Friday, December 16
LENOX — When the Mount, Edith Wharton's Lenox mansion, opens to the public in May, the shelves in the restored library will be filled with the 2,600 volumes of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author's personal library.

Stephanie Copeland, president and executive director of the Mount, announced yesterday that the books were purchased on Monday from rare book dealer George Ramsden, owner of Stone Trough Books in Settrington, England.

The Mount paid $2.6 million for the collection of books, made possible by an anonymous benefactor.

"It was one of the most momentous occasions in my life," Copeland said yesterday during a telephone interview. "When we were there, about to sign the documents, it was the coming together of everything at just the right time. It was perfect in every way.

"This completes the legacy of Edith Wharton — to bring her books back to her house."

The books will be shipped from England in January, Copeland said. Ramsden has offered to come to Lenox to do the installation himself.

"George Ramsden really devoted many years of his life to caring for and cataloging this library," Copeland said. "Now he is being recognized for his contribution.

"Being in the presence of these books was startling," she said. "These books really bring Wharton to life like nothing else can."

Copeland has been working for years to acquire Wharton's personal books.

"It raises us to a whole new level. I've had my eye on this library since 1993. It is the most important acquisition we could make," Copeland said. "These are the very books that helped shape her life and art."

Wharton's library will be the centerpiece of fundraising efforts to continue restoration of the Mount. Donors will be able to have their names permanently associated with individual volumes in the collection. The goal is to raise enough money to repay the purchase price of the library and create an additional $35 million restoration fund, according to the New York Times.

The Mount has been undergoing extensive restoration since about 1998, at a cost of approximately $15 million so far. The 16,000-square-foot mansion, gardens and fountains were all designed by the author. Last summer, nearly 30,000 visitors toured the 45-room house. The Mount has an annual operating budget of about $2 million, about half of which is generated by visitors.

The library contains Wharton's personal copies of her own books, as well as some important first editions. There are also sets of books from Wharton's father's library and an extensive collection of poetry. The library includes classic literature in French, German and Italian — languages in which Wharton was fluent.

In line with Wharton's interests in gardening and architecture, works on these topics are part of the collection, as well as books on travel, philosophy and religion.

Scholars will welcome the opportunity to study the library — many of the volumes include notations or corrections in Wharton's hand. Apparently, Wharton didn't care for the illustrations in the original edition of "The House of Mirth," Copeland said. In her personal copy, which will soon be housed at the Mount, all the illustrations have been torn out, and the name of the illustrator crossed out on the title page.

After Wharton left the Mount in 1911, she spent the rest of her life in France. Following her death in 1937, Wharton's library went to the historian Kenneth Clark, in trust for his son Colin Clark, Wharton's godson. Colin Clark later sold the library to Maggs Brothers, LTD, of London, from which Ramsden bought the library in 1984. According to an article in yesterday's New York Times, Ramsden paid approximately $80,000 for the books, and spent the next 20 years completing and cataloguing the collection.

During their time in England, Copeland said, the Mount representatives asked Ramsden to talk about the five most meaningful books in Wharton's library. His response was captured on videotape. Ramsden held up Wharton's personal copy of "The House of Mirth," and said it was the most meaningful book of all because she wrote it at the Mount.

"We are thrilled that the empty shelves of the library at The Mount will once again be filled with Edith Wharton's lifelong collection of books," said Copeland. "Together with her house and gardens, the return of her library to The Mount completes the legacy of this remarkable American woman."