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The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

The Age of Innocence is my choice for the 1920 Club. Its portrayal of restriction seems very appropriate for our times. Here we read of a narrow society, which curbs its members with invisible rules and customs. Mostly set in Old New York in 1871 the fates of three young people are determined by these outdated codes. In this novel Edith Wharton returns to the theme of love outside society’s boundaries. 

The 1920 Club is hosted by Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. Bloggers read a book from the year and post their thoughts on it, linking to their blogs. Simples, and a great way to choose a book that you might not otherwise read. It suits me perfectly, because I don’t want to chase new books all the time, but read and reread books, especially from the 20th century. 

The Age of Innocence

We are in New York at a precise time, 1871. We follow Newland Archer, a young man who is accomplished and cultured and believes himself a little above the society into which he was born. He will find himself as trapped by the families’ codes as everyone else, especially as he is about to announce his engagement to May Welland.

There is a problem for May’s cousin Ellen Olenska has just returned from Europe where it is known that she has abandoned her marriage to a Polish count. No matter that he is the transgressor, in Old New York  circles it is the woman of a failed marriage who is ostracised. And divorce is not accepted. And no-one in this circle speaks directly about these difficult matters.

Newland Archer agrees to announce his engagement early in order to protect May by accepting the Countess. He also persuades Ellen not to divorce her husband. He gradually falls for Ellen, and the feeling is mutual. Sensing that his attentions are elsewhere, but we are not sure if she is aware of his entanglement with Ellen, May offers to release Archer from the engagement, but he feels obliged by duty to continue to the wedding. As the Archer and Ellen become more involved everybody assumes they are lovers and conspire with May to exclude her. At the point when Archer decides that he will abandon May and follow Ellen to Europe, May reveals that she is pregnant.

Archer assumes he is above the double standards that he can so clearly see operating within their close circle. Early on he announces the revolutionary idea that men and women should be judged by the same standards. He imagines that he will achieve a companionate marriage with May, while at the same time thinking in terms of possessing her, and expecting the impossible innocence (ignorance) and purity that was implied in her virginal appearance. The author early on reveals that he assumes he is not caught by the practices, especially the silences and social estrangements that the families enforce. But he is too weak, or is it too loyal to May, to go directly against the codes. And because he is a man he has less to lose than either woman, and benefits from these codes and double standards. And because he is a man he has been trained to be self-centred.

May has been schooled in the ways of the families. Her appearance is perfect, she has intelligence, but does not use it for cultural ends. Archer quickly comes to see that marriage to her will not bring companionship but perpetuate the relationships of the society into which they were born. She out-manoeuvres Archer at every turn. It is so well done that one is not sure how far she does it consciously, that is until her final conversation with Ellen is revealed when May was deceitful even as she played her trump card.

Ellen is a more sympathetic character. Her appearance especially her interests and clothing are unorthodox, coming as she does from Europe. She challenges the mores of Old New York by the style of her appearance, the décor in her house, her social practices, and especially by her relationship with Newland Archer. She also has a way of escape. Having been persuaded not to divorce her abusive husband, and therefore with no independence or money of her own she takes a stipend from the matriarch of the family and returns to Europe. 

All three characters have suffered from the limitations of New York in the 1870s. The final chapter reveal that within a few decades it has all changed. And of course the massive social upheaval of the First World War had played its part in that.

Edith Wharton in 1920

Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton knew what she was writing about. She had been raised in New York in the 1870s, in the social milieu that she describes in this novel. She had made a bad marriage, and her husband had embezzled her money and they were finally divorced in 1913. From 1908-10 she was involved in a passionate love affair with Morton Fullerton an American journalist.in Paris. The Age of Innocence was her 12th novel and she was recognised as an exceptional writer in America as well as Europe where she now lived.

