He had missed the flower of life: Edith Wharton, ‘The Age of Innocence’

The names of the characters aren’t exactly subtle in this vitriolic portrait of upper-class New York City society in the 1870s (though the novel, Edith Wharton’s twelfth, was first published in 1920): the protagonist’s is the doubly Jamesian Newland Archer, while his pretty but vacuous fiancée is May Welland (may well land) – tellingly described as a ‘young girl who knew nothing and expected everything’.

Virago Modern Classics edition

The cover of my Virago Modern Classics paperback edition

The plot is equally straightforward: the upright (almost smugly so) Archer, from one of that small, intermarrying set of wealthy socialite families to which May also belongs, has his complacently mapped-out life upset when the beautiful, troubled Countess Olenska comes back into his circle. He had known her before her marriage to a dashing but morally corrupt Polish count collapsed, amid stories of her husband’s brutality and serial infidelity. She escaped back to the city of her birth, where she believed her family and former friends would support her. Instead they treat her as a pariah, as if she is the guilty one; in their world it is not done for wives to desert their philandering husbands – they’re supposed to endure everything with a sweet smile and pretend all is well.

It’s a more plot-driven novel than The House of Mirth, about which I wrote recently. The style is less aphoristic and adorned, too; this makes its tone of moral outrage more powerful. Ultimately, however, I found the heroic stoicism and indomitable sense of honour of Newland Archer a little hard to take. He professes to be disgusted by the hypocrisy of his male peers, and therefore finds it impossible to compromise the honour of the woman he truly loves, or his own sense of duty. Here’s an early narrative comment about him that hints at this thinly concealed arrogance:

In matters intellectual and artistic Newland Archer felt himself distinctly the superior of these chosen specimens of old New York gentility…Singly they betrayed their inferiority; but grouped together they represented “New York”, and the habit of masculine solidarity made him accept their doctrine in all the issues called moral.

That he continues to live in this corrupt world of venal indulgence makes his honourable stance seem less noble. It’s not so much that he can’t act as immorally as everyone else – he seems almost to lack any kind of truly moral agency.

It’s an interesting and largely rewarding read, however. There are still some wonderfully witty and penetrating comments on American mores and society, like this on the very first page; the privileged rich are leaving the opera house, which they frequent largely to see what the rest of their set are up to, and to be seen and gossip about the latest peccadillos. The narrator points out that it’s better to catch a ‘Brown coupé’ after the performance than to wait for one’s own coachman –

It was one of the great livery-stableman’s most masterly intuitions to have discovered that Americans want to get away from amusement even more quickly than they want to get to it.

Newland is swayed by generous thoughts about the lack of freedom enjoyed by women in his social circle, but

Such verbal generosities were in fact only a humbugging disguise of the inexorable conventions that tied things together and bound people down to the old pattern.

 He can readily foresee that his marriage would become

What most of the other marriages about him were: a dull association of material and social interests held together by ignorance on the one side and hypocrisy on the other.

 And so it turns out: his and May’s marital existence is one of ‘deadly monotony’, in which appearance was everything, and Newland is unable to break free from what’s expected of him –

It was less trouble to conform with the tradition and treat May exactly as all his friends treated their wives than to try to put into practice the theories with which his untrammelled bachelorhood had dallied. There was no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free…

It’s a mad world they live in, and there seems no impulse to do anything to change it:

In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs…

 More echoes of the Master there (also, weirdly, of Saussure). Maybe Edith Wharton was too angry with that dull group of the tediously wealthy in which she’d moved (until she could stand it no more and decamped to France for the latter part of her life, ditching her good-for-nothing husband on the way) to come closer to emulating the penetrating gaze and measured psychological insight of her friend Henry James.

The ending is shocking, and aptly rounds off this withering indictment of the New York social set that would soon be even more tellingly portrayed by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby.

 

Edith Wharton, ‘The House of Mirth’

Edith Wharton (1862-1937), The House of Mirth (1905): Virago Modern Classics edition

The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth (Ecclesiastes, 7:4)

House of M coverIt’s fitting that I sit down to start writing this piece on the anniversary of Edith Wharton’s birth – Jan. 24, 1862. She was born into that ‘aristocracy of wealth and tradition’ that Leon Edel describes in his Life of Henry James, whose influence on Wharton’s writing was immense (they first met in 1903, when she was in her fortieth year and he was 60; he found her refined but ‘a little dry’). She never needed to work for a living, having inherited a large fortune. But her circumscribed world of wealthy cosmopolitan socialites was beginning to succumb to the arrivistes who are represented in this novel by the sinister entrepreneur Rosedale – a Jewish stockbroker/speculator whose depiction as a social climber is tainted by the anti-Semitism considered acceptable at the time.

The privileged, luxurious Manhattan world – ‘this crowded, selfish world of pleasure’– was imbued with a hypocritical sense of traditional decencies, strict social codes based on superficial appearances and good manners whilst murkily compromised deeper down.

