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.

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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.’

Killer Clowns, Reading IT and Thoughts on Horror

So where has the past month gone?

I’ve been spending some time revising my Greek mythology eBook In the Beginning was Chaos, mostly expanding the text, doing some additional research, and also adding pictures in the form of copyright-free artwork illustrating the myths. I hope to have the book out in its perfected form within the next couple of weeks.

As far as reading goes, I was oddly inspired by skimming increasingly absurd media reports of the Killer Clown Craze to have a go at tackling Stephen King’s IT.

I remembered watching the TV serial when it was broaclown_feardcast in the ’90s and finding it entertaining, but not especially frightening. Since then, I’ve read other Stephen King novels, including the more recent (2011) 11/22/63 with its  gripping time-travel theme and his much earlier novel The Shining (1977) which I found darkly atmospheric and absorbing and remember later finding the film a little thin and disappointing in comparison.

I approached IT then with a reasonably positive expectation. As before, I was impressed by King’s ability to draw you into the story and make you care about the characters with some vivid brush-strokes. Each of the young protagonists had clearly delineated problems or issues which to some extent defined them. The prose was readable, fast paced and clever, shifting you in and out of past and present and immersing you in the small-town world of the book.

However, for the present at least, I have ended up putting the book aside at a little short of 200 pages of its 500+. Why? Ultimately, the horror itself didn’t convince me. The manifestations of the dark terror haunting the town of Derry were simply too over-the-top, in some cases to the point of absurdity. I found myself watching the mayhem unfold with a kind of distanced scepticism, rather than any remote feeling of disquiet. It was the fact that these things happened so comparatively early in the book that threw me, too, I think. If such horrific manifestations had been the climax after being built up to throughout the book, they might have felt in some sense earned; as it was, it just felt deeply unlikely.

Part of King’s talent, I think, is showing that the real horror, the real monsters are to be found in human guise. That I think is what made The Shining work so well. There were strong elements of that insight in IT, but they were overshadowed by the solid unsubtlety of a monstrous being that simply rips children apart or, indeed, causes them to float.

Horror is a very subjective genre, of course. What will elicit a shrug or a laugh from one person can be the cause of a disturbed night’s sleep to another. I find the idea of a sad shadowy ghost manifesting silently upon one in one’s solitude much more worrying than a big scary monster.

What gives you a genuine chill in a horror story?

 

On Finishing Le Morte d’Arthur

I reached something of a personal milestone today.

I finished reading Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, having made my initial attempt in the last years of primary school and having stopped and started (again) at intervals over the ensuing thirty-ish years.

1485_malory_thomas_le_morte_darthur-image

First page of Caxton’s 1485 edition of Le Morte d’Arthur

What possessed me to attempt an extended late-medieval prose narrative at so tender an age, you might ask? 

I lay the blame squarely at the feet of Mr T.H. White. I first discovered The Sword in the Stone in the children’s section of Kentish Town Library. It was a stoutly-bound, hardbacked volume of respectable vintage. I have a feeling that I had seen and enjoyed the cartoon version of the story not long before and that this was what prompted me at the age of nine or so to select the book and bring it home.

I loved The Sword in the Stone out of measure. It offered me an education comparable to that  which Merlin provided the Wart – 

“The Wart did not know what Merlyn was talking about, but he liked him to talk. He did not like the grown-ups who talked down to him like a baby, but the ones who just went on talking in their usual way, leaving him to leap along in their wake, jumping at meanings, guessing, clutching at known words, and chuckling at complicated jokes as they suddenly dawned. He had the glee of the porpoise then, pouring and leaping through strange seas.”

The words and phrases seared themselves in my brain. The ramblings of the confused King Pellinore were for me the height of hilarity, while episodes such as Wart among the bitter grandeur of the militaristic hawks blindfolded in the mews with their disturbing bloodthirsty ditties, or the medieval Christmas in the Great Hall followed by the blood and snow of the grim boar hunt formed memories as deep as any real-life experience and made me long for a reality so vivid and magical. 

I borrowed that book many times in succession from Kentish Town Library until a thoughtful adult gifted me not merely with The Sword in the Stone but with The Once and Future King, a volume containing not only that initial book of boyhood magic and transformation but the Arthurian novellas that succeeded it. 

As I approached adolescence in company with the damaged sons of Morgause and with the Ill-Made Knight and his tormented scruples I was drawn into a darker world of cruelty and guilt, anguished speculations on the rights and wrongs of violence and the damage done to children by the words of adults around them. I suspect I would have been an unhealthily introspective young person even without the help of T.H. White, but he certainly did help and for that I can only tender my gratitude.

These later books made it clear that behind White lurked the figure of Malory, rather as Malory himself alludes to ‘the book’ or ‘the French book’ and so ad infinitem, possibly.. Thus, with a visit to the Owl Bookshop, I secured Volume One of Le Morte d’Arthur and began to read.

I got through the first books all right, the drama of Igraine and Uther, which I would soon after reprise with my excitable thirteen year old perusal of The Mists of Avalon, the familiar tale of Excalibur, the setting up of the Table Round. Recklessly, I invested in Volume Two, in anticipation of finishing Volume One.

Yet I became discouraged. It wasn’t the language that formed a barrier; I enjoyed and absorbed the late medieval phrasing, especially with the aid of the glossary at the foot of the page. 

The campaign in Rome threw me first of all  – the bit where Arthur and his knights suddenly find themselves at war with the entire Roman Empire, despite the fact that Rome has certainly fallen by any foolish attempt at historical contextualising. It had nothing to do with my idea of what the King Arthur story was about – T.H. White either skipped it or alluded to it briefly and later retellings rarely mention such a thing so I felt somewhat lost. Somehow, at some point, I got through that part  with the reward of a horrible story of a cannibalistic giant who became part of the continental adventure. 

It was the mid point of the work I found really hard going, the last few books of Volume One and the first book of Volume Two. The obsession with jousting and tournaments, the surreal landscape in which knights rode around for no other purpose, seemingly, than to knock other knights off their horses and the weird peripatetic existence of the ‘damsels’ with their strange mixture of independence and victimhood, riding about on their palfreys, delivering messages, being rude and unpleasant to new knights, but then being captured and swapped around like tokens, with little apparent objection for the most part.

It was as though the British countryside became a checquered gameboard on which a peculiar game was being enacted a la Alice Through the Looking Glass. It began to seem unedifying, repetitious and rather dull like those films with the explosions and car chases that are just white noise to me. 

At various times over the years, then, I got to that middle point (having started from the beginning each time) and then retreated. 

A month or so ago however, as recorded in my previous post, I had the urge to immerse myself in things Arthurian as part of a project to write my own Tristan and Iseult. With new determination I pushed through the monster of book 10 with which vol 2 begins and then found that the second half of the work is wonderful. 

The impending tragedy of Launcelot and Guinevere gathers pace, there is the strangeness and mystery of the Grail Quest and the mindless knocking of people from their horses is exchanged for something like psychological subtlety and hints of depth of character as these noble, larger than life beings hurtle towards their doom.

At their holy and pitiful end, Launcelot and Guinevere remind me rather of Abelard and Heloise, which makes me wonder if their story was an inspiration for Malory, or whether it was part of a broader narrative trope.

So an ending of sorts has been reached of a considerable portion of my own life, but I like to think hopefully that this ending represents a beginning and that having achieved the Grail of Le Morte d’Arthur I do not expire upon my knees but am instead inspired to go galloping off on further quests.