It’s been a busy week with an unexpected flurry of deadlines. Lowell has a bad cold and looks and sounds like a mournful frog. The nice thing: We’re playing hooky this morning. A friend gave us passes to Biltmore Estate, the French chateau that George Vanderbilt chose to build in Asheville. How unlikely it was that Vanderbilt would build here — in some remote mountain town, only newly reachable by train, far from friends and family — never occurred to me until I was researching Henry James’ and Edith Wharton’s stays at the estate for an article I wrote several years back. Here is James in a letter to Wharton:
We are 2,500 feet in the air; the cold, the climate, is well nigh all the ‘company’ in the strange, colossal heart-breaking house; & the desolation & discomfort of the whole thing — whole scene — are, in spite of the mitigating millions everywhere expressed, indescribable. … It’s, in effect, like a gorgeous practical joke — but at one’s own expense, after all, if one has to live in solitude in these league-long marble halls.
When I first moved here and knew hardly anyone, I spent a lot of time mooning around the estate, although tellingly the part I feel most at home in is the servants quarters, which are very simple and airy and remind me of my grandparents’ farm. Today I’m looking forward to visiting the library (duh) and exploring the grounds, although I imagine they’re a little stark and wind-swept this time of year. The estate was Frederick Law Olmsted’s last great project, and this will be my first time visiting since reading a couple books by and about him.