First edition of The House of Mirth: A Literary/Bibliographical Mystery

Copies of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth
Figure 1. Left to right, upper row: Garrison’s bibliography, 1936 OUP 2nd edition of HM, book census; bottom row, L to R: 1st/2d Macmillan printing, 1st/2d–or is it 1st/1st?–of HM.

Back in 2016 or so, when I first started collecting printings for a critical edition of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, I learned to rely on the bibliography bible for her printings and editions: Stephen Garrison’s Edith Wharton: A Descriptive Bibliography (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1990), which is a magnificent resource. My colleagues and I at the Complete Works of Edith Wharton (CWEWh) project rely on it and refer to it all the time. You can see a copy of it in the upper left of the photo.

First, a little about the process (if you want to know what the mystery is, skip this list):

  1. In preparing for the edition, I knew I needed to gather as many printings and lifetime editions, including serial versions, as possible, so I made a “census” based on Garrison. That’s the first page of the census in the upper right of the photo; the highlighted items are ones that I have, either in print or photographic or .pdf form.
  2. I also traveled to Wharton’s archives and looked first hand at the manuscripts and letters (at the Beinecke Library), partial galley proofs and letters from EW to her publishers (Princeton), and first edition/first printing that Garrison described (Lilly Library, Indiana University) as well as more diaries and letters; I also photographed EW’s own copy of the book at The Mount. I took photographs, consulted with librarians, and so on.
  3. I collected as many printings as possible, using Garrison’s taxonomy. The ones you see above are from a second collation of some of the British printings of The House of Mirth; there are others on the computer screen that you can’t see.
    • A.12.1.a (Scribner’s, 1905): copy-text (photos and print)
    • A.12.2.a (Macmillan, 1905): 1st edition, 1st printing from the British Library (photos)
    • A.12.2.b (Macmillan, 1905): 1st edition, 2d printing (November 1905)(print)
    • A.12.2.e (Macmillan, 1906): 1st edition, 5th printing (May 1906) (.pdf  from HathiTrust)
    • A.12.4 (Oxford U P, 1936): 2d British edition (print)

There’s much more to it than this, and I could go on about this for days, since it’s of passionate interest to me–but, since it’s of less interest to others, I’m guessing, I’ll cut to the chase and summarize the mystery.

The Mystery

Figure 2. Would you like to cross Mrs. Wharton in the matter of typography or book style? Didn’t think so.

Edith Wharton: A Descriptive Bibliography lists a true first/first as being on laid paper with no ads on pp. 535-538, giving as the source the copy at the Lilly Library. A first edition, second printing is on laid paper with ads on pp. 535-538. The changing ads are a whole story in themselves, but what’s important here is that they exist.

Here’s the mystery: since 2016, I’ve searched for what that bibliography defined as a first edition/first printing of The House of Mirth, querying research librarians, booksellers, other scholars, and so on. I have never found one, not ever. The one at the Lilly cited in EW:ADB (confirmed by a librarian) is not on laid paper.

I’m starting to think that the first edition/first printing is the one with the ads.


The Evidence

  1. First point of evidence: The illustrations. As you might expect, Edith Wharton was as famously exacting about the appearance, typography, illustrations, and the rest of the apparatus of book creation as she was about getting the details right in her prose. She wrote letters to her publishers (at this point, Charles Scribner’s Sons) about preferring British to American spelling, about the appearance of the book, about how many ellipses should be included–everything.

Figure 3. Show of hands: who thinks that A.B. Wenzell more or less “recycled” his illustrations for Van Tassel Sutphen’s The Fortune-Hunter (above) (1904) for #EdithWharton‘s The House of Mirth (1905)?

Wharton hated the illustrations for The House of Mirth. Hated them. Tore them out, in fact.

She hated the illustrations so much that we assume she tore them out of the two copies we know she had her hands on and crossed out Wenzell’s name:

  1. The copy that she gave to her friend and sister-in-law, Mary (Minnie) Cadwalader Jones on October 14, 1905 (at the Beinecke Library)

2. The copy in her personal library at The Mount.

2. Second point of evidence: Both of these copies have laid paper and the ads on pp. 535-538. This would mark them as first edition, second printings according to Edith Wharton: A Descriptive Bibliography, yet these are Wharton’s own signed copies.


  1. The first printing ran to thousands of copies. Hermione Lee reports that “it sold 30,000 copies in the first three weeks of publication” (159), and Wharton reported on 11 November 1905 “20,000 more of H of M printing” (qtd. in Lee 206). Assuming generously that the first printing was 10,000 copies (if the 20,000 copies on November 11 were the second printing), how likely is it that the entire first printing of 10,000 copies would have vanished without being preserved in a library somewhere in the laid paper/no ads version, if queries to libraries, etc., have failed to turn up even one?
  2. Did you notice the date on the first example? October 14, 1905, was the date of the first American book publication of The House of Mirth. How likely is it that Wharton herself would have been given a second printing on the first day of publication when there were first edition/first printings available?
  3. Would Charles Scribner’s Sons have sent Edith Wharton a second printing on the first day of publication to give to her dear friend and sister-in-law?
  4. How likely is it that Wharton would have kept for herself a second printing of her first bestseller?
  5. How likely is it that everyone at Scribner’s would not have been subjected to a scathing letter if they’d sent her a second instead of a first printing?

You can guess by now what my solution to the mystery would be; I’d love to hear your thoughts, though.

One thought on “First edition of The House of Mirth: A Literary/Bibliographical Mystery

  1. Pingback: The Last Phone Booth | Sarah Emsley

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