long, low, white house a dozen or so miles north of Paris, set behind a high wall in the village of St. Brice-sous-For^et. The house had been abandoned by its owners during the war and its restoration was a Herculean task. A friend described the little mansion as ``exquisite, discreet, with the softness of age and perfect in every way.''
The rooms of the house were bathed in a gentle light and redolent with the fresh scents of the out-of-doors. Its terrace looked out on a green parterre, through a grove of great elms, to the cordons of fruit trees and pond for which Mrs. Wharton had longed.
At around the same time Edith Warton also found an equally extraordinary but diametrically different winter house on the French Riviera, in the old part of Hy`eres. The house, Saint Claire, also was long and low, but it was built of rugged gray stone and was comprised of a central section flanked by crenelated wings, which made it resemble a crusader's fortress.
Standing on an eminence above the sea, silhouetted against a scrubby hill crowned with the ruins of an ancient castle, it had been a nunnery, built within the ruins of an old ch^ateau. Light and fragrant and filled with books, the house opened onto flagged terraces, shaded by pollarded trees and rimmed with hyacinths, pink tulips, or other flowers, depending on the season. It was, in its whimsical way, equally as wonderful as the house near Paris.
``I feel about my houses as a crab must about its carapace,'' Edith Wharton wrote with regard to her houses in France. Nevertheless, her thoughts continued to return to The Mount, in Massachusetts, the only house which was entirely her own creation.
``The Mount was my first real home,'' she wrote in 1934, ``and although it is nearly 20 years since I last saw it (for I was too happy there ever to want to visit it as a stranger) its blessed influence still lives with me.'' The Mount and its gardens, located in Lenox, Mass., are open Tuesday through Sunday for tours. Theater productions are also held on the grounds. For further information call (413) 637-1899.