Reading The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence, 1st editiion

The introduction by Sarah Blackwood to the Penguin edition can be found on the Literary Hub website. She draws readers’ attention to the details in the novel. Indeed much of the tightness, restrictions of the world of the Archers and Wellands is achieved by precise details: of the time (details of plays, opera performances, books and so forth); the place (street names, descriptions of the Museum before it became the Metropolitan); physical details of houses, gardens, interiors; and clothing. The details do other work, such as revealing some of the unspoken fracture lines: eg the muddy wedding dress dragging after May across the room (p229). Throughout the novel it is clear that the characters can read every details of each other’s behaviour, and that May can do this best of all. 

The book in the past was been portrayed as costume drama, a historical romance, but that is misleading. The wedding of May and Newland occurs precisely half way through this book and it explores myths and challenges of marriage and notes that social change is on its way. 

Scorcese’s film was made in 1993, and appears to have been a costume drama starring Daniel Day Lewis, Winona Ryder and Michelle Pfeiffer. It was critically acclaimed, but apparently did not do well at the box office. I have not seen it.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton first published in 1920. I used the edition published by Oxford World’s Classics. 265pp

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1921

No 45 on the Guardian’s List of 100 best novels

Related posts on Bookword

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (1906) 

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton (1911)

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Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

This might have been a morality tale, a warning of the dreadful things that happen when your marriage turns sour, or when you consider committing suicide. But this is written by Edith Wharton, when her own disastrous marriage was at an end and she had fallen in love with Morton Fullerton and was living in Europe. The year was 1911, and society still found it easy to condemn people who found it hard to remain committed to a bad marriage. Edith Wharton was independently wealthy enough to afford a separation. She writes about people who did not have the means to do anything but stay married.

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

The story is set up by an unnamed narrator who is intrigued by what happened to Ethan Frome. The ‘author’ is in the well-named Starkfield, a small town in Massachusetts. 

It was there that, several years ago, I saw him for the first time; and the sight pulled me up sharp. Even then he was the most striking figure in Starkfield, though he was but a ruin of a man. It was not so much his great height that marked him, for the “natives” were easily singled out by their lank longitude from the stockier foreign breed; it was the careless powerful look he had, in spite of lameness checking every step like the jerk of a chain. There was something bleak and unapproachable in his face, and he was so stiffened and grizzled that I took him for an old man and was surprised to hear he was not more that fifty-two. (11)

The narrator is informed that 

“He’s looked that way ever since he had his smash-up; and that’s twenty-four years ago come next February”. (11)

If you are the kind of person who does not want to know how a story ends then perhaps you can just take my recommendation to get acquainted with this book and leave the post here. For others, who do not find their enjoyment spoiled by revealing the story but have other reading interests, please read on.

The ‘smash-up’ is not quite the climax of the story. It begins twenty-four years before the time of the Author’s Introductory Note. Ethan Frome is struggling, as are all the inhabitants of Starkfield, to make a living out of his farm. He inherited it from his parents, and more or less inherited his wife too. His mother was nursed by a cousin, Zenobia, known as Zeena, and Ethan marries her when her nursing duties are over. She is an unappealing woman, although she had been kind enough as a nurse. She is a hypochondriac and a complainer and would have liked to live a more glamorous and stylish life. But although Ethan had hoped to provide this, they are trapped by the smallness of the farm’s income. 

Zeena has a cousin, Mattie Silver, who comes to live with them for she has nowhere else to go.

Zeena took the view that Mattie was bound to make the best of Starkfield since she hadn’t any other place to go; but this did not strike Ethan as conclusive. Zeena, at any rate, did not apply the principle in her own case. (39)

In this novella, both men and women are trapped by social conventions. With no one to provide a roof for her, and with little to recommend her as a servant, Mattie is one step away from prostitution. She must act as an unpaid servant for the Fromes to justify living with them.

Both Ethan and Mattie live lives of drudgery and both suffer from the effects of Zeena’s apparent ill health. Even more, Zeena wishes to hold her head up in Starkfield society, meagre though it is.

