#1920Club – exploring Edith Wharton’s masterpiece


(As is becoming a regular thing, when Mr. Kaggsy heard we had another club reading week coming up, he offered to provide a guest post – this time on Edith Wharton’s classic “The Age of Innocence” (which I have to confess that I *gulp* haven’t read yet…) I’m afraid he’s got a little carried away – brace yourselves, it’s quite long and goes into quite a lot of detail….)

The Age of Innocence, first appearing in the United States in 1920, is described by a half century later US printing as: “A brilliantly realized anatomy of New York society in the 1870s, the world in which (the author) grew up, and from which she spent her life escaping.” American Edith Wharton (1862-1937) wrote the novel after the end of World War I and the book’s title can be loosely applied to the period in which the story is set, at a time when the city’s ‘old order’ still subsisted. Wharton received the Pulitzer Prize for her book in 1921, it being the first novel written by a woman to win. Her life in Manhattan society during the Victorian era enabled her to present with realism a view of the privileged classes and the restricted circle in which its members conducted their lives.

Before turning to the story, there is some interesting history relating to the book. The Age of Innocence was first serialised in 1920 as four monthly instalments in the Pictorial Review, an American women’s magazine in print from the end of the twentieth-century to the outbreak of World War II. The ensuing hardback was published the same year by D. Appleton and Company, New York. A first edition asking price is now £30,000 for a pristine copy, or one signed by the author, the book originally priced at two dollars. First dust jackets pictured a young Victorian female, thought to be inspired by the child in the 1785 painting by Joshua Reynolds, bearing the same title as the novel. Wharton penned extensive revisions between the serial and book publication, and made even more changes after the second impression.

US hardbacks: D. Appleton & Company 1920 first edition; Grosset & Dunlap 1920s (by arrangement with Appleton); Modern Library 1943.

With 2020 being the novel’s centenary year, new anniversary editions are to be found, with no doubt a continuing plethora of Kindle types and other renderings. Given also that The Age of Innocence is out of copyright, the modern era affords endless opportunities for reprints and digital versions in the public domain, hence a flurry of new runs in recent years, or, latterly, print on demand and ‘self published’ offerings. Numerous assorted versions have appeared, either as audio or academic studies, in collections including the author’s other works, or as translations in various countries.

There have also been screen and stage presentations of the story. In 1924, The Age of Innocence was filmed as a silent movie, followed by a Broadway theatrical production in 1928. The play ran for six months, with over 200 performances, and is still performed today. This was followed by a Hollywood screen version in 1934, an RKO film adaptation based on both the novel and the play. The script was almost a complete rewrite, its pace brisk and scenes quite ‘talky’, while length was only around 80 minutes, leading to subtleties and nuances being lost. This first screen presentation with sound was creditable enough, with a level of sincerity and an ending which was contemplative, avoiding the fashion for a ‘tearjerker’. Edith Wharton died three years after the film, in France; whether she saw it, or the silent version, or how she might have regarded them, is not known.

In 1993, director Martin Scorsese brought to the screen a faithful and plush adaptation of the novel, with the trio of main characters portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis as Newland Archer, Michelle Pfeiffer as Countess Ellen Olenska and Winona Ryder as May Welland, she being Oscar nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. Scorsese dedicated the film to his actor father, who died the same year as the film’s release. The script borrows extensively from the novel, the characters liberally speaking lines of dialogue from the novel. Throughout the film a narration extracted from the book is spoken by actress Joanne Woodward, providing a feeling of nostalgia, as if looking back on events. The movie could rightfully be called definitive, being Oscar nominated for its screenplay. The length was almost double that of its 1934 predecessor, allowing the camera time to study lingering looks conveying a player’s thoughts, or to glide over many elegant interiors and atmospheric outdoor scenes. A slower and gentler tempo offers a more refined treatment of the multi-layered story. Almost no detail is spared and the lavish production has been rated as one of the best page-to-screen adaptations, perhaps Scorsese’s masterpiece. Between the two movies, Edith Wharton was honoured on a US postage stamp, in 1980.

And so to the novel, with an assurance that no substantive ‘spoilers’ appear in this review, nor are any of the later plot elements revealed. The story, penned in around 100,000 words, is largely divided into two equal halves, entitled Book I and Book II, the latter carrying a belated powerful revelation; arising from this, the last part of the book is reflective. In this way, The Age of Innocence encompasses the past history and continuing lives of the two main family clans, the ongoing events and later, in retrospect, the unfolding of events during future years.

