Lenox — The 2017 Edith Wharton Writers-in-Residence converged on Wednesday afternoon, in the Drawing Room at The Mount, for a public reading of their recent work. Sweeping views of the terrace and Laurel Lake in the distance evoked scenes from Wharton’s 1911 novella Ethan Frome, whose descriptions of “the blue shadows of trees on sunlit snow” were quite possibly observed from this vantage point. The event, moderated by 2016 Writer-in-Residence Claire McMillan, ultimately gave way to a lively discussion that touched on the evolving roles of women in society, risk taking and the importance of feminism.
The program, Writers in the House, began with excerpts from each of the winners’ own work. Introduced as “women of talent in many different areas” by McMillan, the winners are Christene Barberich, Global Editor-in-Chief & Co-Founder of the women’s media company Refinery29; author and screenwriter Donna M. Lucey, and award-winning novelist Vanessa Manko.
Barberich prefaced her reading with the explanation that she strives, “to cover women’s experiences…related to her appreciation of spaces [and] architecture.” It was not overlooked that she sat, poised beneath the ornately carved floral ceiling in Wharton’s home, to read an essay that centered on the closing of the iconic Four Seasons restaurant in New York City, a building she calls “an architectural wonder.” Her essay, “Saying Farewell to New York’s Most Legendary Restaurant,” recounts Barberich’s first experience at the Four Seasons — with her boss, the then CEO of Conde Nast — and her realization that power has nothing to do with money rather creative conviction. It was there, dining in the pool room with her boss, that Barberich had what she calls, “a premonition of what was possible” — in short, the editor she hoped to become, someone of “creative consequence.”
Lucey followed, reading from her forthcoming work, Sargent’s Women: Four Lives Behind the Canvas, in which she explores the work of American portraitist John Singer Sargent, “who manages to peer into the souls of the women in [her] book.” Lucey’s reading, heavily steeped in the “images of a remote age,” looked at the Gilded Age — of which the Mount’s architecture is an example — “before the cacophony of modern life.” The fact that the women in Sargent’s paintings occupied private spaces begs the question, of both viewer and reader, “Who were these women?”
Manko, author of The Invention of Exile, read from her work in progress about modern dance pioneer Loie Fuller, and the visibility of women as a result of this movement. Her working title, A Quest of Illumination, delves into the story of Fuller, an emblem of the Art Nouveau movement and the “transformative power of dance.” This subject, coupled with 1890s Paris, reflects the early influences of the literal women’s “movement.” Fuller, described as “a flicker, a flame, a fire,” pioneered an ephemeral dance movement and, as a result, other women were “drawn to the image of an icon” despite quite literally being relegated to her shadow.
While the three panelists brought varied experiences to the proverbial table for discussion, there was a common thread: a shared interest in the irreverence of Edith Wharton, a modern woman who used writing to escape the narrow social spheres and societal expectations she faced in her life. Over the course of the weeks long residence, each of the writers — selected from a pool of over 150 applicants — had the use of Wharton’s house as a retreat each day. While Barberich, dubbed a “fashionista” by her colleagues, dialed into Wharton’s “passion for spaces and environments,” one reflected in the essay she shared, that lens was not singular. Lucey explained that in her work, where research is paramount, “the adventure — that’s the fun; the writing is agony.” Her contributions were punctuated by anecdotes, often humorous, from her time in the field.
Barberich went on to speak about the “distinct responsibility” she feels in her work at Refinery29, a media company “dedicated to the needs, desires and interests of women — real women.” Her site, www.refinery29.com, reaches more than 175 million users monthly. As for her connection to Wharton? She was “voracious in her desire to make sure her life had value,” Barberich points out, and it was her uninhibited desire to want more — even simply to read — that resulted in her struggling with the expectations of society, her family and herself.
Barberich, who was named one of Folio Magazine’s 2016 Top Women in Media, points out that 80 years after Edith Wharton’s death, we continue to live in a time where “society is imposing restrictions and conventions on women.” She went on to explain, “it is this discouragement of taking risks,” that hinders women’s movements, often relegating them to conventional paths defined by marriage and motherhood.
Barberich’s perspective is refreshing: She espouses, “[giving the] power of the platform to young writers, young editors, young women” as they are the ones “paying attention to the most crucial things happening now.” Recounting the trio’s visit to Wharton’s vast library just the day before, an interesting discussion ensued. “If Edith were around today, she’d for sure have a blog,” joked McMillan. This idea stems from what Barberich calls “private sentiments” appearing as scrawled inscriptions in the volumes of Wharton’s extensive library. Lucey went on to comment, “[It’s like meeting] eccentric characters,” she said, noting Wharton’s example as one of the first in a line of “women who push the edges of their world — break the mold — in a world full of rules.”