Edith Wharton: New Year’s Day

Edith Wharton (1862-1937), Old New York. Virago Modern Classics, 2006. First published 1924.

  1. New Year’s Day (pp. 227-306). The 1870s

Before I discuss this last of the four novellas in Old New York, here are some thoughts about the collection as a whole. Although each story stands alone, there are links and connections that cohere across the volume.

All of them deal with an infraction against the social laws/code/traditions of upper-class New York society, which is exposed as deeply hypocritical and cruelly rigid and judgemental in its reaction to it; even some of the participants in the infraction share some of these views.

In False Dawn it’s young Lewis’s presumption in buying artworks in Europe that don’t conform to his philistine father’s idea of heirlooms for his gallery that other wealthy, aesthetically challenged socialites will recognise as works by the Old Masters.

In The Old Maid it’s the giving birth to an illegitimate child, and then pretending it’s a foundling so that the mother can help raise it incognito. In The Spark it’s the deceived husband’s thrashing his wife’s lover in public; society accepts concealed adultery that obeys the rules of appearances, but not openly exposing them to cause a scandal it can’t ignore.

Edith Wharton, Old New York cover

The cover shows a detail from ‘The Reception’ by James Tissot (also known as ‘L’Ambitieuse’ or ‘Political Woman’, from a series done 1883-85, ‘La Femme à Paris’

New Year’s Day is a little different; more about that in a moment.

All four have a complicated, syncopated time-frame. Each story has a dramatic set-up at the start, then in the second part, usually some time later, a revelation is made about the secret or issue that was the topic of the first part; this serves as ironic commentary on that topic that causes it to be seen in a new light.

There’s a common narrator in three of the stories: the young Harvard graduate also features in New Year’s Day. Only The Old Maid is narrated by a woman.

The attitude to art and literature, noted above in connection with False Dawn, serves as another index of society’s snobbery, philistinism, moral atrophy and obsession with going along with received opinions. Again, the participants in the action are often guilty of such narrow-mindedness and insensitivity to the arts.

Now for New Year’s Day. It’s difficult to say much about this novella without spoilers. I’ll focus on its slippery narrative structure and themes. As it’s focalised on the young man mentioned above, we are given only his partial account. It has the usual dramatic opening, in which his mother is remembered condemning Mrs Charles Hazeldean (Lizzie) as ‘bad’, an adulteress who used to meet her lover in The Fifth Avenue Hotel. Lizzie is seen, when the narrator is a child of twelve, leaving the hotel, which is across the street from the house he’s visiting for the titular family gathering, with her lover. They were fleeing a fire in the hotel.

Later, as a callow graduate of twenty-one, he becomes infatuated with the disgraced Lizzie, now a widow. She’s been ostracised by society, which was as usual outraged that she’d had the bad taste to let her affair become public knowledge – not for having the affair. That would have been fine if she’d played by the hypocritical rules of marital infidelity.

What follows is the young man’s breathless recounting of the story Lizzie tells him about that affair. Her version, which he swallows unquestioningly, is that she was using her lover to bankroll the medication, care and travel to warmer climates her sick husband needed. Although he suffers from a heart condition, his symptoms also resemble TB, the symbolic significance of which I discussed in The Old Maid post. (There’s another of those references seen in the earlier novellas to people being ‘shipped off to die in Italy’.)

She portrays herself as a saintly, loving wife who sacrifices her virtue and reputation in the eyes of the venomous, narrow-minded hypocrites of society to save her dying husband, like a New York Nora Helmer. She’s heroically prepared to pay the price for this sacrifice, and spends her later years, during which the narrator becomes a doting confidant, isolated as a social pariah, a tainted woman whom no other woman will call on; what’s venomously known as ‘a professional’ (ie a courtesan). This version is revealed through a complicated sequence of flashbacks over a period of time, as in the other three novellas.

The narrator repeatedly stresses how naïve and innocent he was, ‘an overgrown boy’, and how desperate to believe this glamorous, faded beauty’s melodramatic “confession”. He’s also at pains to tell us how skilful she’d always been at winding men round her little finger, using her beauty and charm as a weapon in the gender and social war; her husband Charles was her first major conquest.

Again we see how unequal the struggle is in this society for a woman born without fortune or vocation, only ‘put in the world to please’ (men); her only asset is her ability to look pretty and prosperous, provided she can find a husband to fund the look. It’s a struggle that’s been a central theme not just in much of Wharton’s writings, but in Victorian and later fiction (George Gissing’s The Odd Women, for example).

Like Delane in The Spark, she’s depicted as animated, independent and uncaring about what society thinks of her, with her own egregious moral code. Also like him she’s incapable of loving books as her husband had. This literary blind spot is perhaps another indication of her disingenuous story about her fall from social grace. She may not read fiction, but she can certainly ‘read hearts’, and this enables her to manipulate the gullible, sexually predatory men around her. The price she pays, the ‘cold celibacy’ of her widowhood, is probably genuine.

The final message is one seen throughout this collection: New York society affects not to find wealth important, ‘but regarded poverty as so distasteful that it simply took no account of it.’

 

 

 

Edith Wharton, The Spark

Edith Wharton (1862-1937), Old New York. Virago Modern Classics, 2006. First published 1924.

  1. The Spark (pp. 173-226) (1860s)

Edith Wharton, Old New York cover

This third in Edith Wharton’s collection of novellas, Old New York, each of which is largely set in successive decades of the mid-century, 40s-70s, deals centrally with the effects of the Civil War (1861-65) on some of its ageing veterans in the upper echelons of New York society.

My father was an artilleryman in WWII. He endured much of the war as a POW. Not surprisingly he was traumatised by his experience, and rarely spoke about it. I was poignantly reminded of him in Wharton’s portrayal of Hayley Delane in this novella – another ‘shut-up fellow’ who ‘wouldn’t talk about the war.’

The Spark depicts him through the eyes of the young Harvard graduate who narrates three of the four novellas. He’s attracted to Delane by his standing morally aloof from the shallow, ethically bankrupt society of ‘well-to-do and indolent New Yorkers’ in ‘the archaic nineties’, yet being more than content to engage with them in their senseless social activities.