Both living in their own lonely worlds, Ethan falls for Mattie, and she for him. When Zeena goes away overnight to consult a doctor the pair enjoy a cosy evening and between them a bond grows. When she returns Zeena ratchets up the tension.

“I’ve got complications,” she said.

Ethan knew the word for one of exceptional import. Almost everybody in the neighbourhood had “troubles”, frankly localised and specified; but only the chosen had “complications”. To have them was in itself a distinction, though it was also, in most cases, a death-warrant. People struggled on for years with “troubles”, but they almost always succumbed to “complications”. (65)

Zeena plans to eject Mattie, and Ethan becomes desperate. Mattie will have to make her own way in the city, which means prostitution. The two feel they have no escape except to toboggan into a tree at speed, killing them both. They set off as if for her train and stop to find the sledge. Then comes the smash-up.

Instead of dying, the lovers are badly wounded. Mattie is confined to a wheelchair and Ethan suffered dreadful injuries. Zeena did not succumb to her complications, and instead the trio live together, tied to each other and to the town where the author meets them after a quarter of a century.

I think Edith Wharton was writing about the damage done by being trapped in a loveless marriage. Ethan and Zeena have very little economic power, but are tied by social convention, and any affection has evaporated between them. 

Edith Wharton had endured twenty-four years of a dreadful marriage with a man who was mentally unstable and who embezzled her money to set up his mistress. The ideas and development of the novella occurred at the time she was leaving him and developing her own passionate affair with Morton Fullerton.

Although Ethan Frome lives in a very different social milieu to Edith Wharton or to the characters in House of Mirth  the themes of the necessity of marriage for women, and of the restrictions of marriage and of marriage conventions are not so far away.

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton was first published in 1911. I used the Virago Modern Classic edition from 1991. (103pp). I bought it for £1 second hand in a National Trust bookshop at Dinefwr while in Wales recently.

You can find The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (1906) here

A film of Ethan Frome was released in 1993, with Liam Neeson in the title role and also starring Patiricia Arquette and Joan Allen.

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The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton was writing about New York high society at the turn of the last century in The House of Mirth. Her themes, however, resonated very strongly when I first read this novel in the 70s. Lily Bart’s  gradual descent from a young woman with prospects of a beneficial marriage to a lonely death in a boarding house reveals many aspects of life: gender, privilege, reputation, selfishness, beauty.

Published in 1905 The House of Mirth is the first novel in my decade project (see below).

The story

Lily Bart is beautiful and since birth has been encouraged to have expectations based on her looks to make a good marriage and we meet her as she puts her plans into effect. Lily has no parents and a very small income. She is 29, and her options are narrowing. When the moment arrives to clinch the rich young man Lily cannot quite bring herself to go through with it. He is dull.

From this point her story traces her gradual decline from full member of the elite rich to her death in a pokey boarding house, probably by her own hand, in less than two years.

Beset by money difficulties she accepts what turns out to be a loan from her friend’s husband. Compromised by this, she is then dragged further into potential difficulties by the machinations of Bertha Dorset, who takes her off to Europe. Here Mrs Dorset abandons her and besmirches her reputation. From there she tries to become some parvenus’ social secretary, but that also compromises her, and then as persona non grata, she tries millinery but on being laid off, because the hat season depends upon the presence of high society, she finally cannot cope.

‘Look at those spangles, Miss Bart, – every one of ’em sewed on crooked.’
From the original illustrations by AB Wanzell

She is frequently supported, not quite rescued, by Lawrence Selden. He falls in love with her, of course, but although he is from her set he hasn’t enough money for her. And although he is a true friend to her he does not save her from her trajectory.

As it turns out she is a good friend to him as well, having incriminating letters in her possession, which she destroys rather than bring him shame.

Lily Bart

Lily is an intelligent woman, with very advanced social skills. She can read and act upon every nuance of a situation. Her chief asset in the New York society is her beauty. She is aware of this, and presents herself accordingly.

