First Impressions on Finishing Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence

The Fair Toxophilites by John Leech, ante 1864

The Fair Toxophilites by John Leech, ante 1864

The Age of Innocence is the first book I’ve read by Edith Wharton, though I remember going to see a film version of The House of Mirth many years ago in London. I enjoyed this book very much. It is, of course, beautifully and subtly written with an eye for manners and society reminiscent of Austen yet with more of a sense of the dark undercurrents of life.

The first scene of the novel, at the theatre, draws you into the heart of the action, as we share the perspective of the protagonist, Newland Archer in the midst of his extended social circle including his new fiancé May and her family.

In May’s family box, Newland notices an unfamiliar woman of unconventional appearance, her dress somewhat shockingly décolleté in contrast to the modest ruffles guarding his fiancé’s virginal throat. This is May’s cousin Countess Ellen Olenska, who has arrived in New York in flight from Count Olenska, her Polish husband, who has apparently been guilty of the most flagrant and sordid infidelities.

We are thus introduced to the tiny, closely interrelated upper-class circle of New York society of the 1870s, the era of the author’s own childhood. Edith Wharton sometimes cannot help rather archly drawing attention to the huge technological and social changes that will occur in the intervening fifty years between the date of the novel’s setting and her time of writing in 1920, making her characters speculate dubiously on whether the new invention of the telephone will ever become a daily reality.

This is a very different New York from the New York of modern reputation. Compared to Paris or London, the city is still a provincial, puritanical backwater where there is little to satisfy avant garde taste in art and music. Here, providing social entertainment on a Sunday is a shocking innovation and, bizarrely, it is the done thing for women of the highest echelons to import the latest fashions from Paris, and then pack them away for two years because it would appear vulgar to be seen dressed in the latest fashion.

Countess Olenska, brought up abroad by an eccentric aunt, besmirched by her scandalous circumstances, yet with family connections that entitle her to a place in that small elite circle causes a disturbance in the peaceful and certain world of these old families. The awkwardness is papered over when representatives of the oldest and most respected of the families pointedly go out of their way to extend social courtesies to her (to the extent of inviting her to dinner with a visiting duke) and thus the problem is treated by simply refusing to publicly acknowledge its existence.

Avoiding unpleasant or controversial topics, maintaining discreet decorum at all times are, we learn, among the primary concerns of this elite and are achieved from behind the scenes with a silent, Machiavellian ruthlessness beneath surface civility and bland smiles. Even as the grand matriarch, Catherine Mingott recovers from a slight stroke, brought on by the shock of another family scandal, she robustly blames her indisposition on eating chicken salad late in the evening, so that a stroke is brushed aside as a mere case of indigestion.

It transpires that this steely, smiling propriety in the face of adversity is inherited to the full by Catherine’s granddaughter, May Welland.

As Newland becomes increasingly besotted by the continental and bohemian charms of Countess Olenska, he grows correspondingly bored and disillusioned by his wholesome, clear-eyed and conventional fiancé and then wife. In doing so, he severely underestimates May Welland. Though her husband finds her reactions to his favourite poetry an embarrassment, though she is genuinely shocked at the idea of marrying during Lent or of inviting an impoverished French tutor to dinner, May’s narrowness of mind does not preclude an acuity of perception and iron strength of will.

In an early scene, we observe May taking part in a game of archery. It was a Victorian fad for ladies to engage in the sport, shooting at straw targets. Archery requires no unseemly exertion, can be performed in decorous full-length dress and involves the competitors striking elegant, classical poses in artistic evocation of Diana and her nymphs. Archery, however, is, in essence, a deadly sport capable of wreaking silent and sudden destruction from an unexpected angle. While artistically comprising the epitome of virginal beauty, Diana also had a dark side, ruthlessly destroying any who offered her insult, whether it was Actaeon unwittingly intruding upon her as she bathed or Niobe who mocked her mother for having only two children to Niobe’s nine. It is May who bears away the prize on that day.