Our narrator is curious to discover what is the ‘hidden spark’ that motivates mild, ‘soft-hearted’ Delane to behave with such undemonstrative moral probity, while turning a blind eye to his wife’s heartless treatment of him, and seeming content to conform to the shallow pleasures of his social world. Furthermore, he seems once to have been a keen reader of poetry, and yet now shows no interest in literary matters. There’s a puzzling dichotomy in the man that he’s determined to get to the bottom of.

Delane’s wife Leila is a trivial, frivolous, flirtatious woman, fifteen years younger than her husband, who is besotted with her. The narrator is intrigued to see how ‘it was she who ruled and he who bent the neck’. She treats him with undisguised contempt in public, while making no attempt to conceal her serial flirtations – or perhaps affairs.

A crisis comes when Delane thrashes Leila’s most recent conquest for mistreating his polo pony. Delane is forced by his hypocritical friends to apologise to his rival; they assume it was a jealous outburst. The narrator is more inclined to believe Delane’s quietly insistent explanation: ‘”It’s the cruelty. I hate the cruelty”’.

Furthermore, having heard the wronged husband talk eloquently and knowledgeably about literature, he can’t believe ‘it was his marriage which had checked Delane’s interest in books.’ His ‘limited stock’ of quotations and allusions indicates his literary interests ceased long before he’d met Leila.

After showing an early interest in reading, especially of poetry, ‘when his mind had been receptive’, it had:

snapped shut on what it possessed, like a replete crustacean never reached by another high tide.’

When he discovers that Delane ‘ran away from school to volunteer’ to fight in the Civil War (hence this story’s billing as ‘the sixties’) and was wounded, he begins to understand what now sparks Delane’s soul into being. He’d ‘stopped living’, in a sense, aged about nineteen, at a date roughly coinciding with the end of the war, when he’d returned ‘to the common-place existence from which he had never since deviated’ – the vacuous, unthinking life he clearly now enjoyed, like the ‘merest fribble’: polo, cards, hunting and social gatherings in which his unfaithful wife could shine:

Those four years had apparently filled to the brim every crevice of his being.

The war had made him different – in a way not seen by most other veterans in his circle who bragged about their war experiences. Although indistinguishable in most ways from the rest of his narrow-minded social set, with their empty libraries and obsession with sensual pleasures, ‘it was only morally that he had gone on growing.’

Hence his calm defence of his unfaithful wife, of the cruelly abused horse, and of unfashionable moral principles and causes, ‘careless of public opinion’ in ‘important matters’ – even at the expense of his own reputation: ‘To Delane, only the movement itself counted’; he wasn’t interested in the social standing of those who supported it, or what society thought of him.

Fresco at Siena of GuidoriccioDaFogliano

The fresco at Siena, attributed to Simone Martini. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1046283

There are parallels here with the depiction in other Wharton fictional works of the roles and shortcomings of parents and children. The narrator of The Spark looks up to Delane with the devotion of a son to his father. This New York banker ‘of excessive weight’, mounted ‘heavily yet mightily’ on his polo pony in a ‘gaudy polo-shirt’, contrasted unbecomingly with the young rival for his wife’s affection, as Leila heartlessly points out. Yet he’s intrigued by some quality in this unusual man, and he senses depths beneath ‘his lazy, torpid’ ways, that would justify his love for the man. He ‘whimsically’ perceives him as an image of the 14C condottiero Guidoriccio da Foliagno, ‘the famous mercenary, riding at a slow powerful pace across the fortressed fresco of the Town Hall of Siena’ on ‘his armoured war-horse.’

Given what he discovers about Delane’s wartime experiences, this apparently incongruous image takes on greater significance. Despite his trauma, which atrophied much of his personal development, Delane has matured morally in ways that most of his peers can never match, and which the loving narrator instinctively perceives.

This develops in interesting ways the theme found in other works of fiction by Wharton, in which parents and surrogate parents vie for the devotion of their children, as in A Son at the Front, published in 1923, around the time of the first appearance of these four novellas in magazine form.

There’s another twist at the end, when we finally learn the identity of the person who was the catalyst for this ‘spark’ in Delane: it was the gentle, humane influence of Walt Whitman, who nursed him when he’d been wounded early in the war, at Bull Run. It’s well known that Wharton greatly admired Whitman’s poetry. The final irony of this strange story is that Delane blithely admits to his young friend that he considers his poetry ‘rubbish’.

Edith Wharton, The Old Maid

Edith Wharton (1862-1937), Old New York. Virago Modern Classics, 2006. First published 1924.

  1. The Old Maid (pp. 75-172) The 1850s

Running through three of the four novellas comprising Edith Wharton’s Old New York is the fear and presence of disease, in particular tuberculosis; it seems to be a metaphor for a number of things (as well as being an ever-present danger and cultural motif, as so many Romantic poets, Victorian novelists and artists attested in their own lives and work).

Edith Wharton, Old New York cover

The cover shows a detail from ‘The Reception’ by James Tissot (also known as ‘L’Ambitieuse’ or ‘Political Woman’, from a series done 1883-85, ‘La Femme à Paris’

In The Old Maid the disease has a central significance: Charlotte Lovell, an impoverished member of one of the ‘prosperous, prudent and yet lavish society’ of New York, falls ill and is feared to be “going like her father” – he’d died at thirty of ‘lung-fever’ – another name for TB or ‘consumption’. She has ominous ‘rounds of brick-rose on her cheek-bones, which almost (preposterous thought!) made her look as if she painted’.

This description early on in the novella is focalised through the narrator, her married cousin Delia Ralston. Delia’s patronising appraisal – that hint of the ‘painted woman’ or courtesan – invokes perhaps the stereotypical Camille/Violetta figure. Charlotte’s sickliness arises from her contaminated character in Delia’s old New Yorker’s eyes.

Robert Koch published in 1882 his microbiological findings on the tubercle bacillus (hence TB) as the contagious cause of tuberculosis. Until then it was believed to be inherited – hence the assumption about the physiological (as well as the metaphorical) etiology of Charlotte’s disease. Susan Sontag points out in Illness as Metaphor (1978) that TB was long thought to produce ‘exacerbated sexual desire’, afflicting ‘the reckless and sensual’ – a disease of passion or, paradoxically, repression.

