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.