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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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Harriet Hume by Rebecca West

This novel, Harriet Hume, has a subtitle, and the reader should note it: a London fantasy. Both the elements of fantasy and the passages relating to London are significant in this novel. In addition Rebecca West added a quotation from John Dryden to the title page:

… And like white witches, mischievously good …

This mischievous novel contrasts two attitudes to life and relates how they play out over five meetings across two decades or more between two lovers.

Harriet Hume

Harriet Hume is beautiful, rather strange and unorthodox, a concert pianist with strong ideas about beauty. We first meet her with Arnold Condorex, her lover, as they emerge from an afternoon of lovemaking in her Kensington home. They are deliciously happy together, but Harriet perceives that he intends to get on in the world. She has the ability to read his thoughts. Arnold Condorex is ambitious. While happy to love Harriet, he does not wish to sacrifice his ambitions for her, and she discovers that he will cast her aside for a more advantageous connection. They quarrel and separate.

They meet four more times, always in a part of London, Hyde Park and Portland Place where he has bought a magnificent house, and after an interval of some years. Each time Condorex has achieved more of his ambition to become someone important in politics. Harriet perceives he has achieved this through chicanery, a loveless marriage and conspiracy. He calls this last negotiation. He is in politics to win, not to ameliorate the lot of the people. Each time they meet they are drawn to each other, but also find it impossible to be together.

There are some moments of humour, such as the confusion between Pondh and Mondh. They might as well be the same place as far as Condorex is concerned, and he does indeed achieve a peerage as Lord Mondh.

And there is some engaging whimsy, such as the story Harriet tells her lover about the trees in her garden, who were once three society young ladies. And then there are two very sympathetic and tactful policemen who appear in the final scene, who are from a different era.

The couple are doomed to oppose each other, indeed they agree that they are opposites, and although he hates her for knowing the truth about him and blames her for his downfall when it comes, there is a sense in which they are better when they balance each other.

Yet they could not have been together. For one thing there is his sexism. He thinks of his wife Lady Ginevra in this way:

There was no occasion in life when she was not limp; no, not one. (158)

And a few pages later

… he saw the Lady Ginevra as she would be at this hour, dancing at the Embassy, limp in the limp arms of one of her own kind, like two anchovies side by side in a bottle. (177)

The terms he uses when he thinks of Harriet reveal his patriarchal attitude: slut, witch, poor lass, little wench, girl and so on. And when he thinks she has been having an affair with a man called Karinthy he is disapproving and xenophobic.

… it would be against nature if such loveliness were not enjoyed. Still, I could have wished it had not been a foreigner. (140) 

Karinthy is in fact a notable violinist of great age, and this reaction reveals much about Condorex.

The content of the novel is clearly not meant to be seen as realism. Harriet’s ability to read Condorex’s thoughts, her conjuring of fantastic stories, and above all the fanciful language used by Rebecca West remind the reader that this is a fantasy, a fable. I collected some examples of the vocabulary: infrangible, multitudinous, avow, perturbation, obdurate, orgulous (which means haughty or proud my dictionary tells me), languishment, complaisance … These are not words in everyday use and are a little affected even.

But the intent of the author is to set the values of the two characters against each other, and to reveal something of post war life in London. I don’t think that people write in this way or on these kinds of topics these days.

All of which makes it an interesting read, but does not hold the reader in the way, for example, her first novel The Return of the Soldier  does. 

Rebecca West 

Rebecca West lived a long and productive life. She was born in 1892 and Harriet Hume  was her third novel. She did not live as a young woman of her class was expected to. She had been a suffragette before the war and was a feminist and journalist. A provocative article calling HG Wells an ‘Old Maid among novelists’ led to their meeting, a long affair and a son born in 1914. She supported herself through her writing. She wrote and published a great deal of fiction, non-fiction and journalism and died in 1983 aged 90.

Harriet Hume: a London Fantasy by Rebecca West first published in 1929. I used the edition from Virago Modern Classics, published in 1980 with an introduction by Victoria Glendinning. 288pp I found it at Second Shelf in Soho.

Some relevant links

The Return of the Soldier  by Rebecca West in December 2018

Thoughts from Simon Lavery on Rebecca West, Harriet Humeon his blog Tredynas Days. 

The cover of the Virago edition shows a detail from ‘The Studio Door, Charleston’ by Vanessa Bell.

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Who was Changed and Who was Dead by Barbara Comyns

So there’s this odd family, the Willoweeds, who live in a village some time around 1900. Things happen and after that some of them are changed and some of them are dead.

Many readers have enjoyed this short novel since it was published in 1954. I have seen it called idiosyncratic, biblical, quirky, dark, surreal, strange, macabre. Is it a fairy tale? Or an allegory? It’s certainly engaging.

