Collecting Edith

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In March 1984, full of the joys of spring and possibly slightly mad, I bought the library of the American novelist Edith Wharton from Maggs Bros., the London booksellers, and subsequently discovered that it was incomplete.

Maggs had purchased about two thousand books from Edith Wharton’s godson, Colin Clark, which for forty-seven years had been at Saltwood Castle in Kent. Here his father, the art historian Kenneth Clark, Edith Wharton’s friend, had completely integrated them into his own library, which complicated the process of identification and extraction. This had been supervised by Colin’s brother Alan who was by then the custodian of Saltwood.

Three uncomfortable years later I was anxious to see if anything had been missed in that initial operation. Tristan Garel-Jones, an MP friend of Alan Clark’s at that time, thought I had little chance of getting any books out of him. ‘The maverick Mr Clark’ didn’t need money and his wife hated things to leave Saltwood. However, a visit was arranged.

The castle is completely detached from its suburban neighbourhood and well defended. You arrive at the locked wooden gates of a barbican, locate an entry-intercom and contemplate the painted silhouettes of Rottweilers. Dogs howl when you press the buzzer.

Alan’s wife Jane apologized for his having had to go up to London. She took me across a lawn to the Great Hall, once an Archbishop’s Hall of Audience and which Kenneth Clark had turned into his library. There is a photograph of him here, his womenfolk in the background, examining a portfolio at the long refectory table; and here, at various junctures in his political career, Alan would kneel to speak to God. The room is a place of deep peace and ancient damp. The bookshelves run high up bare stone walls and are covered in netting to keep birds off.

I had had three years to learn about Edith Wharton and now found many books which bore the unmistakable marks of her ownership. I longed to

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About the contributor

George Ramsden worked at Heywood Hill’s bookshop for three years, and then ran Stone Trough Books, first in Camberwell and then at 38 Fossgate in York, trading in secondhand books, editing, book-designing and publishing (see Slightly Foxed, No. 5).

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