We are twice given descriptions of her, both seen through Seldon’s eyes. In the opening chapter he comes across her at grand Central Station. He had not seen her for eleven years.

Seldon had never seen her more radiant. Her vivid head, relieved against the dull tints of the crowd, made her more conspicuous than in a ball-room, and under her dark hat and veil she regained the girlish smoothness, the purity of tint, that she was beginning to lose after eleven years of late hours and indefatigable dancing. (5)

The other moment occurs at a society event. Lily presents herself in a tableau as Mrs Lloyd by Joshua Reynolds, and impresses everyone present.

We learn early on that Lily had a horror of dinginess drummed into her by her mother. But she also has spirit and a certain amount of recklessness, her gambling for example, which prevents her from arranging the marriage that would secure her material future.

She has integrity and a streak of realism. Despite her damaged reputation and her financial obligations she will not become the mistress of the husbands of her friends. Nor will she resort to skulduggery despite having the means to get revenge on Bertha Dorset, her nemesis.

The themes

Lily’s story reveals the class dynamics operating in New York, but also everywhere where people believe that wealth entitles them to use other people and treat them with distain. Lily’s gradual descent through the strati of society reveal to her and to the reader just how damaging this belief in entitlement is.

Gender plays its part. More than once Lily reflects on how being a female curtails and determines what she is and is not supposed to do, and how easily an unmarried woman’s reputation can be damaged. Her friend Gerty asks Lily about the truth of the allegations against her.

Miss Bart laughed. ‘What is truth? Where a woman is concerned, it’s the story that is easiest to believe. In this case it’s a great deal easier to believe Bertha Dorset’s story than mine, because she has a big house and an opera box, and its convenient to be on good terms with her.’ (228)

The value of beauty is another theme. Lily has been taught to trade on her beauty, but people’s values are actually counted in money, houses and opera boxes. And Lily’s beauty will not last forever, she is already 29.

Lily is trapped by being prepared only for a life of advantaged marriage. As she seeks something a little more worthy of her intelligence and discernment she is punished and excluded. She has not been educated to become independent. She finds her skills limited and her understanding as narrow as anyone’s in her set. She is ashamed at her lack of skill and her inability to acquire it when she works in a millinery shop.

The book

This was Edith Wharton’s second novel and originally appeared as a serial in Scribner’s magazine. She was describing her own social milieu, and her book profoundly shocked many people. However, it sold very well.

The title is from Ecclesiastes 7:4. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. What a cruel word ‘mirth’ is, implying humour at the expense of others. Some translations substitute ‘pleasure’ for mirth.

In her minute observations of social interactions, the meanings of glances, or avoidances, Edith Wharton learned much from Jane Austen. She too is a close chronicler of the events she describes, and this book is not one to be skipped for the story, for the story is in these subtle manoeuvrings and Lily’s ability to read the situations but not to control them.

The novel was made into a film in 2000 starring Gillian Anderson and Dan Aykroyd.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. Edition used was from Penguin Modern Classic 1979. 333pp

Jacquiwine reviewed The House of Mirth in October 2014.

The Decade Project

My library had a pile of Reading Passports. I picked one up and it inspired me. To encourage reading your Reading Passport is stamped each time you complete a book from a different decade. I don’t need a passport or a stamp, but I do like the idea of selecting a book from every decade from 1900 onwards. I have decided to read one a month, from 1900s in January, from 1920s in February and so on and to review them here.

The next decade

I plan to read O Pioneers by Willa Cather for February’s choice for 1910. Please make any suggestions for subsequent decades.

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Not a Bookblogger’s New Year List

This is not your usual bookblogger’s New Year post. We are nearly through with those: Best Reads of 2016, the top ten books of last year … Do you read them? I check them over to see what I might have missed and might want to catch up with. I don’t write them

And we are nearly shot of the whatIreadin2016 lists in the newspapers and review columns. We know now what writers reckon were the best books, what publishers wish they had published, what readers say were the best books last year. Again, the lists may contain some gems I’ve missed.