The story of Who was Changed and Who was Dead

The focus of the short novel is the Willoweed family who live in a big house in a village near a river. Grandmother Willoweed dominates the village, although she has taken an oath not to set foot on land that is not hers. This creates a problem when she must attend a funeral, but it is solved by putting her in a boat. The title implies that the reader will see how this family are affected by events.

Here is how the novel opens.

Time: Summer about seventy years ago

Place: Warwickshire

Chapter I

The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows. The weight of the water had forced the windows open; so the ducks swam in. Round the room they sailed quacking their approval; then they sailed out again to explore the wonderful new world that had come in the night. (1)

So from the start, the world is awry. The time is also awry, for the book was published in 1954, which would put the action in the late 1880s according to the heading. But the novel also takes place in 1911, coinciding with the coronation of George V. Time and place are awry. So is the Willoweed family.

The grandmother has a forked tongue and a nasty, selfish personality. Her son Ebin is disappointed and disappointing, having been sacked from his post as a journalist, cheated on by his wife who then died giving birth to her third child. Ebin is cowed by his mother, and unkind to his children. He ignores Emma, the oldest, takes every opportunity to belittle Dennis, and makes a favourite of Hattie, who is not his daughter. The household also includes a pair of sisters, long-suffering maids and Old Ivor, who owns the ducks and looks after the gardens and is determined to outlive Grandmother.

Following the flood, which causes chaos, kills livestock and changes the appearance of everything, more troubles assail the village. Villagers begin dying, experiencing painful and maniacal episodes before death, symptoms of ergot poisoning, associated with rye flour. In the village various people are afflicted, including the baker’s lascivious wife. One of the maids becomes pregnant, but is able to pass off a miscarriage as an episode of the same illness that afflicts the villagers. At Willoweed House little Dennis succumbs.

After so many goings on, so many funerals, so many escape attempts, so much affliction and falling in love, conversion and boredom, it is rather disappointing that the novel concludes with Emma adopting a conventional and happy life in Kensington. The young doctor who attends the family falls for her and they get married, despite the opposition of the old woman.

Reading Who was Changed and Who was Dead

One of the delights of reading Who was Changed and Who was Deadis the descriptive and imaginative power of Barbara Comyns’s writing. Here are some of the guests at Grandmother’s annual birthday whist drive.

Grandmother Willoweed always declared the clergyman took opium, perhaps because he rather resembled a Chinaman. His mother was a little frightened bird of a woman, who held her twisted claw-like hands clasped near her face as if she was praying. This made it rather difficult for her to play cards and they would fall around her like petals from a dying flower. The three old maids from Roary Court would come on their tricycles. Their pet billy goat would trot behind them as they rode down the village street, and they would tether him where he could be seen from the drawing-room window. (23)

The hostess receives her guests.

Grandmother Willoweed wore a magenta gown trimmed with black lace, and on her head three purple plumes attached to a piece of dusty velvet. The magenta gown was split in several places; but she considered it was the general effect that mattered. (24)

And the story moves on at a good pace. There is no lingering over events, not the butcher’s suicide, the appearance of Doctor Hatt’s splendid new yellow car, the many funerals nor the illnesses in the village.

I experience the events of Who was Changed and Who was Deadas a child might, to whom nothing is strange or remarkable; things happen or don’t and the world just goes on turning. Events succeed events, some are linked and some are not. Some are changed and some are dead.

Barbara Comyns

Barbara Comyns (1907 – 1992) was brought up in Warwickshire on the banks of the River Avon in Bidford-on-Avon. She wrote many novels, published after the Second World War, perhaps the best known being Our Spoons Came from Woolworths(1950) and The Vet’s Daughter(1959).

Here is the link to the review on HeavenAli’s blog that led me to read this novel.

And here’s another enthusiastic review, this one by Simon on Vulpes Libris.

Who was changed and who was deadby Barbara Comyns, published in 1954. I read the Virago Modern Classic edition, published in 1987, with an introduction by Ursula Holden. 146pp

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Miss Mole by EH Young

Miss Mole is an unlikely heroine, especially for the 1930s. She is not very young, pretty, innocent or socially well-place. She seems to delight in being less than straight forward in the early part of the novel, and we wonder what will become of her over the next 288 pages. But she quickly captivates us and we are charmed by her and by the novel.

The novel is set in Radstowe, modelled on Bristol. Although Miss Mole loves the city, she was brought up on a farm, and now must find her living among people who have tight rules about what is appropriate behaviour, especially for women.