Having the disease was ‘imagined to be an aphrodisiac, and to confer extraordinary powers of seduction.’ Charlotte could therefore be seen as representing a dangerously sexual woman, ‘consumed’ by passion. Her confession to Delia that she had an illegitimate baby daughter would confirm such a view.

It would also add weight to the interpretation that her disease is a consequence of the suppressed secret of her shame. A melodramatic plot follows (it was made into a stage play in 1935, and filmed in 1939 with Bette Davis in the title role, and Miriam Hopkins as Delia; life imitated art, in that they apparently strove to upstage each other on set with barely concealed mutual jealousy).

The baby’s father is revealed to be the man Delia had rejected as being too ‘reckless’; he was that unthinkable combination as a potential husband: a penniless artist and living in Italy. He’d not consented to ‘give up painting and Rome’. As in all the novellas in this collection, Italy is perceived as only good for taking the Grand Tour (as in False Dawn) and a suitable climate for consumptives to be shipped off to. As Italian-born Treeshy Kent says to her lover in False Dawn:

“My uncle Kent says the European countries are all wicked, even my own poor Italy…”

Delia chose instead the safe, unadventurous Jim Ralston, a stalwart of her ‘safe, friendly, hypocritical New York’, and settled for ‘the insidious lulling of the matter-of-course’, a marriage to a dull man whose forebears ‘had not come to the colonies to die for a creed but to live for a bank-account’. His ancestry is described in one of Edith Wharton’s more acerbic images:

Institutional to the core, they represented the conservative element that holds new societies together as seaplants bind the seashore.

As I suggested in my post on False Dawn, there’s an obsession with breeding in these top New York families that verges on eugenics. This is made clear in the opening pages of The Old Maid, and the description of the Ralston heritage. Marriages with Dutch Vandergraves:

had consolidated those qualities of thrift and handsome living, and the carefully built-up Ralston character was now so congenital that Delia Ralston sometimes asked herself whether, were she to turn her own little boy [after four years of marriage she’s the mother of two children] loose in a wilderness, he would not create a small New York there, and be on all its boards of directors.

The wittiness of this image is darkened by Delia’s uneasy acceptance of the underlying snobbishness and moral atrophy – characteristics of old New Yorkers that are skewered throughout the four novellas.

As for that racial purity: Delia warns off Charlotte’s fiancé, Joe Ralston, her husband’s cousin (there’s that obsession with blood purity again) – not by telling him about Charlotte’s baby, but that she’d recently coughed up blood. She knows what the outcome will be:

The bridegroom who had feared that his bride might bring home contagion from her visits to the poor would not knowingly implant disease in his race…[W]hich one [of the top New York families] had not some grave to care for in a distant cemetery: graves of young relatives “in a decline”, sent abroad to be cured by balmy Italy? The Protestant grave-yards of Rome and Pisa were full of New York names; the vision of that familiar pilgrimage with a dying wife was one to turn the most ardent Ralston cold.

The gender inequality in what were considered acceptable social mores is spelled out starkly when Delia justifies to herself her action in thus ‘sacrificing’ Charlotte as the only honourable thing to do:

Social tolerance was not dealt in the same measure to men and to women, and neither Delia nor Charlotte had ever wondered why: like all the young women of their class they simply bowed to the ineluctable.

One would hope that Delia’s subsequent taking in Charlotte and baby Tina to her household results in a rare case of female solidarity in Wharton’s world; instead their ménage becomes unbearably strained. Delia is fondly called ‘Mamma’ by the growing girl, which makes her biological mother jealous (she calls her ‘aunt Charlotte’); meanwhile Delia is jealous of Charlotte because she’s the biological mother. Charlotte’s acquiescence and abasement in the dowdy title role, sacrificing the possibility of a loving maternal role with her daughter to take on that of a shamed, sterile outcast, and is treated with condescending pity by the other two women, is painfully dramatized by Wharton.

 

 

 

 

Fleas and nightingales: Edith Wharton, False Dawn #NovNov

Edith Wharton (1862-1937), Old New York. Virago Modern Classics, 2006. First published 1924.

  1. False Dawn (pp. 3-74): The ‘Forties.

I was intending a post on all four of the novellas in this collection together, but I decided it was worth devoting a whole post to each one. They deal respectively with the New York of the 1840s, 50s, 60s and 70s. These can serve as my contribution to bloggers posting on Novellas in November #NovNov (no particular host; I learned about it from Bookish Beck)

This is the same complacent, morally bankrupt New York world that Wharton indicted so trenchantly in novels like The Age of Innocence (link to my post HERE). Some of the characters and motifs reappear from that 1920 novel across this collection.

Edith Wharton, Old New York cover

The cover shows a detail from ‘The Reception’ by James Tissot (also known as ‘L’Ambitieuse’ or ‘Political Woman’, from a series done 1883-85, ‘La Femme à Paris’

The plot is simple: a bastion of conservative, wealthy New York, Halston Raycie, sends his son, whom he considers a weakling, on the European ‘Grand Tour’ to make a man of him, but also to buy a collection of artworks that will fill his planned Raycie Gallery. He’s an ignorant philistine, and wants only those universally acknowledged Old Masters that mean nothing to him, but that he has learnt are esteemed as “acceptable taste” and considered worthy as ostenatious domestic ornaments by his equally ignorant, mercenary peers. He’s not interested in the aesthetics of the mission, just the anticipated glory acquired by owning ‘a gallery of Heirlooms’. On this he is ‘dogmatic and explicit.’

No surprises how all this turns out. More interesting is the depiction of this monstrous patriarch and his family. Here’s how we first hear about his own marriage and lineage:

He thought well of most things related to himself by ties of blood or interest. No one had ever been quite sure that he made Mrs Raycie happy, but he was known to have the highest opinion of her.

As for his two daughters, ‘fresher replicas of the lymphatic Mrs Raycie’,

no one would have sworn that they were quite at ease with their genial parent, yet everyone knew how loud he was in their praises.

