Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Thursday, December 30, 2010

"Madame de Treymes" by Edith Wharton

I love books. (I imagine you're not surprised.) Just about any book will do, but I have a special place in my heart for really old books.

I have a lot of fond childhood memories of my great-uncle Ed's house in Virginia. I could tell you all kinds of stories about our visits to that huge and creaky old place, but of paramount importance is the fact that Uncle Ed and Nancy actually had a library. It was just a smallish side room, but it was completely lined with books, many of which seemed ancient to us.

My sister and I (very carefully, and when Uncle Ed was elsewhere) used to have little unauthorized competitions to see who could find the oldest book on those shelves. I honestly don't recall the title of a single one of them (give me a break, it's been decades) but I can remember the wonderfully musty smell as if it were yesterday. I trace my fascination with old books back to Uncle Ed's library.

For a short while I thought I might become a collector of old books, but sadly it turns out that paying bills and eating are more important. Of the very small collection I amassed during those delusional days, one is this first edition of Madame de Treymes by Edith Wharton, published in 1907. I'd somehow never gotten around to reading it (yeah, I'm one of those heathens who reads them--what else are books for?) but after reading The Age of Innocence I was reminded of this little novel. I finally picked it up this week.

Madame de Treymes is a slim volume (more of a novella, I suppose) about an American in Paris who hopes to wed his love, although there is the complication that she is already married to a very Catholic marquis. The pages are filled with subtle intrigue between family members who are each quietly tending to their own interests, though--no matter the outcome--it will clearly be impossible for everyone to end up happy.

I was once again struck by the similarity of themes between Wharton and Henry James. Both authors wrote about the same class of people during the same general time period, when keeping up appearances was often far more important than what those appearances disguised. James probably would have made a chunkster out of this story rather than keeping it to 147 pages, but I think it would have worked either way; Wharton did a beautiful job in her concise manner, but the framework of the story could likely have supported a James-style fleshing out.

One of the fun things about old books is the mystery of who they once belonged to. More than a century ago, Mary Blair Burgwin inscribed her name on the flyleaf of Madame de Treymes. I can't help but wonder who she was, why she chose this book (or was it a gift?) and what she thought of it after she read it. Mary Blair may not be quite as compelling an enigma as Mrs. Baja Greenawalt, but I'm still curious about her.

I thought I might mention that during my brief foray into collecting, Christine at Walter-Saxena Rare Books was very friendly and helpful, in case you are interested in contacting a book dealer.


Allie said...

I found this same edition at a bookstore and it is sitting patiently on my shelf waiting to be read. :) I do adore Wharton, and old books. I think they hold such a deep history!

Kristi said...

I've only read Ethan Frome, but I've been wanting to read more from Wharton. How cool that you were collecting old books! I understand though that it's tough with a family to have an expensive hobby. I think that's why I don't buy many books for myself.

Cozy in Texas said...

I stopped by your blog today. Happy New Year.

Kathy said...

Allie--too cool that you have the same edition!! Did any previous owners mark their name in yours?

Kristi--Ethan Frome is on my list! It's one of those (I think) that somehow everyone else read in high school but it was never assigned to me.

Ann--thanks for stopping by! Come back and visit any time. :) And happy New Year to you too!

Rebecca Reid said...

I do need to read more Mrs Wharton. Such interesting dilemnas.

I actually don't like OLD books. Mostly because of the smell. But I do like pretty books.

Rachel said...

What a lovely story! .... *sigh* ... I am imagining what it would be like to spend time in a library with walls lined with old books... just lovely.

Coffee and a Book Chick said...

This post has so many things that make it so wonderful for me to read - old books, a library, a book with a signature in it, and Edith Wharton. I have become such a fan of her works and I've only read The House of Mirth and Ethan Frome thus far, and both of those end so tragically and miserably. It's making me interested to read about Wharton's actual life to see how sad she may have been?

And since I'm a fan of all things ancestry, I typed her name into Google and came up with an entry at

It must be the same person since it's about the same time frame. Looks like she was about forty some years old when she wrote her name in the book -- "Mary Blair (1856 - 1925) Born on 1856 to John Cust Blair and Anne Rebecca Robinson. Mary married George Collinson Burgwin and had 7 children. She passed away on 1925."

I love your post - I am now putting this book on my wish list!

Kathy said...

Rebecca--I agree about the interesting situations Wharton's characters find themselves in. Most of the trouble seems to stem from rigid adherence to propriety. So different from today's society! Oh, and I love beautiful books too. I know more than once I've bought a book merely on the merits of its physical properties.

Rachel--I'm smiling at your sigh. It *was* lovely and I wish I could go back. I'd never thought of this before, but now I wonder who has all of Uncle Ed's old books.

Natalie--glad you enjoyed the post--it stirred wonderful memories in me. I don't want to spoil things and tell you whether the two Wharton books I've read end miserably and tragically, but that is a very good question that I hadn't thought of until you mentioned it--was Wharton's life miserably tragic? Also--funny--I googled Mary also. I actually thought the one who owned my book might have been your Mary's daughter--there is a Mary Blair Burgwin who was born in 1889 (so she would have been about 18 in 1907) and married Harmar Denny Denny Jr in 1915. Either way, mother or daughter, I bet that's the right family. Sounds like they were in Pittsburgh. It sure would be fun to know how the book made its way from PA to Los Alamos, NM (which is where I bought it) and how many hands it passed through in the meantime!

MOV said...

I am a new reader of your blog. Just wondering if you have read anything by Laurie Notaro? She is quite funny, in an understated way. Well, maybe an overstated way. Get your hands on her earlier work. (I hope you haven't quoted Ms. Notaro all over your blog other places, 'cause then I'll just feel downright silly.)

Kathy said...

Thanks for visiting! Nope, I haven't read anything by Notaro--in fact, none of her titles sounded familiar to me. Thanks for the recommendation!

Lesa said...

Wait till you see one of my recent thrift books-- not old-- just a paperback but all due to your review.

Oh, I just love this post-- childhood memories, first editions with signatures-- Wish you could visit my Tuesday school library-- so many books from the early 1900s-- you be in hog heaven.

Thanks for linking to Baja!

Kathy said...

Have I ever told you that suspense just KILLS me? How long do I have to wait to hear about your recent thrift book?? I'm dyin' over here!

Glad you enjoyed the post. I WOULD be in hog heaven at your Tuesday school library!!

Lesa said...

Well don't hold your breath!! It is # 7 on my list but it will probably get bumped up since it is a quickie type post. I must be the slowest blogger around-- I still have the bonfire post in drafts!!

Kathy said...

Thanks for letting me know I shouldn't hold my breath--I was starting to turn blue. ;)

Anonymous said...

I know who Mary Blair Burgwin was, either my Grandmother, prior to her marriage or her mother, both of the same name.

Harmar Denny, PGH, Pa.

Kathy said...

THAT is really amazing. I don't know if you'll ever see this reply to your comment, but it's really great to know about this connection.