Inscribed to Her Butler: An Astonishing Wharton Association

Courtesy of Carpe Librum Books

Detail from the cover of Ethan Frome (London, 1911).

A Massachusetts antiquarian bookseller is offering for sale a first edition of Ethan Frome (1911), with what book collectors call major 'association' value. This UK first edition of one of Edith Wharton’s better-known novels bears her inscription to Alfred White, whom Wharton employed from 1888 until her death in 1937.

White (1863-1942), an Englishman, initially worked as valet to Edward Robbins (Teddy) Wharton, the author’s husband. When the couple divorced in 1913, White stayed on with Edith Wharton as her butler and later ran her home(s) as general manager.

Courtesy of Carpe Librum Books

Edith Wharton inscribed a copy of Ethan Frome to her longtime butler, Alfred White.

It’s easy to imagine that Wharton was aloof with the help — her biographer Hermione Lee says as much — but she relied on White for candor, discretion, and even for advice; their relationship was something more complex than master/servant. “For 49 years it was my privilege to serve her and protect her from household cares, that she could carry on her work in peace,” White wrote after she died.

According to the bookseller, Brad Verter of Carpe Librum, “Signed copies of Ethan Frome are very rare. In fact, we do not know of another, and there has never been one at auction, which is surprising given that this is her most highly sought work. The significance of this particular inscription is unparalleled.”

The price reflects that rarity, however; it is one that Wharton herself might have struggled to pay. Verter provides an extensive description here.