As will become apparent from the author’s treatment of her main protagonist, she clearly knew lawyer Newland Archer better than he ever did himself. The novelist’s study of him is crafted with insight and sincerity, and as the central figure he is seen in three successive guises. An early first reference is to a former time, involving a younger man’s affair with a married lady, since ended. The story proper now takes place, charting Archer’s life as a person embroiled in the fashionable structure of New York’s high society, but feeling drawn to a more free and easy lifestyle, one he imagines “common” people and foreigners enjoy. His restless feelings and stirrings cause him privately to react against the class system in which he has been raised, but of which he seems inescapably a part. Inevitably, as the novel commandingly portrays, there comes a time when someone such as Archer has made his choices, that of enjoying or enduring the life for which he has opted, whether willingly, or regretfully. The third phase of Archer’s life, and the novel, is reflective, now that he and the reader have experienced all the events which have taken place, or, in the end, did not happen.

North American hardbacks: Engage limited 1000 copies Canada 2016; Inkflight ‘centenary’ limited 100 copies Canada 2019; Scribner 100th anniversary US 2020.

The late nineteenth-century upper class values of delicacy and propriety are those which the novel’s illustrious New York family members resolutely observe. The formidable men and women protect the dynastic name, in the cause of duty, even to the exclusion of their own happiness; the scourge of scandal outweighs any desire to venture beyond the bounds of propriety. There is much regard for tradition and history and the novel’s title can be seen as an ironic comment on the polished outward behaviour of the city’s two main illustrious families. They are hailed as “the very apex of the pyramid”, while their internal dealings are kept private and concealed, in particular to maintain and protect a woman’s honour. Subjects of etiquette and convention are matters of pride, but they belie hypocrisy and artificiality. Thus, to the relief of Archer’s family and that of his fiancée May Welland and her household, his recent affair has been brought to an end and without any public exposure, allowing dignity and good taste to be kept to the fore.

The story embracing New York high society as it does, the opening setting is that of an opera, the venue being approved of as “small and inconvenient, and thus keeping out the ‘new people’ whom New York was beginning to dread and yet be drawn to.” Here, the preserving of class values is at risk of being undermined, such is the refusal of the upper echelons of society to mix with those from the lower reaches of the city. Archer of course arrives at the opera fashionably late: “New York was a metropolis, and perfectly aware that in metropolises it was ‘not the thing’ to arrive early.”

Across the theatre Archer can see his fiancée, the sheltered May, seated in her family’s private box, which he visits. His future romantic partner presents as a vision in virtuous white, the male visitor contemplating “her absorbed young face with a thrill of possessorship in which pride in his own masculine initiation was mingled with a tender reverence for her abysmal purity.” However, Archer is then smitten at first glance by a lady introduced as his fiancée’s cousin, “… a slim young woman, a little less tall than May Welland, with brown hair growing in close curls about her temples and held in place by a narrow band of diamonds.” It soon transpires that the pair knew each other as children, he having once stolen a kiss from her. Countess Ellen Olenska has just returned from abroad, having unconventionally left her Polish count husband, turning her back on an abusive marriage. Thereupon, despite Archer being betrothed and the titled lady, ‘spoken for’ in law, an early passion is ignited within them.

US paperbacks: Scribner 1968; Collier 1992; Signet Classics 2008.

The forthcoming experiences of the male protagonist and the two women who will impact on his life are, however, not the only important elements of the tale. Locations, secondary characters, tradition, death and dishonour, create a fascinating and essential background, notably one in which the author herself matured. Archer’s own mother has an unshakable view as to her son’s betrothal and how marriage should be conducted, but mainly from the point of view of continuing the family’s good name: “There was no better match in New York than May Welland, look at the question from whatever point you chose. Of course such a marriage was only what Newland was entitled to; but young men are so foolish and incalculable – and some women so ensnaring and unscrupulous – that it was nothing short of a miracle to see one’s only son safe past the Siren Isle and in the haven of a blameless domesticity.”

