Thursday November 1, 2012

LENOX -- Thanks to the generosity of a resident of Lincolnshire, England, and a friend with access to the internet, Edith Wharton's copy of "Jane Eyre" has come back safely to rest among the books in Wharton's library at The Mount.

Charlotte Bronte's masterpiece -- her story of suspense and madness and wild nights on the moors -- traveled on a still-unknown route from a trove of works Wharton had collected in The Mount, the home she built in 1902, to the far side of the Atlantic. Wharton lived in Lenox for 10 years before she left for France, where she died in 1937.

Susan Hiddleston of Lincoln shire has recovered "Jane Eyre" and given it to The Mount. Hid dleston told her story in a recent letter to the Eagle. (She does not have email.)

"An aunt gave me that a copy of Jane Eyre on my 14th birthday," Hiddleston wrote. "She had bought it for [about a dollar] in a wonderful, rambling second-hand bookshop in Guildford, Surrey. Sadly this shop is long gone. This would have been in 1952. Edith Wharton was unknown here. And my aunt, who was a great reader of English literature, never made anything of Edith's name plate. We just saw her as someone who had once owned the book.

"However, when I came upon EW years later, as did my aunt, we were both quite overawed to think she had once held it and read it and put it on her shelf. I often showed it to people who read. I felt proud to own it.


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I felt sure there must be an Edith Wharton society somewhere, and I thought ‘one day I'll try to find out.' But life went on and it remained a thing to do one day.

"I don't have the internet, but most of our friends do, so I asked one to seek it out for me. And we were all surprised and excited at the amount of information that came forth."

With the help of her friend, Priscilla Shead, Hiddleston learned that Wharton had willed her entire library to two young sons of wealthy friends. Half of the volumes were dedicated to art, architecture and gardening. The rest, mainly literary works, included "Jane Eyre."

The nonfiction treasures were destroyed by German bombs in World War II. That left 2,700 books that were stored in an English castle until they were bought by the Mount in 2005 for $1.6 million. Somewhere in the literary world, a number of Wharton'sbooks vanished. One of them was "Jane Eyre."

Hiddleston made arrangements for the return of the book in an exchange of letters with Nynke Dorhout, the Mount's librarian. Hiddleston originally sought payment, but atfer she learned about Wharton and the Mount, she offered to the book to the museum; the Mount paid only the $14 cost of the postage.

Dorhout said the gift is a librarian's dream come true -- "to really have somebody approach you and say ‘I have a book for your collection and then be willing to donate it.'"

"We should put out a call for more Wharton books," she said. "Some people who have Wharton books might not realize or appreciate their importance."

"Jane Eyre" is the Mount's lone representative, so far, of a seven-volume set of "The Life and Work of the Brontë Sisters." The Mount believes Wharton may have owned the complete set, Dor hout said, and would love to find Emily Brontë's "Wuth ering Heights," which is still among the missing. Hiddleston's "Jane Eyre," published in 1920, bears a Wharton book plate.

What did Susan Hiddleston's entry into the world of Edith Wharton mean to her? The answer came in her letter to the Eagle: "I didn't know anything about Edith Wharton until now. I hadn't even read her works, but I am now, starting with ‘The Age of Innocence.'

"I so wish my aunt was still alive to share the adventure of the book."