The son Lewis, however, is a disappointment to the ‘monumental’ father (in physique as well as public image). He’s rather a puny specimen, and like his submissive mother and downtrodden sisters has had most of the stuffing knocked out of him by his bullying father; but he’s determined to defy the bully. His sister Mary Adeline also shows signs of pluck and decency by secretly supplying alms to the destitute and ailing Mrs Edgar Poe, of all people, who lives nearby. The father, of course, despises the decadent author, considering him ‘a blasphemer’.

Raycie snr adheres to the views of the New York élite that Wharton has skewered in her novels set in that city: be ‘prudent and circumspect’, take no risks and behave entirely conventionally (morality is less important than appearances and wealth). Only marry into the most respectable (and wealthy) families, and disparage anything outside of this narrow, self-approving social circle and its cruelly rigid moral code.

So it’s with some trepidation that we read of Lewis’s love for dowdy orphan Treeshy. She’s had the misfortune (in the Raycie view) to be born in Italy – a susipiciously foreign background – and to be less than beautiful. A society wife should adorn and magnify her husband like a trophy (as Mrs Raycie does with her expensive imported clothes and impeccably conventional household décor and customs).

Lewis’s bravado increases the further away from New York he travels. He thinks of his father’s ‘fussy tyranny of his womenkind’. Mrs Raycie is given a pittance of pin-money by her husband out of the fortune she herself had brought to the marriage, and which he’d taken over. This was of course the era when all of a wife’s property became the husband’s after marriage. What little she’s allowed by him is expected to be spent on the fripperies that make her look the part of such a grand husband.

The account of young Lewis’s tour is entertainingly done. Here’s how ‘the East’ is described:

so squalid and splendid, so pestilent and so poetic, so full of knavery and romance and fleas and nightingales.

When he meets John Ruskin, the Pre-Raphaelites and other forward-thinking aesthetes in Europe he’s rashly inspired to buy the paintings that the philistine New York-Raycie world will deprecate. Poor Lewis; his rite of passage into manhood is doomed from the start. To his credit, he sticks to his principles, and tries to behave ‘humanely’. So many of such social rebels in Wharton’s fiction, though, end up crushed by that snobbish, inbred social élite, ‘encased in [its] security and monotony’, adorned by its ‘pearls and Rolls and Royces.’

It’s a privileged, snobbish, self-perpetuating society that Wharton shows engaging in a kind of social eugenics – the theme of tainted lineage crops up again and again in Old New York and her other fiction. Like that of impoverished Treeshy, brought up among ‘ignorant foreigners’. It’s a xenophobia that is shown not just towards foreigners, but to anyone deemed socially ‘not one of us’, as Mrs Thatcher so memorably, chillingly put it.

Link to my posts on seven more works of Wharton fiction HERE.

 

 

 

Only women grow up: Kay Boyle, My Next Bride

Kay Boyle, My Next Bride. Virago Modern Classics, 1986. First published in America, 1934

If ever I see the faces of Brancusi, or Duchamp, or Gertrude Stein, I shall look the other way because of the history of courage they made for you. “If you can’t live hard, die holy like a piece of cheese, Victoria.”

Kay Boyle My Next Bride cover

The cover of this handsome VMC paperback shows ‘Mrs Douglas Illingworth’ by Meredith Frampton

This cryptic thought and strange aphorism appears in parentheses early in Kay Boyle’s künstlerroman My Next Bride. It thus contrasts bracingly with the Modernist narrative account of the early scene in which nineteen-year-old, virginal Victoria John unpacks her few treasures in a decrepit, crumbling boarding house at which she’s just arrived in Neuilly, Paris.

It’s the early thirties, and Paris is the city of that Lost Generation of American expats like Victoria (and Kay Boyle). She’s an aspiring artist (who favours, significantly, portraits from the lives of the saints) whose much-loved woman friend, an older Australian vaudeville singer called Lacey, with whom she’d hoboed across the States and Canada, had recently committed suicide. Lacey had challenged and inspired her, ‘a stricken thin madonna’ who’d said to the ingénue Victoria, in addition to the startling words quoted above, that ‘life was an obligation in arrogance, talk an experiment in insult.’

What I’ve quoted so far indicates that Boyle’s narrative voice is typical of its period and her coterie: experimental, unconventional, fragmented and poetic. Perspectives shift abruptly, mid-paragraph, even mid-sentence: the Modernist verbal equivalent of the artistic developments favoured by the avant-garde of Montparnasse in which she moved. Dos Passos, Pound and Hemingway had been there – some of the few names Boyle doesn’t let drop. Archibald MacLeish is name-checked, DH Lawrence, Picasso. No wonder Victoria gravitated there to develop as an artist, to find herself as an artist and person.

It’s a thinly veiled autobiographical novel. Victoria, like Boyle, joins a commune run by a shady American proto-hippy named Sorrel. He’s clearly based on Isadora Duncan’s brother Raymond. A charlatan scoundrel, who preys upon lost souls like Victoria and lures them into his squalid community to exploit. She’s put to work as a salesgirl in his shop in fashionable central Paris; the stock is the hand-crafted tat churned out by his doting disciples. He meanwhile swans around in classical Greek robes and sandals, striking poses and extolling the virtues of the simple life, dance, art, vegetarianism, and free love. Entering this group, where washing up is rarely done and the food is vile, is like ‘taking the veil’, another member breathlessly tells Victoria, unaware of the hypocrisy of her despicable phoney guru, who pockets a wealthy American patroness’s cash at the end and takes off for the Riviera with his mistress. “They don’t know what they want,” he confides to wide-eyed Victoria at one point, gleefully.

Victoria is attracted to the charismatic Anthony Lister, who seems to be based on a combination of Harry Crosby, the wealthy, sexually promiscuous playboy who with his wife Caresse was part of the bohemian expat artistic scene in Paris, and Laurence Vail, modernist sculptor and writer who was became Boyle’s second husband in 1932. He’d previously been married to Peggy Guggenheim, the heiress, who appears in the novel as Fontana (also resembling Caresse C.), destined to become Victoria’s most true friend – if not her next bride.