An approaching social occasion serves to have Archer more formally introduced to the free-spirited Madame Olenska, while elsewhere at the event May Welland is about to spread the word that she has become engaged to him. In contrast to the prospective bride, Ellen Olenska’s boldness is on view for all to see: “It was not the custom in New York drawing-rooms for a lady to get up and walk away from one gentleman in order to seek the company of another. Etiquette required that she should wait, immovable as an idol, while the men who wished to converse with her succeeded each other at her side. But the Countess was apparently unaware of having broken any rule; she sat at perfect ease in a corner of the sofa beside Archer, and looked at him with the kindest eyes.” In time May appears, spotted by Ellen, who covers the moment: “‘Ah, here’s May arriving, and you will want to hurry away to her,’ she added, but without moving; and her eyes turned back from the door to rest on the young man’s face.” Clearly Ellen is enjoying Archer’s company and not caring about social niceties

Soon May is encircled by several males, allowing nascent feelings within her intended and her cousin to continue developing unhindered. Archer is content to carry on conversing with his present company and does not mind May being temporarily waylaid. ‘Oh,’ said Archer, ‘I have so many rivals; you see she’s already surrounded. There’s the Duke being introduced.’ ‘Then stay with me a little longer,’ Madame Olenska said in a low tone, just touching his knee with her plumed fan. It was the lightest touch, but it thrilled him like a caress.”

After one or two later meetings, despite the difficulty in arranging what could be judged an indecorous rendezvous, the clandestine couple cannot ignore their strong mutual attraction. Ellen wishes to commence divorce proceedings and consults the legal firm at which Archer is employed. Conveniently, if ill-advisedly, he takes on the role of her lawyer, and here rises an additional obstacle. If he were to follow his feelings, betraying his fiancée May on one hand, and on the other becoming romantically involved with his client, it would mean prejudicing not only his social standing, but also his legal career. To complicate matters further for him, there is another apparent male suitor on hand for the countess.

UK paperbacks: Penguin 1994 film tie-in; Wordsworth 1994; Oxford University Press 2008.

To Archer, Ellen is a fantasy of freedom and escape, the feminine ideal, while May is the quintessence of established New York society. The two women represent, individually, a ‘decadent’ Europe and ‘innocent’ America, while the bastions of decency stand in the way of any reckless behaviour, leaving only private thoughts as a conduit to explore possibilities beyond the social order. “How quaint, how rosy-hued and idealistic it all was,” the narrator attests. The main players are confined inside their rituals, the family and social precepts having no real substance or meaning. The emphasis is on marital duty, avoiding any scandal, maintaining privacy and tradition. Even immediately after a wedding, it is a tradition that a matriarchal figure gives the wedding breakfast, thereby sealing the newcomers inside the circle of two now joined families.

Within this suffocating environment, Archer and Ellen are emotionally both lovers and kindred spirits. “Each time you happen to me all over again,” the countess reveals to her forbidden paramour. In the days ahead, the male confidante and aspirant wooer is invited to visit Ellen in her newly rented “peeling stucco house with a giant wisteria throttling its feeble cast-iron balcony… far down West Twenty-third Street… It was certainly a strange quarter to have settled in. Small dress-makers, bird-stuffers and ‘people who wrote’ were her nearest neighbours.” Although the invitation is not necessarily unusual in itself, Archer declines to mention it to May. Moreover, the evening he spends in Ellen’s company allows their relationship to evolve, although the meeting is brought to an abrupt end by the arrival of a person who could stand in the way of Archer’s developing, but seemingly impossible, expectations: “He was not sorry for the denouement of his visit: he only wished it had come sooner, and spared him a certain waste of emotion. As he went out into the wintry night, New York again became vast and imminent, and May Welland the loveliest woman in it.” He later buys May flowers and asks her out for a walk in the park.

In essence, the author is the observer and storyteller, chiefly assuming the persona of Newland Archer. Skilfully, she reveals the lawyer’s inner feelings, as he appears outwardly to be conducting his client’s matrimonial business. He is additionally conflicted by the risk of Ellen’s wider family name becoming besmirched by virtue of her divorce, affecting Archer’s own impending marriage to a member of the same extended family. Thus the troubled lawyer takes it upon himself to dissuade the countess from pursuing a divorce, perhaps a selfish act, or perhaps unconsciously to make her ‘free’. However, her halted intentions and thereby remaining married fail to stem his love for her. Moreover, when May hears of the stayed proceedings, she believes it is out of love for her that her betrothed has prevented the divorce. Archer resolves that the only way out from the maze in which he feels trapped is to advance his own wedding date and prevent in the meantime his remaining ‘vulnerable’. From this point on he is beleaguered by an accumulation of concerns: societal niceties, legal obligations to his firm, longings for his client and his own family considerations, not least of all his fiancée.