Books in 2017

What I look forward to are the BookingAheadin2017 lists, telling us what is coming up.

In the first place we can notice the anniversaries, for the fans of #OTD (on this day) who like to use the hashtag to promote writers or books connected to significant events: in May we can celebrate 50 years since the publication in Buenos Aires of Cien Anos de Soledad by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and in June 20 years since the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling. 18th July will be the bicentenary of the death of Jane Austen.

And secondly, we can marvel that publishers have ready works by eminent writers: Rebecca Solnit, Ali Smith, AL Kennedy, Jon McGregor. They will all be promoting new books in 2017. Some of these will be brilliant, and we will wonder what we thought before we read them. I notice that some relate to migration and refugees: Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen.

And third, we can – I can – include some books into my reading schedule. These three books will be on my list: Winter by Ali Smith in November 2017; Exit West by Mohsin Hamid in March; Harriet Harman’s history of women’s politics in February, called A Women’s Work. Some books of 2016 will appear in paperback so these can go in as well: My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout, for example.

Finally I can add some dates to my blogging schedule: 7th June the winner of the Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize will be announced. I’m not so interested in the winner, but I do like to dip into the long list. The Man Booker Prize always stirs interest. And it will be World Book Night on Sunday 23rd April

On Bookword in 2017

I make only four commitments

  1. I will continue with the bimonthly series about older women in fiction. The next book is Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor, which will appear in February.
  2. I am beginning a new monthly series in which I will review a book from a decade, starting with the 1900s and The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton in January. February and the 1910s will be O Pioneers by Willa Cather. You are welcome to make suggestions for subsequent months (1920s in March, 1930s in April and so on.)
  3. And I will continue my blogging/walking challenge in aid of Freedom from Torture. (Details on the page above). The next, 5th walk/blog will be published on 15th January. It features A Country of Refuge, edited by Lucy Popescu.
  4. Hope – thank you Rebecca Solnit and Michelle Obama and all those other people who are refusing to give in to mood of defeat. I’m intending to pass it on.

I hope you will be happy to know that my statistics, resolutions, targets for writing, reading and blogging remain private.

Thanks to readers, readers who leave comments, readers who retweet stuff about my posts, publishers who send me review copies, all you bookish people and especially to writers.

Happy reading and writing in 2017.

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The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen

This is an unusual book – in its subject matter and in its structure. In her introduction to the Vintage edition, AS Byatt reports that she had read it several times, and not always with appreciation. But for a discriminating reader she suggests ‘that it is one of those books that grow in the mind, in time’.

103 House in P coverThe story is told in three parts, framed in a single day. Part One is set in ‘the present’ (ie 1930s) in the house in Paris, where two children have been brought together because Henrietta (11) is on her way from London to stay with her Grandmother in France and is being cared for by Miss Fisher. Coincidentally, Leopold (9) has arrived on the same day from Italy and is anticipating meeting his mother, Karen, whom he has never known. She fails to turn up.

The second part recounts the story, in the past, about ten years before, of Karen and her affair with Leopold’s father. This part of the story takes us to Cork, London and the towns of the English Channel. We find how Miss Fisher and her irascible mother are involved.

Finally in Part Three we return to the house in Paris, later in the same day, and Mme Fisher’s revelations about Leopold’s past and follow what happens to the two children as they prepare leave the house. Mysteries are revealed and the actions of the adults explored so that by the end of the novel both children are able to move on to the subsequent phases of their lives, although little has actually happened.