He quickly singles out Victoria as his next bride, chatting her up with the most bizarre line in garbled stream-of-consciousness monologues, that read like an Imagist poet on opium (pretty much like Crosby, then). Here’s a sample from their first meeting:

“It’s the first time I’ve walked up this side of the street. I always take the other. I believe in embassies, and always in the emissary of the soul. The patterns on these walls take the sight right out of the eye like an operation. My name’s Anthony,” he said, his eyes escaping. “I believe in bone.”

Right. Not sure what escaping eyes look like, but this is impressive hokum.

After numerous late-night debauches with him Victoria comes to see his darker, troubled side. When she’d told him of the problematic issue of the poor (herself included), he replied:

Rich or poor, every one was stabbing every one else with hate, stabbing in envy and in terror. “It isn’t a great deal to ask, only that every one put down their weapons…I ask that people give up their brides. The whole universe on a honeymoon of horror, wedded to their daggers, stabbing their way from one betrayal to the next…”

Poor Anthony. He knows there’s more to life than partying, being ‘the eternal bridegroom’, despite his best efforts to prove otherwise.

Some of the best scenes in this uneven novel (brilliant at its best, which is most of the time; dire in places) involve the two starving, genteel Russian sisters living in the grim Neuilly boarding house. Aristocrats from before the Revolution, they’re reduced to applying to an agency for domestic staff where, in a scene of comic genius, they’re mistaken as employers in search of maids, when in fact they’re looking for work themselves, but can’t quite articulate this evidence of how low they’ve sunk.

Fontana’s dog is excellent, too:

The Russian dog came after them into the car and slouched down beside them, incredibly bored, incredibly clean, with his hair curled smooth as a caracal and his loose, tapering limbs bent under his pointed breast.

In later life Boyle became a fervent social activist, fingered by the McCarthyists for her left-wing tendencies. In this novel there are signs of this tendency, as in a stirring speech towards the end from Victoria to privileged but angst-ridden Anthony. She’s begun to grow up, to see through fakes like Sorrel, and to discern the self-indulgence of Anthony’s atrophied poeticisms:

Only women grow up, Victoria was thinking; men go on remembering the time when their families stood on guard about them, or the books on the table, or the silver, and there was no need for explanation. Haven’t you learned that once cut out of the family’s life you are a single thing given to yourself and other people, carved out separate to stand alone or not to stand at all?

Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado is a weaker, more frivolous version of My Next Bride‘s more ambitious, satisfying account of a young American woman’s painful growth into selfhood and discovery of love’s unexpected springs.

 

Angela Thirkell, Wild Strawberries

Angela Thirkell, Wild Strawberries. Virago Modern Classics, 2012. 19341

Europe was at a turning point in 1934, when this light romantic comedy was published. This was the year Hitler became Führer of Germany, having been made Chancellor the previous year. Mussolini had been increasing his grip as Il Duce in Italy from the 1920s. Britain was still bruised from the effects of WWI, and wary of political engagement with the rest of the continent – a condition it has recently found attractive again, when ‘foreigner’ means ‘not one of us’. We don’t seem to learn from the lessons of history.

Thirkell Wild Strawberries coverWild Strawberries is the second of Thirkell’s almost thirty ‘Barsetshire’ novels, set in a fictional province of England that’s loosely based on Trollope’s world. I read and posted about the first, High Rising, last October. She wrote for money, hence her prolific output. As I said about her novelist protagonist Laura in High Rising, she was unabashed in her role as running a production line of middle-brow, undemanding romantic comedies of dubious and, according to some accounts, uneven literary quality; they were very successful.

I read this one because I was due to undergo tests in hospital and anticipated long waits and delays. I needed something light and diverting. Thirkell is perfect for such situations.

I enjoyed the comedy. There are some very funny situations and jokes (the butler’s name is Gudgeon, which I find implausibly funny). Some of these involve charming, feral small children and their excessively doting mother – though her monomania became tiresome after a while.

Some of the characters produce some engaging humour, too. Lady Emily Leslie, daughter of an earl, is the eccentric matriarch of Rushwater House, the large country seat of her family. She is capable of producing chaos in the most orderly of households; her constant mislaying of her spectacles and other personal items resonated with me – I have a pair of reading glasses in every room to overcome this forgetful tendency.

Her husband is more problematic; he reminds me of the boorish xenophobe Uncle Matthew in Nancy Mitford’s Pursuit of Love and its sequels. We’re supposed, I think, to find his implacable antipathy to foreigners amusing. It isn’t.

Thirkell tends to produce characters with just one defining characteristic, like Lady Leslie’s meddlesome vagueness. This works for Dickens, who also produces more fully rounded characters to offset these caricatures. In Thirkell’s novel of 275 pages the effect is wearing. None of the characters has sufficient gravitas or depth to carry a plot.

And the plot is gossamer light. Will penniless Mary, a cousin by marriage (not a blood relative) of the eligible bachelor Leslies, succumb to the gigolo charms of handsome but feckless, selfish David, or for the more stolid decency of boring widower brother John? I thought it was pretty obvious from the outset what would happen, and didn’t really care either way.

I did find the depiction of ingenuous, inexperienced Mary’s infatuation with debonaire charmer David well done; the narrator makes no bones about his egotism and cruel flirtatiousness. Yet the more caddish and careless his treatment of her, the more she longs for him. Who hasn’t fallen for the wrong person at some point?

The novel works fairly well, as a whole, as an entertaining diversion (but see my conclusions below). I can’t agree with Alexander McCall Smith’s claim in the introduction that this is a different world from Wodehouse’s: these people have jobs, he says, and ‘they do not spend their time in an endless whirl of silliness.’ Really?

Take David, who’s so rich he doesn’t have to work. He goes for an audition with the BBC, and ruins his chances by having an attack of giggles. He doesn’t need the job, and is disdainful of this outcome – instead he launches a campaign in pursuit of the bluestocking young woman who’d have been his boss in that job. One of the high points of the narrative, for me, was when she told him, as his advances became tiresome, to get lost.

