Books were valued gifts in the Jones family. Young Edith especially treasured them. A number of the books in The Mount’s library were given to Edith for her birthday. In addition to the volumes of Keats & Shelley in this month’s Writer’s Prompt, here are two more.
Dated January 24, 1876, Edith’s 14th birthday, William Edmonstoune Aytoun’s Lays of the Scottish Cavaliers was a gift from her sister-in-law Mary (Minnie) Cadwalader Jones (1850-1935). Minnie Cadwalader, from a distinguished Philadelphia family, married Edith’s eldest brother, Frederic, in 1870, when Edith was just eight. Separated in age by only twelve years, Edith and Minnie established a deep friendship that endured even after Minnie and Frederic’s scandalous divorce in 1896.
A lay is a term used for mainly Celtic lyric poems or ballads. Spurred by the novels of Sir Walter Scott, romanticized Scottish history and culture were all the rage in mid-19th-century America. Wharton mentions Scott as one of the authors she was allowed to read as a child, although she did not count him among her favorites.
An author who did become a favorite of hers is Matthew Arnold. Edith received this two-volume edition of Arnold’s Poems when she was 19 years old. Her family was traveling in Europe, hoping her father’s health would improve. We do not know who gave her the books, but it may have been her fiancé-to-be, Harry Stevens, who was travelling with the Jones family. Sadly, a year later in March of 1882 her father died in France and that October her engagement to Harry ended.
She kept the Arnold and continued to read it. Two lines from his poem “Resignation” are heavily marked and she quoted them in a letter to her lover Morton Fullerton in 1908: “You chained at one end of the world, & I at the other….My strength used to be that I could say, like the Monsieur in the Arnold poem: ‘They, believe me, who await no gifts from chance, have conquered fate–.'” Wharton, passionately in love, apparently felt she had not conquered fate.
In retrospect, other have disagreed. Shari Benstock used the phrase “no gifts from chance” as the title for her biography of Wharton, arguing that Wharton ultimately awaited “no gifts from chance,” but fashioned a life to her own desires. An enduring phrase, due in part to a fortuitous birthday gift.
All of the titles in this Library Insights are part of Edith Wharton’s personal library, housed at The Mount. For a private library tour, please contact Nynke Dorhout. Dates are subject to availability. Two weeks’ advance notice is suggested.