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A Spiritual Reunion: The Recovery and Return of Edith Wharton’s Personal Library to The Mount

Edith Wharton’s Library at The Mount by Eric Limon Photography

By Maxine Carter-Lome, publisher

Edith Wharton’s Library at The Mount by Eric Limon Photography

Edith Wharton’s Library at The Mount by Eric Limon Photography

Edith Warton, American novelist
Edith Warton, American novelist

A December 15, 2005, article in The New York Times announced the news that Edith Wharton’s personal library from her summer cottage, The Mount, in Lenox, Massachusetts, would be returning home after a century overseas.

“In an English house in this small Yorkshire village, a defining moment in American letters unfolded on Monday, rounding a circle begun a century ago when Edith Wharton, the writer, packed up and left the United States to live in France.
“With a toast of Champagne and a lunch of roast pheasant (shot by the host himself), George Ramsden, a British bookseller in a pinstripe suit, signed a $2.6 million agreement to sell the 2,600-volume Edith Wharton library to the custodians of the Mount, the writer’s estate in Lenox, Mass., which she designed, built, and finally left forever in 1911 as her marriage unraveled.”
The repatriation of the author’s library to The Mount has been heralded as a spiritual reunion of significant pieces of Wharton’s autobiography—her house and her books—and a wonderful opportunity for scholars and scholarly tourists to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the author. Fans can view the volumes that not only shaped Wharton’s development but read her notes that also reflect on the broad sweep of her interests, from classical French theater and German drama to the novels of her peers.

Designing The Mount, From the Ground Up

In 1902, Edith and Edward (Teddy) Wharton built The Mount on 113 acres in the Berkshires of Massachusetts as their country home after the young Gilded Age couple grew tired of the Newport, MA social scene. This was Edith Wharton’s first real home, and she took a keen interest in the designing and decorating of the house itself and its formal gardens, which are a full expression of Wharton’s influential architectural and landscape theories, as much a passion of hers as her writing.
First Edition copy of The Decoration of Houses by Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman Jr
First Edition copy of The Decoration of Houses by Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman Jr

Edith had co-authored a book The Decoration of Houses with a colleague, so it was a dream for her to start The Mount from scratch. She was involved in every detail – inside and outside. She loved “classical balance, symmetry, and simplicity” and designed rooms based on the function they would serve.

The entire estate was designed as a complete work of art, informed by French, Italian, and English traditions, yet adapted for the American landscape. It features a classically inspired Main House, an elegant Georgian Revival Stable, formal gardens, and a sculpted landscape.
Inspired by her time in the Berkshires and the community of fellow writers that had migrated to the region, Edith’s writing career took off while she lived at The Mount. Overall, she wrote 40 novels in 40 years, but many of her best-known novels were written within the walls of this home, including The House of Mirth (1905) and Ethan Frome (1911).
The Mount tinted postcard. circa 1910. courtesy Lenox Library Association
The Mount tinted postcard. circa 1910. courtesy Lenox Library Association

Edith and Teddy lived in the house from 1902 to 1911 before she packed up her furniture, personal possessions, and books and moved to France to start a new life. She passed away in 1937 having never returned to the Berkshires.

Portrait of Edith Wharton
Portrait of Edith Wharton

In her autobiography A Backward Glance (1934), Wharton wrote that her life in France was characterized by a variety of pleasures, human and literary: “These new friendships, and many others, added much to my enjoyment of Paris; but the core of my life was under my own roof, among my books and my intimate friends.”

After the Whartons moved out, The Mount passed to another private resident before it became a dormitory for a girls’ school, the Foxhollow School, and then the site of the Shakespeare & Company theatre troupe. Subsequently, the Edith Wharton Restoration purchased the property and oversaw its restoration to its original condition. Today, The Mount is a National Historic Landmark, where thousands visit each year to “celebrate the intellectual, artistic, and humanitarian legacy of Edith Wharton.”

Edith’s Books

Wharton’s beloved books traveled with their owner through a succession of residences in New York, Newport, and Lenox before traveling across the ocean with her to France. Through the years, Wharton’s library evolved and by the end of her life, she had been given so many books and had given so many away that it was hard to say what all she had. That became even more of a challenge for Wharton scholars after her death and the distribution of her personal effects, including her books.
Northwest view of the Library of The Mount
Yale Collection of American Literature Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

After Wharton died in 1937, the majority of the contents of her library were bequeathed to two men: William Royall Tyler, the son of Elisina and Royall Tyler, who worked with Wharton on her charity relief efforts during World War I, and Colin Clark, the son of the British art historian Kenneth Clark and Wharton’s godson. The books in Tyler’s possession, comprising a third of Wharton’s collection, were placed in storage in England and later destroyed by fire during the Blitz in 1940. Clark integrated his inherited books into his own library at Saltwood Castle in Kent, in southern England.