While Newland is absorbed in his passion for Countess Olenska, rushing around after her on often the most dubious pretexts and reacting with unwonted violence when anyone advocates her return to her husband on favourable terms, he seems only vaguely aware that his odd behaviour is being observed and conclusions being drawn by those around him, not least his wife. What Newland doesn’t expect is his wife to act, yet act May does, eventually; discreetly but pertinently speaking to Ellen herself, informing her cousin that she is pregnant with her first child with Newland a couple of weeks before that is, in fact, medically confirmed.

In a climactic scene towards the end of the novel, there is a return to the theatre to see the same romantic production that had entranced Newland at the moment of his initial besottment with Ellen. He is determined to abandon May for Ellen or at least consummate his passion with her. For the first time in their two years of marriage, his wife is wearing her wedding dress. (It is a comparatively recent tradition that brides’ dresses should be distinctive white confections to be worn only for that occasion.) She accompanies her husband home in their carriage and there makes the revelation that, following some quiet conversation, Ellen has decided to retire to the continent to live without her husband on a reasonable stipend negotiated by the family. As May gets out of the carriage, she trips awkwardly, ripping and dirtying her dress. Beyond all the quiet words and the kind smiles, the torn, besmirched wedding dress tells its own story. May has fought hard to save her marriage and she has fought dirty.

The elegant farewell-cum-victory dinner which May insists on holding for Ellen finally brings home to Newland that the family has acted in quiet concord to avert scandal and extirpate the threat to this most respectable of marriages. Now Ellen is leaving, the family are unitedly polite and kind in their farewells, only keen to keep any unpleasantness unspoken, yet this elegant and civilised dinner represents May’s triumph over a rival and the victory of a highly stratified and conventional society against any challenge to its conventions. Welland has no option but to bid farewell to the woman he loves and resign himself to life with a woman who bores him.


Keats’ Naughty Boy and a Teacher’s Influence

There was a naughty boy,
And a naughty boy was he,
He ran away to Scotland
The people for to see-
There he found
That the ground
Was as hard,
That a yard
Was as long,
That a song
Was as merry,
That a cherry
Was as red-
That lead
Was as weighty
That fourscore
Was as eighty,
That a door
Was as wooden
As in England-
So he stood in his shoes
And he wondered,
He wondered,
He stood in his shoes
And he wondered.

I just googled this poem after a fragment of it came strongly into my mind this evening.

I remember having it read to me at primary school by an elderly and very old fashioned teacher who had the reckless habit of reading to us small children whatever she felt like, whether it was AA Milne or George Orwell. She was our class teacher in Class 3 and again in Class 5.  I would say that this woman had a profound influence on the person I grew into for both good and ill.

On the positive side; Mrs B nurtured my love of books and writing; she allowed me to spend all day writing my diary or stories and poems or let me while away the entire afternoon in the book corner. This was before the coming of the National Curriculum when teachers could seemingly do more or less as they liked. She often read my work aloud to the class because it pleased and amused her. This encouraged me to entertain the idea that I could be clever or funny.

On the debit side, when I was in class 3, Mrs B would scream at me terrifyingly and almost daily, in despair at my huge, painfully scrawled, often reversed handwriting. Were they taught in 1950s teacher training colleges that ‘screaming at children will make them write better’? I also often heard her being cruelly and destructively critical of other children, reducing one boy to tears when he asked what a word meant that she had written on the board with the dismissive comment that he was ‘too stupid’ to attempt to use words from the hard list in his writing and should stick to the easier choices.

Mrs B definitely had favourites and those held in blatant and arbitrary disfavour, and by Class 5, I was established among the former. This had the downside that as she was happy to let me spend the day as I pleased, I passed the entire year without doing any maths at all, a deficit I never (yet) remedied.

But the original point of this blog post was the poem quoted above. I was surprised to learn tonight that the poem was by John Keats; I had imagined all these years that it was by AA Milne.