At the time of their first meeting in 1903, James was working on The Golden Bowl, his intense and complex psychological portrait of a flawed aristocratic marriage, and its impact on a naïve young woman who learns and grows in maturity as a consequence of her husband’s venality. It’s interesting that Wharton’s House of Mirth, published a year after James’s novel, though set in New York, not England (where James had settled, and where his novel was set), has a plot and themes in some ways similar, but different in important ways. Even her title derives from the same book of the Old Testament.

Portrait of Lily Bart (via WikiCommons, public domain)

Portrait of Lily Bart (via WikiCommons, public domain)

As I have written in earlier posts, James was interested in the restricted, frustratingly limited prospects of the ‘American girl’ in a society that demanded of her little more than ornamental charms with which she would be expected to snare a wealthy husband, and which deplored any kind of independence of spirit – this would have been considered subversive. The ‘flatness and futility’ of fashionable New York was what Edith Wharton knew intimately; she, like James, opted for the woman’s view of it, but with a unique insight that he could only imagine. She had struggled for moral and artistic independence in a society in which women were more at the mercy of convention than men; she was able to depict a woman who was born to be an ‘artistic object’:

A frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys. Its tragic implications lie in its power of debasing people and ideals. The answer, in short, was my heroine, Lily Bart (quoted by Nina Bawden, in the Introduction to the VMC edition).

The novel opens when Lily is 29 and still unmarried. Her father had foolishly lost his fortune and both he and her mother are dead. She lives with her unloving aunt in New York, who distributes to her niece sufficient to get by, but which is never enough for extravagant Lily, who had been spoiled as a girl, and who naturally assumed that her beauty deserved luxury and indulgence. As a consequence she is ‘horribly poor – and very expensive. I must have a great deal of money’, as she confesses to Lawrence Selden in the opening chapter. She was ‘not made for mean and shabby surroundings, for the squalid compromises of poverty’, and has a ‘naturally lively taste for splendour’, she reflects later. Selden is the novel’s cowardly hero, and Lily makes the fatal error of believing that his self-satisfied, sanctimonious lectures on the vulgarity and venality of the society they both circulate arise from his truly virtuous moral rigour. What she fails to perceive is that this supercilious attitude is a pose; at heart he hypocritically enjoys the social life he outwardly scorns. They share a mutual attraction, but she considers him unsuitable marriage material because he works for a living (as a lawyer), and isn’t rich enough for her needs. When she needs him most he lets her down cravenly.

She confides in him, in this early and ill-advised tête-à-tête (to visit a bachelor unchaperoned in his rooms, smoke his cigarettes and chat intimately like this would be considered ill-bred, ‘fast’ and morally compromising) that her only hope, as her financial situation reaches crisis-point – she has amassed huge gambling debts on top of her usual extravagances with jewellery and clothing – is to ‘calculate and contrive’ to marry a rich man. But her looks are beginning to fade, and her plight is becoming desperate.

That she has failed to catch a rich husband so far is a result of her impetuous nature and naïve habit of pursuing immediate gratification, over-confident that something better will always turn up. Consequently she has let go several big, wealthy fish at the last minute in order to indulge a fleetingly more enticing whim. This childish recklessness is tempered by an intermittent but genuine moral sense of the ‘great gilt cage in which they were all huddled for the mob to gape at’, with its ‘vacuous routine’ of trivial parties and rancid gossip. Lily would love to have that freedom which Seldon calls ‘the republic of the spirit’, but as a woman this is not accessible to her.

There are several estimable reviews of this novel online (links at the end), which summarise plot and characters thoroughly. I shall restrict my remarks now to the style of the writing, which in my view is the novel’s strength. The plot, skilfully constructed and pacy, with dramatic reversals and a colourful cast of wealthy, leering men and scheming, treacherous women, is perhaps at times a little contrived and strained: poor Lily’s ‘hateful fate’ is made clear from the start. As Jonathan Franzen suggests in his piece (see below), we read on largely because we sympathise with her, despite her often exasperating selfishness and childish impetuosity, her contradictory blend of an ingenuous naturalness (‘sylvan freedom’, Selden considers it) and shimmering artificiality. There’s a lot of Becky Sharp about her: she uses her charm and beauty to attract a rich man, but lacks the ruthlessness of the other women in her social circle which would provide her with the security she craves. Even in extremity there’s a courageous spirit in her:

Misfortune had made Lily supple instead of hardening her, and a pliable substance is less easy to break than a stiff one.

 Even though she has the means with which to blackmail her way out of her ultimate crisis, she refuses to stoop to such behaviour – her own destruction is the outcome. When she’s betrayed and cruelly shunned by society, and staring into the abyss, Lily shows a heroic, noble spirit, even when confronting ‘the shifts, the expedients, the humiliations’ of the poverty she has no resources to cope with. As one of her circle, Mrs Fisher, says of Lily’s fluctuating fortunes:

‘Sometimes…I think it’s just flightiness – and sometimes I think it’s because, at heart, she despises the things she’s trying for.’

I’d like to finish with a look at some of the  barbed, epigrammatic narrative comments. This is an early description of Lily about to stalk her prey – a shy wealthy dullard called Percy Gryce:

She had the art of giving self-confidence to the embarrassed, but she was not equally sure of being able to embarrass the self-confident.