The Clark family ultimately sold Wharton’s books to the London booksellers, Maggs Brothers, who then sold them in 1984 to George Ramsden, a book dealer in York, England, for £45,000, then worth around $80,000. Yet, Ramsden knew the collection was incomplete.
Ramsden labored for two decades to reassemble Wharton’s library, purchasing six hundred more volumes from the Clark family (stray books were found in the libraries of other Clark relations) and cataloging the library before its sale and return home to The Mount.
According to The New York Times article on the sale, “Annotations in the volumes offer a window into her world. There is an inscribed volume from Morton Fullerton, her journalist lover in Paris, said by scholars to have been Wharton’s most significant romantic partner. He dedicated a copy of Problems of Power, a study in international politics, to “Edith Wharton, but for whom this book would never have been written.” Theodore Roosevelt inscribed a copy of his 1915 America and the World War with the words: “To Edith Wharton from an American-American!” And there are, of course, books signed by Henry James, which throw some oblique light into the deep friendship she maintained with him. (“To Edith Wharton — in sympathy,” James wrote in The Golden Bowl in 1904).
Hermione Lee, a prominent scholar at Oxford University, who is preparing a new Wharton biography, called the library “a form of writer’s autobiography” in the 1998 foreword of a catalog of the collection prepared by Mr. Ramsden.
“Her whole social milieu, her private affairs, and her literary career can be discerned from her collection,” Ms. Lee wrote. “Wharton’s flyleaves show her progression from Edith Jones to Mrs. Edward Wharton to Edith Wharton, as she turns herself from a society girl into the much-admired and somewhat daunting internationally famous author.”
“The unique thing about this library is that she wrote about it in her autobiography,” Mr. Ramsden said. “She really tells you what books really meant to her. Even before she could read, she could be found alone with a book upside down in her hands. The physical presence of books continued to mean a lot to her.”

Wharton’s Library Room at The Mount

The sizable 20×25-foot wood-paneled library Wharton designed on the main floor of  The Mount was a significant attribute of the house. She was well aware that the history of such rooms lay with men. In A Backward Glance, Wharton writes, “In my grand-parents’ day every gentleman had what was called ‘a gentleman’s library.’ In my father’s day, these libraries still existed, though they were often only a background; but in our case Macaulay, Prescott, Motley, Sainte-Beuve, Augustin Thierry, Victor Hugo, the Brontës, Mrs. Gaskell, Ruskin, [and] Coleridge, had been added to the French and English classics in their stately calf bindings. Were these latter ever read? Not often, I imagine; but they were there; they represented a standard; and perhaps some mysterious emanation disengaged itself from them, obscurely fighting for the protection of the languages they had illustrated.”
Wharton writes in her autobiography that growing up, her father’s library was a room in which she spent many memorable days of her childhood, exploring: “I have wandered far from my father’s library … But the library calls me back, and I pause on its threshold.” In designing her Library room at The Mount, Wharton sought to recreate this experience and sanctuary in her own home. Yet this was not a writing room for Wharton. It is said she did the bulk of her writing in bed.

Visiting the Library

The Mount today
The Mount today

Today, the Library at The Mount does not encompass the author’s entire collection but rather the tomes that survived World War II. Of the 2,700 works now residing at The Mount, 1,800 are in storage, and 900 grace the recessed bookshelves of her library, the only room at The Mount to boast its original contents.

When the books first came home in 2005, it was Ramsden that decided which texts to display, and where, based on the conditions of the books; historical accuracy, referencing photographs of the library from Wharton’s time; representation of a cross-section of the author’s interests; and aesthetic concerns.
The library shelves showcase French philosophy; Russian, German, Italian, French, and American literature; drama and poetry; theology, classics, and history; gardening and architecture; and Wharton’s own volumes. Wharton’s signature on the flyleaf—“Edith Newbold Jones” or “Edith Wharton”—clarifies which books she acquired as a child and young adult, and which after marriage. The author’s bookplates hail from Land’s End, her home in Newport, Rhode Island before her residence at The Mount; Pavillon Colombe, her home north of Paris; and Hyères, her home in the French Riviera. The oldest book on display is Baldassare Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano del Conte (The Book of the Courtier) (1528), almost four centuries senior to the newest books from the 1930s, acquired just before her death.

The Cost of Recovery

The opportunity to purchase and return Wharton’s personal library of books to The Mount presented a financially daunting yet intriguing prospect for the committee working on the restoration of the house and property. Ramsden was asking $2.6 million for the books—twice their appraised value—but many insiders involved in The Mount’s restoration believed their return to her home would be invaluable and help fulfill the organization’s mission to “preserve and restore The Mount as a living tribute to its remarkable creator and to promote and celebrate the literary arts in all its forms.” It took several years and much negotiating but by 2005 the deal was sealed, and arrangements were made to pack and ship the collection; however, the organization was already in debt paying for the restoration of the property and keeping its doors open to the public.
Between 1993 and 2005, The Edith Wharton Restoration amassed $13 million from private and public sources. But operating expenses, which reached about two million dollars a year, were always higher than revenues, and there was no endowment to supply the shortfall. The Edith Wharton Restoration was spending about $300,000 a year more than it was making. It was against this bleak financial backdrop that the organization threw itself into further debt by purchasing Wharton’s books.
Robert Wilmers, the former head of M&T Bank and a summer Berkshires resident, lent The Edith Wharton Restoration $2.5 million at a low-interest rate, to be repaid within two years. That helped to seal the deal but only added to The Mount’s precarious financial position. By 2008, The Mount owed $8.5 million to various parties including their commercial lender that was threatening to foreclose on the house. There was no choice but to go public with their plight and hope for help.
The public release of that information, although embarrassing, placed The Mount on the radar of wealthy donors and Wharton fans. Within a few years, a quiet national fundraising campaign among a small, targeted list of donors and a deal with the Town of Lenox for public access to the property raised enough money by 2015 to pay off The Mount’s entire debt, ensuring her home and library remains open for future generations of scholars and Wharton fans.
The Mount, located in Lenox, MA, is open from May through October. For more information, visit