53 EBI found Elizabeth Bowen’s portrayal of the two children especially successful. These two are affected by their expectations of the adults, but at a level that the adults do not always see. The relationship between the children is revealed with all the awkwardnesses, probing, sympathies, quarrels of two children thrown together. They are both innocent of much about the adult world, especially sexual behaviour, but both sense it, especially Henrietta and are trying to understand the consequences of adults’ behaviour. Here is the description of Leopold adjusting to his mother’s refusal to meet him.

His eyes darkened, their pupils expanding. Yes, his mother refused to come; she would not lend herself to him. He had cast her, but she refused her part. She was not, then, the creature of thought. Her will, her act, her thought spoke in the telegram. Her refusal became her, became her coming in suddenly, breaking down, by this one act of being herself only, his imagination in which he had bound her up. So she lived outside himself; she was alive truly. She set up that opposition that is love. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I shall see her some other day.’ (p201-2)

The three-part structure seems designed to get the reader to re-examine her understanding of the previous sections. Karen, in the middle part, is the key character and we follow her through the expectation of marriage, a short visit to an uncle and aunt, and then her relationship with Max. We find that she was a close friend of Miss Fisher. Coming to this second section after the tensions of Leopold’s vivid beliefs about his mother and subsequent disappointment means a reassessment of the characters in the first part. Elizabeth Bowen seems to be saying, look again, now you have this knowledge. It’s an interesting device for a novel, and Elizabeth Bowen uses it with great assurance.

The complexity of her prose, noted in my reviews of The Heat of the Day, The Last September and The Hotel, also makes you read carefully, and takes you into the psychology of her characters.

There is no end to the violations committed by children on children, quietly talking alone.

… Henrietta turned down her eyes, smoothed her dress on her knees and remarked with the utmost primness: ‘You must be very glad: no wonder you are excited. I am excited, going to Mentone.’ Then swinging her feet to the ground, she left the sofa and walked to the radiator, above which she spread her hands. Glancing aloofly to see if her nails were clean, she seemed to become unconscious of Leopold. Then she strolled across to examine a vase of crepe paper roses on the consol table behind Charles’s chair. Peering behind the roses, she found that they were tied on with wire to sprigs of box. She glanced across at the clock, smothered a yawn politely and said aloud to herself: ‘Only twenty-five past ten.’ Her sex provided these gestures, showing how bored she got with someone else’s insistence on his own personality. Her dread of Leopold gave way to annoyance. Already she never met anyone without immediately wanting to rivet their thought on herself, and with this end in view looked forward to being grown up. (p18-9)

I found the relationship between Karen and Miss Fisher the least convincing aspect of the book. Well, not their friendship, but its survival of Karen’s affair, the role of the interfering Mme Fisher and the death of Max.

103 EBTwo things about the subject matter made an impression on me. The first is the easy way in which people of Karen, Henrietta and Leopold’s class moved about Europe during the inter-war years. Transposed to the present day, perhaps involving the Eurotunnel, this story would not seem surprising. Maybe I am just influenced by the current anti-Europe political rhetoric, but it is worth remembering that ties with the continent have been strong for some time strong, and this is reflected in much literature of the time: in much of Henry James and Edith Wharton, for example.

And the second thing is Elizabeth Bowen’s frank exploration of sexual mores at the time. Some of it is highly wrought. Here’s the moment when we understand that Karen and Max (both engaged to other people) will mean more to each other.

‘We’ll bring the tray in when we go.’

But they both sat back, her hand lying near his. Max put his hand on Karen’s, pressing it into the grass. Their unexploring, consenting touch lasted; they did not look at each other or at their hands. When their hands had drawn slowly apart, they both watched the flattened grass beginning to spring up again, blade by blade. (p119-20)

The House in Paris is a feast for a discerning reader, of the novelist’s art, of the insights into the behaviour of young people and of children.

Here are some links to Blog reviews:

There is an excellent and thoughtful review by Booksnob.

And another by EmilyBooks, who calls it a tour de force.

And yet another by Girl with her Head in a Book.

GHave you read The House in Paris? Have you anything to add?

 

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