Such parallel structures can seem trite, but the chiasmus here is wittily shrewd.

Character portraits are often Wildean in their acerbity: this is the socialite Mrs George Dorset:

…she was like a disembodied spirit who took up a great deal of room.

 Finally, a passage which caustically reveals the moral lesson Lily begins to learn at the novel’s midway stage, as her plans go awry and her reputation suffers:

She was realising for the first time that a woman’s dignity may cost more to keep up than her carriage; and that the maintenance of a moral attribute should be dependent on dollars and cents made the world appear a more sordid place than she had conceived it.

 

There are numerous reviews online; I’d recommend Trevor Berrett’s post at the Mookse and Gripes website, and Jonathan Franzen’s New Yorker article. I’ve just read JacquiWine’s post and find I’ve quoted several of the same passages! Hers is a judicious reading of this classic novel.

 

 

 

 

 

Obsessive reading and podcasts

Summer has finally arrived in Cornwall, and I’ve finished teaching for a few months; consequently I can write about a wider range of matters than usual.

My last post about obsessive, even addictive behaviour among book acquirers and readers elicited a number of comments, most of them from avid readers who recognised the traits I described. Claire (of the Word by Word book blog), however, provided a corrective: addiction is perhaps an inappropriate term to have used. I was picking up on Belinda’s use (in her Bii’s Books blog) of the term ‘sugar addict at the end of Lent’ to refer to a book-buying splurge she indulged in after her #TBR20 project ended. No offence was intended when I likened bookish obsessions to addiction; I should have been more circumspect with my imagery.

Today I’d like to depart in another direction from my usual run of thoughts about what I’ve been reading. I’ve been leafing through an old notebook – one of my obsessions also noted in my previous post: stockpiling and writing random findings about books and culture in these notebooks; I suppose they’re my equivalent of those 18th and 19th century ‘commonplace books’.

I tend to keep a record in these notebooks of peripheral literary/cultural material: newspaper reviews, online articles and so on. I also listen to a lot of podcasts on such matters, especially when walking to work – just over half an hour is perfect for most podcasts. I looked up what I’d written in this one from three years ago. Here’s what I found in this notebook’s entries from June 2012.

Eleanor Wachtel: Wikipedia image

Eleanor Wachtel: Wikipedia image

One of my favourite literary podcasts is this one by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC): Writers & Company, hosted with intelligent warmth by Eleanor Wachtel (link to its website HERE). The focus is on good writing from all over the world. Recent episodes (all available from the website) include interviews with Irishman Donal Ryan, André Aciman (Francophone Egyptian-Turkish-American), and a series entitled ‘Reimagining the Balkans’: writers, film-makers and others who are expressing what’s happened since the terrible wars of the nineties. Three years ago this is what I’d single out from my notes on what I’d been listening to from this podcast:

Edward St Aubyn (broadcast 25 March 2012), the Melrose novels. Why listen to such podcasts? They throw light on what one has already read, enriching that experience, through Ms Wachtel’s deceptively soft-toned but incisive, probing interviews with authors of books. They also provide recommendations for what to read in the future. It took me over a year to get around to reading these astonishingly raw, witty, viscerally disturbing novels, but they were a searing, brilliant read.

Edith Wharton photographed in 1915: image via WikiCommons

Edith Wharton photographed in 1915: image via WikiCommons

A broadcast of 22 April 2012 featured an interview with Hermione Lee on the subject of Edith Wharton, about whom she’d written a biography a few years earlier (there’s an excellent review of it by Hilary Spurling in the Guardian HERE). I found this podcast interesting because of my passion for the work of Henry James, with whom the scary New York socialite had an intriguingly weird relationship.

Next I’d written about the BBC Radio 4 podcast of its long-running cultural programme ‘In Our Time’. There’s a link to its homepage HERE, where its complete archive can be accessed; this can be broken down into categories: Culture (including literature), Philosophy, Religion, Science. Recent topics covered range from Prester John to Utilitarianism; the Lancashire cotton famine during the American Civil War to the poetry of Tagore and the fiction of Fanny Burney.

The item I’d listened to in June 2012 was broadcast on 14 Oct. 2010; it was on the topic of ‘Sturm und Drang’: the short-lived German proto-Romantic aesthetic movement of the late 18th century initiated by Klinger and adopted by Herder, Goethe (his ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’, which I’d recently read in June 2012), Lessing, etc. It raised some curious points about masculinity and suicide, among others.

The host, Melvyn Bragg, is sometimes lampooned in the British media for his implausibly luxuriant hair and adenoidal northern English accent. This probably says more about the snobbish prejudices of the English media than it does about Lord Bragg.

Another time I’ll try to recommend some other book-based podcasts that I’ve found rewarding to listen to. They’re the audio equivalent of book blogs, I suppose. When they feature author interviews, however, they often provide insights unavailable to those of us who simply write about our own responses to what we read.

I’ve dug out these notebook-archived pieces deliberately because they still resonate with me when I re-read them now, and attest to the quality of content in these programmes that persists today. I’d urge you to investigate and subscribe to the podcasts mentioned here. They’re all free.