I think it’s a poem that has a lot to say to many of us, myself included. We can all find ourselves thinking that if only we lived somewhere better, did a different job, found a group of sympathetic people exactly on one’s wavelength everything would be different and our lives would begin properly. Even our own past can become a Scotland of the mind (and so can actual Scotland).

There are, of course, times when it is right and necessary to move on or to make radical changes in one’s situation, but often I think we need to remind ourselves that the life we have is our finite outpouring of ‘real life’ and we have the choice to live it to the fullest and explore all it has to offer or to stand back and say ‘somewhere, real life is just waiting for me. There, things will be different.’

Claire Tomalin’s Biography of Charles Dickens

charles_dickens_-_project_gutenberg_etext_13103I’ve been getting into Dickens the last couple of weeks, reading and rereading. I enjoyed A Tale of Two Cities very much and am now some way through Our Mutual Friend, Dickens’ last completed novel. The murky ancient river with its deathly secrets and the brittle manners and concerns of the arriviste bourgoisie are both compelling.

This enjoyment prompted me to want to read more about Dickens himself, so I gave Claire Tomalin’s biography  a try as it seemed to be the best recommended. I certainly found it very vivid and readable,  as it leads you quickly through the events of Dickens life  giving vivid glimpses of his personality along the way.

In Tomalin’s portrayal, Dickens came across ultimately as a very ambivalent figure.

On the one hand, he was capable of wonderful kindness and generosity to those stricken by misfortune, a man of radical politics though scathing of politicians generally and genuinely indignant and concerned on behalf of the marginalised of society. I was interested to learn of Dickens’ radicalism. For some reason I had always imagined him as some kind of One-Nation Tory. I suspect that this is because he has become a figure that seems to embody an idea of ‘Victorianism’ in itself in the public consciousness, even because of his scathing portrayal of much of what was wrong with it.

On the other hand, there was a sense that he could be cold, autocratic and rejecting to those closest to him. Nn particular,  there was the vile way Dickens treated his wife, not only rejecting her for his actress mistress but  justifying himself  by  attacking her publicly,questioning her love for her children and even her grip on sanity.

There is also the curiously cold way he related to most of his children. It is hard for most British people in the 21st century to imagine what it would be like to have ten children, even though we are only two or three generations from it being the norm. Interestingly, it seems the situation was hard for Charles Dickens to get his head round too. He favoured his first three children, but apparently treated the later additions to his family with a kind of distanced bafflement as though he simply couldn’t extend his love and attention far enough for them all to have their share. It is disquieting to learn that the author of  A Christmas Carol frequently left his own sons at boarding school over Christmas.

Tomalin’s biography brings across these ambivalencies very well. She also vividly conveys the sheer physical energy of the man, who combined a prodigious literary output with the need to undertake walks of many miles on a more or less daily basis. I found the clearly extrovert portrayal of Dickens who seemed to love to surround himself with people and to feed off the energy of an audience devouring his readings to be interesting. Writers are not always introverts, it seems.

What I would have liked to see more of in this biography is a slowing down of the narrative in places and time given to a discussion of questions such as Dickens’ own literary influences and inspirations “where did he get his ideas from…”.  He was a genius, but he wasn’t created out of thin air. What did he read? How much did he gain from his interrupted education? How did he come by his views on religion and politics? (He wasn’t conventionally religious either.)

I also felt there was a lack of insight into some of the people who surrounded him most closely. Catherine Dickens seems to be dismissed by the biographer as a nonentity about whom there is nothing much to be said rather as Dickens himself did. His children also remain shadowy figures though we hear something of how they lived out their lives after Dickens’ death – rather forlornly for the most part. We also got intriguing glimpses of his friendships with writers such as Carlyle and Thackeray and I would have liked to know more about those, about how the greatest writers of the age influenced and reacted to each other.  Of course, a biography cannot contain everything and this was an excellent introduction to the larger-than-life personage who bestrode his era like a Colossus.