A Backward Glance, David Garrard Lowe, Edith Jones, Edith Wharton, Edith Wharton's New York City, George Frederic Jones, Harriet Shapiro, keeping up with the joneses, libraries, literature, Lucretia Jones, Major General Ebenezer Stevens, Mark Bartlett, New York Society Library, Roxana Robinson
Among the books George Frederic Jones borrowed from the New York Society Library when his daughter Edith was young were Middlemarch, Roderick Hudson, and Ivanhoe. Edith, however, was not allowed to read novels unless she asked her mother’s permission first, and Lucretia Jones “almost always refused.” Later in life, Edith — by then Edith Wharton — wrote in her autobiography that this prohibition on modern fiction made her focus on the classics, “and into that sea of wonders I plunged at will.”
The other day, I wrote about Edith Wharton’s vision of hell as a library in which no one is allowed to read or write. Libraries she could explore freely were a kind of heaven, and in her childhood she read history, poetry, literary criticism, philosophy, and the Bible in her father’s library: “Whenever I try to recall my childhood,” she says in A Backward Glance: An Autobiography (1933), “it is in my father’s library that it comes to life.” She recalls “long music-drunken hours on that library floor, with Isaiah and the Song of Solomon and the Book of Esther” and other works, and says that when she received editions of Keats and Shelley for her birthday, “the gates of the realms of gold swung wide, and from that day to this I don’t believe I was ever again, in my inmost self, wholly lonely or unhappy.”
The current exhibition at the New York Society Library is “Edith Wharton’s New York City: A Backward Glance,” which I was fortunate to see last weekend when I was in New York for the Jane Austen Society of North America AGM to give a talk on Austen and Wharton. The beautifully produced catalogue for the exhibition includes essays by David Garrard Lowe on “Edith Wharton, New Yorker,” Harriet Shapiro on “Keeping Up with the Joneses at the New York Society Library,” and Roxana Robinson on “Stifled Passion: The World of Edith Wharton,” along with an introduction by the Head Librarian, Mark Bartlett. The exhibition celebrates Wharton’s 150th birthday this year, and runs until December 31, 2012.
Shapiro describes George Jones walking from his house on West 23rd Street to the Library in its new home at University Place to borrow books such as Edmund Clarence Stedman’s Victorian Poets and Queen Victoria’s Leaves from the Journal of Our Lives in the Highlands, and many books in French, including works by Alexandre Dumas and Gustave Flaubert. There is no record that Wharton herself borrowed books from the New York Society Library, but many of her Schermerhorn, Bussing, and Rhinelander relatives appear in the library’s first ledger of 1789-1792, as does her maternal great-grandfather, Major General Ebenezer Stevens, who took part in the Boston Tea Party and whom Wharton called “our great progenitor.”
“For the Joneses and their kind,” Shapiro writes, “belonging to the New York Society Library meant borrowing books. It did not mean giving in to creative impulses.” As Wharton says in A Backward Glance, her parents and their friends “held literature in high esteem,” yet they “stood in nervous dread of those who produced it.”