There’s a slight element of seriousness that adds a bit of substance to this frothy tale: the death of one of the Leslie sons as an officer in WWI still casts a shadow over the family, and the pain of his loss in the carnage of that war is still with them. ‘The War broke up the happy life of county England,’ the narrator tells us at one point. But this refers to the social whirl, the complacent luxury of the upper classes; Thirkell has no interest in wider issues – unless we count the dabbling among the younger generation of characters with French Royalism. And this could easily tip over into some further politically dodgy attitudes. Fortunately Thirkell loses interest in this plot line – as she does with all the others, and the novel fizzles out into a disappointing, predictable ending.

Ultimately the novel is marred for me, and I find I can’t recommend it, because of the casual xenophobia and racism. Smith, in that introduction, concedes some of the language ‘offends the modern ear’, but it ‘merely reflects the attitudes of the time.’ I see this excuse so often, and I find that I don’t agree that this condones these attitudes.

It did take my mind off the hospital appointments, so it served its purpose.

PS update/afterthought. I meant to mention, in relation to the rise of fascism at the time of this novel’s publication, that Thirkell includes a chilling moment in the narrative. Some of our main characters are at the railway station when a train from the city arrives and disgorges hordes of young people dressed in hiking clothes, out for a ramble in the country. As they pass our young toffs they give a fascist salute. Thirkell simply relates this and passes on, unperturbed – no comment, nothing. I found this very disturbing: the salute, and the lack of authorial comment.

Tears and immolation: Elizabeth Taylor, Blaming

Elizabeth Taylor, Blaming. Virago Modern Classics, 2007. 19761

Middle-aged Englishwoman Amy Henderson meets Martha, an American writer who seems to be about thirty, on a cruise. Disaster strikes when their ship is docked at Istanbul, and this eccentric, impulsive American whom she’d not really liked looks after her and takes her home.

Amy’s lack of affect, her inability to connect with others – instead she shows a catlike indifference, even spitefulness – or to reciprocate the kindness Martha had shown her when she needs it, brings about the situation where Amy’s self-recrimination sets in, too late to stave off further disaster. Hence the blame in the title. With blame come guilt and pain.

Elizabeth Taylor’s final novel, published posthumously, was completed while she knew she was dying of cancer. It’s not surprising that death, mortality and bereavement are central features in the narrative.

Taylor is as usual interested mostly in the behaviour of middle-class women like Amy, refined but emotionally stunted, finding herself in situations where emotional intelligence is required of her, and she is unable to summon it up. Instead she’s judgemental, aloof, indifferent and solitary. She looks up one of Martha’s novels in the library – a rare sign of curiosity in another person. She ‘skipped through it’:

And thought what a stifling little world it was, of a love affair gone wrong, of sleeping pills and contraceptives, tears, immolation.

This tells us a great deal about free-spirited, prodigal Martha, with her rather hippy-ish dress sense, brusque manners and frank American inquisitiveness about other people – qualities the exact opposite of this buttoned-up English ‘Memsahib’, as Martha’s lover Simon, her implausibly ‘quiet American’, sees Amy when he finally meets her.

It’s more revealing about Amy. Her dismissal of Martha’s fictional themes suggests she’s wary and scornful of such messy living, with its exposures, pain and evasions, and of such effusive openness, with which comes a vulnerability she deplores. The narrator’s astuteness consists in her withholding judgement or analysis: we’re simply shown the scene, and trusted to savour the ironies and implications.

Martha’s relationship with the rather bland, needy Simon is interesting, and reveals some of the contradictions in her. She says she’s drawn to quiet men like him, yet has a brash manner herself; she likens him to a cat. She appears to pity him rather than love him – she’s drawn to lonely people like him and Amy. “Like you, he can’t make friends,” she tells Amy. That’s Martha’s mission, it seems: to try to help people connect when they’re struggling to do so. It’s her way of making her own human connections in a world full of misconstrued motives and misinterpretations of the words and actions of others.

Taylor is sharp-eyed about these complexities and contradictions in character, these occlusions in social intercourse. Beneath the unaffected, confident manner, Martha is in her own way troubled and lonely. And that, as I’ve said before about other works of fiction by Elizabeth Taylor (novels and short stories: links at the end of this post), is one of her central themes: the loneliness of the middle-class, middle-aged woman.

In Amy’s case it’s largely self-induced. Martha takes her to task about it: ‘” You’re simply not interested in other people”’. Amy is so typically English, she thinks, when she observes Amy saying things like “Terribly good, don’t you think?”: the manner of talking with ‘all syllables articulate, the disposition quite detached.’ Taylor the observant novelist, observing this observer.

Secondary characters are also well drawn. Ernie, Martha’s camp ‘housekeeper’ (in earlier times he’d have been called a butler, a down-market, hypochondriac Jeeves), obsessed with his new false teeth and women wrestlers, making mysterious visits on his evenings off to a jazz club, of all places. He’s both too servile and too familiar, Simon thinks.

Amy’s son and daughter-in-law, Maggie, are brilliantly done: their selfishness and irritation with Amy are palpable in a scene which Jonathan Keates in his Introduction to this edition compares with a similar one in Sense and Sensibility. Maggie delivers the most devastatingly chilling line in the novel – but I won’t quote it here because it’s a bit of a spoiler. It reveals how Amy doesn’t do intimacy, inspiring little affection in those around her as a consequence. Martha’s attentiveness to Amy in extremity and afterwards is thus rendered more touching (though she too has her own not entirely selfless motives for having ‘intruded’, as Amy sees it, into her life).

Another of Taylor’s areas of genius is her depiction of children; Amy’s two granddaughters are one of the highlights of a novel that at times needed a little more brightness. The four-year-old is a monster, her elder sister, a prissy goody-two-shoes.

As with Jane Austen, much of the reading pleasure in an Elizabeth Taylor novel comes from the dialogue. Amy’s repressed Englishness is shown both in sentences we hear her utter, as Martha notes – but also in the narrative comments. Early on, during the cruise, for example, she has an exchange with Martha that’s represented as almost painfully clipped, evasive and elided. ‘Very taut this conversation’, our narrator deftly summarises at its end.