182 Miss Mole coverThe Story

We meet Miss Mole as she is about to be dismissed from her position as companion. She has more or less engineered the dismissal herself as she is both bored and unhappy to be reduced to living at the beck and call of an old woman with restricted interests. Miss Mole does not like to be demeaned.

Hannah has a cousin, Lilla Spenser-Smith who is anxious that her relationship with a mere domestic should not be known, and so finds Miss Mole a position as a housekeeper with a non-conformist widower, The Reverend Corder, and his children. The family would be called dysfunctional today. Miss Mole finds ways to gain the trust of the children and to help them through their difficulties. Her position as a housekeeper provides her with the cover to do good within the Corder household.

The reader gradually understands that Hannah hides a secret, unknown even to Lilla, that if revealed would mean she could not be employed as a domestic servant, and that she would be ostracised by the Radstowe community. The tension of the novel increases as the revelation of this secret creeps closer, threatening to undermine her work within the Corder family.

Even to begin with Hannah Mole’s strategy is hardly effective.

’Not the thing itself, but its shadow,’ she murmured, as she saw her own shadow going before her, and she nodded as though she had solved a problem. She judged herself by the shadow she chose to project for her own pleasure and it was her business in life – and one in which she usually failed – to make other people accept her creation. Yes, she failed, she failed! They would not look at the beautiful, the valuable Hannah Mole: they saw the substance and disapproved of it and she did not blame them: it was what she would have done herself and in one case when she had concentrated on the fine shadow presented to her, she had been mistaken. (9)

Miss Mole

Hannah Mole is not quite 40, a single woman with great independence of spirit, not always apparent to people she meets. She is described in the first chapter in this way.

She stood on the pavement, a thin shabby figure, so insignificant in her old hat and coat, so forgetful of herself in the enjoyment of the scene, that she might have been wearing a cloak of invisibility … (10)

We are soon made aware of Hannah’s resourcefulness, playfulness and creativity. We discover that she is a woman of integrity. It is revealed that she has helped prevent a threatened suicide. She herself is quiet about her actions although they bring her into contact with people who appreciate her: Mrs Gibson who provides temporary lodgings and friendship, Mr Blenkinsop who is struck by her liveliness of spirit. Much of the pleasure of this novel derives from her approach to life, and especially her psychological insights into the Corder family. She is not without faults, getting locked into a battle with the Rev Corder, which she realises she has undertaken in order to score a point.

Like many women of her age, situation and time she has a struggle to survive and time is not on her side. As she walks at night towards her new position in the Corder household she is visited by a brief moment of fear.

What was to become of herself? Age was creeping on her all the time and she had saved nothing, she would soon be told that she was too old for this post or that, and, for a second, fear took hold of her with a cold hand and the whispering of the dead leaves warned her that, like them, she would soon be swept into the gutter and no one would ask where she had gone, and her fear changed into a craving that there would be at least one person to whom her disappearance would be a calamity. ‘No one!’ the leaves whispered maliciously, while a little gust of laughter came from the bushes, and at that, Hannah paused and looked disdainfully in their direction. She was not to be laughed at! She was not to be laughed at and she refused to be frightened. (51)

The Style

EH Young’s style in Miss Mole reflects Hannah’s lack of clarity at the beginning and her increasing sense of herself and her own integrity. Episodes, fragments of memories, scraps of information are given to us in small pieces. We do not quite understand that Hannah has saved a life between stepping out to buy a reel of cotton and meeting with her cousin Lilla in the first chapter.

This mode of telling the story reflects Hannah’s character. While she is resourceful and lively, she has to guard herself, and her past, to live a little like the mole she is named for. She is complex character and is developed through the novel so that by the final chapters we are aware of her true value.

The Themes

The book deals with the nature of morality and the contrast between received morality, socially accepted behaviour and Miss Mole’s true morality. She does good to so many. She knows that they would reject her if they knew the truth about her, and so she is a challenge to the restrictive teachings of the church, the social attitudes of Lilla and her set.

EH Young herself had an unusual domestic arrangement – a ménage a trois. She kept this secret for 40 years. She knew something of the tensions between secrecy and truth, appearances and integrity.

 

Eric Ravillous, Two Women in a Garden, 1933

Eric Ravillous, Two Women in a Garden, 1933

Miss Mole was recommended for the older women in fiction series. I wonder what it was about Hannah Mole that mislead the memory of that reader: she is a spinster, independent, a little down on her luck? But the happy ever after ending is unlikely to have been given to a woman of 60+, especially in the 1930s.

Stuck in a Book blog reviewed this book with enthusiasm here.

I also recommend the introduction by Sally Beauman.

Miss Mole by EH Young (first published in 1930) republished in 1984 as Virago Modern Classic. 288pp

 

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