Given the circumstances in which this novel was written, it’s a remarkable achievement. Not Taylor’s finest, but still superior to much else being done at the time. The novel left me feeling a little bleak and bereft, despite the moments of light humour.

My previous Elizabeth Taylor posts:

The Complete Short Stories

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

Angel

The Soul of Kindness

In a Summer Season

 

Becoming insane: Patricia Highsmith, Little Tales of Misogyny

Patricia Highsmith, Little Tales of Misogyny. Virago Modern Classics, 2015.

There are 17 very short stories printed in a large font in this slim volume of just 135 pages, so they’re probably best described as flash fiction.

They were first published in German in Switzerland in 1975 with a title that translates as “Little Tales for Misogynists”, as Nicholas Lezard points out in his Guardian article about them. Rather than serving to teach misogynists a lesson, he suggests, ‘it’s something you might give a misogynist on his birthday’. Yes, “his”.

They do provide venomous but curiously affectless little accounts of some pretty horrible women. Their titles indicate that Highsmith takes mischievous aim at some stereotypical female figures in the patriarchy: The Coquette, The Female Novelist, The Dancer, The Invalid, The Middle-Class Housewife, and so on. Most of them behave despicably, and most come to a seemingly deserved or inevitable sticky end.

Highsmith Misogyny coverThe sheer nastiness of the protagonists and the calmly detached tone of the narrative voice that depicts their atrocities before despatching them make for some uncomfortable reading. What was Highsmith playing at? Ok, she’s famous for the twisted, psychopathic behaviour of some of her best-known characters in her full-length fiction, such as Ripley. Here she seems to be up to something different from those novels that induced Graham Greene to describe her as ‘the poet of apprehension’.

The stories read like fairy-tales or parables, with more in common with Kafka’s than Aesop’s, or Angela Carter’s with the feminism and metaphysics redacted. In the first story, for example, a young man ‘asked a father for his daughter’s hand, and received it in a box – her left hand.’ It’s the insouciant irrelevance of that last phrase that causes such a tingle down the spine.

The young man not surprisingly goes mad, or ‘became insane’ as the narrator blithely puts it. The young woman visits him in the asylum ‘like a dutiful wife’. By now, it’s apparent that every time there’s one of those deceptively anodyne statements in the story, it’s going to be followed by something vicious – and it is here:

And like most wives, she had nothing to say. But she smiled prettily. His job provided a small pension now, which she was getting. Her stump was concealed in a muff.

The women in these stories behave like monstrous caricatures of the casually misogynistic male views and attitudes prevalent in the popular culture of the fifties and sixties – the ultra Don Drapers. Their men drool or despair and often, like the young man with the girl’s hand, ‘become insane’.

One way of reading the stories is to see that the women are in fact simply conforming to that male stereotype that’s been constructed for them. In Oona, the Jolly Cavewoman, for example, she’s described like a Playboy bunny:

She was round, round-bellied, round-shouldered, round-hipped, and always smiling, always jolly. That was why men liked her.

Really? What did men like about her – the curves, or the jolly smiles? Either way they’re shallow and stupid. Oona drives them crazy – literally. So whose fault is that?

Some of the women characters, however, are plain malicious. The Coquette, for example, lost her virginity when she was just ten years old. She ‘told her mother that she was raped.’ She had thus ‘sent a thirty-year-old man to prison.’ Yet she’d effectively seduced him, delighting in presenting herself as sexually provocative and alluring, and she takes pleasure in ruining his life – and his wife and daughter’s. When she pits two suitors who bore her against each other, they collude and kill her ‘with various blows about the head.’ There’s that weird tone again: it’s the detachment of a police report stripped bare of any moral stance.

The world, then, is a mean and nasty place, according to these stories. Men objectify women, who are restricted to roles as submissive, decorative housewives or sex objects. If  women strive for agency or fulfilment, like The Female Novelist, The Artist or The Dancer, they are either deluded or just randomly murdered. Feminists are as morally anaesthetised and unhinged as the Middle-Class Housewife; when they meet, there’s mayhem and death.

Are these just pitch-black comedies? There’s humour there for sure, as I hope the extracts I’ve given indicate – but it’s dark as night. Take the title alone of The Fully-Licensed Whore, or, The Wife. Shades there perhaps of Sue Bridewell’s objection to marriage in Jude the Obscure as being ‘licensed to be loved on the premises.’

Or there’s The Breeder: a woman who gives birth to 17 children in fewer years. Her husband’s friends make the expression ‘she gets pregnant every time he looks at her’ horribly literal. He has little option but to become insane. When the wife visits him in yet another asylum he suggests she stand on her head to reverse the process that seemed to instigate her fecundity. The story ends with another typically barbed banality in response to that:

“He’s mad,” Elaine said hopelessly to the intern, and calmly turned away.

It’s that blandly calm detachment and acceptance of the horrific that’s so chilling, conveyed by those two perfectly selected adverbs. Warped humour that’s not exactly funny, but insidious: it’s assumed that Elaine is quite right to have no hope.

On first reading I felt pleased that I didn’t inhabit this bizarre and unsettling distortion or moral inversion of the real world. Looking again at these narratives I’m inclined to think that maybe it’s not such a distortion. Like parables and some fairy-tales, ‘the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and we know that already.’ In striving to rid ourselves of our daily cares we simply exacerbate them, just as attempts to interpret these tales become parables themselves.

‘Misogynists’ is probably a misnomer, then. They’re really subversive Little Tales of Misanthropy to cheer us all up.

I’ve posted on these other Highsmith titles:

Carol

Edith’s Diary

A Suspension of Mercy

 

Elaine Dundy, The Old Man and Me

Last summer I posted on Elaine Dundy’s 1958 novelistic debut, The Dud Avocado – I found it frothy but funny, with a silly plot but some great jokes, and an engaging ingénue of a first-person narrator.

Elaine Dundy, The Old Man and Me cover

The cover of my Virago Modern Classics edition, a reissue that first appeared in 2005.

 The Old Man and Me fell flat in comparison. Mostly, for me, because it’s too close in form and content to Avocado: an frivolous, immature and free-spirited young expat woman (London this time, not Paris), not long out of college, crashes through a series of disastrous escapades involving louche, selfish men, catty, bored women, with a fair smattering of marijuana, booze, sex and jazz.

The plot is just as silly and trivial, based on assumed identity, mutual passion weirdly mixed with murderous vengefulness. The narrator-protagonist is implausibly (and, it turns out, falsely) named Honey Flood. Like Sally Jay, Honey’s name suits her gushing, demotic narrative flow.

Elaine Dundy’s introduction, written some forty years after the novel’s first publication, sets out her intentions. She wanted to provide an anti-heroine counterpart to the Angry Young Men so fashionable in late fifties English literature. Their bile was directed at ‘everything phony, pompous, priggish, prudish and pretentious’ (she must have run out of synonyms beginning with P). She wanted her female equivalent to be as exhilaratingly angry – a tricky task at the time when women were ‘depicted as passive and put upon’.

She realised ‘Bad Girls are more interesting’, so she made Honey hate everything about the English: ‘Soho, Mayfair, the West End and country houses.’ She’s opinionated, operates ‘on a short fuse’, and has a dastardly plan – ‘to kill the Englishman [the Old Man of the title is overweight, ugly and in his fifties] because he has the money.’

This is the England of 1962, before the invention of the Beatles and sex, as Larkin famously lamented — pre-Swinging London. The scars of WW2 are still apparent – physically and psychologically. Honey of course has no interest in this.

To her credit, Elaine Dundy has Honey’s English target, the Old Man named C.D. McKee, as vitriolic and intolerant about America as she is about England. But these jokes wear thin after a while.

There are just too many scenes in seedy clubs or jazz dens full of socialites and bores all lined up tamely for our Anglophobic narrator to tear to pieces. Trouble is, she’s no better herself. She somehow lacks the charm of Sally Jay – or maybe I was just immune second time round to this kind of humour.

There are some fine set pieces and sentences, which just about make the book worth persevering with. By Chapter 2 I was seriously considering giving up on it, then was jolted back into life by this lovely dash of nastiness about the pseudo-posh, ultra-pretentious London restaurant, the Truite Bleu.

The chapter opens with Honey’s unimpressed take on the ‘battered neon trout sign’ hanging outside, impressing her only with its sense of ‘frank senility’. Inside all is shabby and squalid. The staff are brilliantly evoked, like rude, elderly trout themselves – ‘you had to admire that kind of professional slackness,’ Honey sourly observes as the coat-check guy drops her coat with disdainful carelessness on the floor.

The description of the interior is priceless: it’s hideous, stuffy and smelly.Then there are the waiters. They

looked as if they’d staggered out of an old dark hole. They creaked and wobbled and limped and trembled under their loads, their turkey-gobbler necks rising pink from their stiff wing collars.

Their rudeness and incompetence goes unnoticed by the English diners, who look (to Honey) unaccountably contented:

Their genuinely old-fashioned bad service that was being meted out impartially was instantly recognizable as the real thing: a subtle sophisticated Old World incompetence we Americans can never hope to emulate, the best our rustic efforts can produce being a superficial smart-alec surliness not to be spoken of in the same breath as this lofty disdain which was both thoughtful and thorough…These waiters were hand-picked for pleurisy, deafness, and a variety of speech defects. They were flushed of skin, gnarled of hand. The dishes that jumped on to the floor from their palsied hands were never referred to again, as it were, but just lay there for the rest of the evening to be ground under foot by passers-by.

There’s a great line at the equally dire country house Honey is invited to with her would-be seducee, the Old Man. He tells her of a woman he needs to avoid there: she’s a notorious gold-digger, who married a wealthy Italian nobleman who ‘treated her vilely’, ran through his money and ‘had the appalling taste to die practically penniless.’ He goes on:

“Anyone can buy nobility”, she said to me soon after, “but who can buy money?”

And that’s about it. The two stand-out funny bits.

There’s a fuller account of plot and a less jaundiced reading of the novel at HeavenAli’s blog from Dec. 2018; she found it ‘wickedly funny’. Like Ali, I found my copy of the VMC paperback in a charity shop. It looked unread.

 

 

Patricia Highsmith, A Suspension of Mercy

Patricia Highsmith, A Suspension of Mercy. VMC. First published 1965

I’m not usually keen on suspense thrillers, as I find they generally lack suspense and don’t thrill. A Suspension of Mercy did little to change my mind. I found it contrived and far-fetched.

The central character Sydney is an American thriller writer who fantasises about murdering his posh English wife Alicia, and gets a kick out of giving his neighbours and friends the impression that he’s indulged that fantasy, offering an implausible-sounding (but true) explanation that they’re having a trial separation – it’s difficult to see why Alicia put up with his abusive, selfish behaviour for as long as a year.

Highsmith Suspension coverIt’s set in rural Suffolk, and mirrors many key aspects of Highsmith’s own life at the time. But even the post-modern metafictional aspects failed to engage me: they too seemed self-indulgent. It seemed to me that PH was having far more fun writing this novel than I was in reading it. Like she’d set herself a challenge to write a murder mystery without a murder – an exercise in plotting. Her characters as a consequence have all the vitality of chess pieces.

Sydney’s slightly deranged flirting with danger in posing as a wife-killer, even though he was innocent, is portrayed with chilling detachment, and this is perhaps the most skilled part of the plotting and characterisation: the doubling and subversion of reliable narrative voice that are among PH’s trademarks work pretty well here.

What’s less successful is the highly unlikely actions of the married pair as their situation spirals out of control. People do die, one more or less of natural causes, though Sydney is again under suspicion, one who is murdered; but neither of the married pair behaves in a convincing manner. They behave in order to keep the plot ticking over, and cease to convince as well-rounded characters.

The secondary characters are also bloodless and serve to move the plot along or keep it tangled, little else – though I quite liked the treacherous turn Sydney’s writing partner Alex takes. People can be horrible like that.

This novel was disappointing. I thought the two others by PH that I’ve read and posted on – Carol and Edith’s Diary – were well written, tautly plotted and psychologically interesting and highly original. A Suspension of Mercy is inferior to them in every respect.