As time passes, Archer strives to focus upon his romance with May, becoming less troubled with Ellen’s possible divorce, or any chance that she might remarry. “Since their last meeting he had half-unconsciously collaborated with events in ridding himself of the burden of Madame Olenska. His hour alone with her by the firelight had drawn them into a momentary intimacy on which (events) had rather providentially broken.” And yet, in truth, the afflicted lawyer cannot bear thoughts of his client being courted by other men. Even from a distance, the countess later moving away, the now disunited couple still share feelings in notes, Ellen wishing Archer was with her.

UK paperbacks: Virago 1992; Penguin Classics 1996; Oxford World’s Classics 2008.

Book I progresses, with travel and later private meetings occupying future events. As events unfold, approaching half way through the book, we have not heard the last of Archer’s original affair, that which he conducted before he became associated with either May or Ellen. Only one person is clear on her plans, May favours a long and typical engagement, followed by a full wedding ceremony. During the period of impending marriage, Archer cannot help but fantasise about being married to Ellen, were it to be possible, while he sees marrying May as more of an impending fate, a loveless society union. Thus the legal, matrimonial, societal and family constraints, not least of all the tentacles of tradition, remain locked in play as Book I begins to draw to a close.

Book II’s outlook is concerned with hoped-for wedlock, assorted family gatherings, excursions and pastimes. Ahead await possible European travels and the occasional Grand Tour, all of which may serve to leave behind the earlier days of the Metropolis and its characters’ lives and loves. Meanwhile, the privileged classes fill their liberal free time with fashionable pursuits. “…Archery… which had hitherto known no rival but croquet, was beginning to be discarded in favour of lawn-tennis; but the latter game was still considered too rough and inelegant for social occasions, and as an opportunity to show off pretty dresses and graceful attitudes the bow and arrow held their own.”

The Age of Innocence in many respects presents as an elegy to the time in which Edith Wharton grew up, a society of wealth and class, hidebound by its own self-imposed order. As for the story’s denouement, the momentous revelations which conclude events are delivered briefly and effectively. There follow some closing reflective pages, from which questions form in the mind of the reader, thoughts dwelling on possible different outcomes; which of course is how it should be.

(Phew! Thanks for that, Mr. Kaggsy – possibly the longest post ever on the Ramblings!! I did consider splitting it into two parts, but then thought it was better left as one piece. I expect whatever appears tomorrow will be a little bit shorter…. :D)

Some booky and arty digressions! (or; drowning in books….)


Those of you who follow me on Twitter might have picked up that I’ve been having a bit of a clear out recently – the pile of books on the landing, known locally as Death Row, has been severely pruned and there are now boxes in the hallway waiting for a local charity shop to collect. Unfortunately, the pruning process wasn’t as rigorous as I might have wished, as I ended up reprieving a fair number of books – but at least the landing is now passable without danger of falling over a pile of volumes…

Needless to say, however, this somehow spurred on a burst of buying (and I’ve managed to pick up a couple of things locally). So in the spirit of sharing gratuitous book pictures with those who love them, here are some lovelies! 🙂

They come from a variety of sources, new and used, and are all tempting me to pick them up straight away to read…

First up, a couple of finds in the local Samaritans Book Cave – and as I mentioned when I posted images of them on social media, I had only popped in to ask about donating…. But the Wharton is one I’ve never seen before and it sounds fascinating. I do of course have the Colette already, but it’s a very old, small Penguin with browning crumbly pages which I’m a bit scared to read again. And I *do* want to re-read the Cheri books, so of course want to start reading both of these at once.

These two are brand new, pay-day treats from an online source (ahem). I basically couldn’t resist Bergeners as I’ve heard such good things about it (and as I posted excitedly on Twitter, I now own a Seagull Books book!) The Patti Smith was essential, as I have just about everything else ever published by her (including old and rare poetry pamphlets from the 1970s). I just discovered she has an Instagram account you can follow – how exciting is that????

Finally in the new arrivals, a recent post by Liz reminded me that I had always wanted to own a book issued by the Left Book Club. A quick online search revealed that Orwells are prohibitively expensive; but I rather liked the look of this one about Rosa Luxemburg and so it was soon winging its way to me.

I could of course start reading any of these straight away (but which one?); though I am rather suffering from lots of books calling for my attention at once. There’s the lovely pile of British Library Crime Classics I featured a photo of recently, as well as other review books. Then there is this enticing pile featuring some books I’m keen on getting to soon:

I’ve already started the Chateaubriand and it’s excellent; long and full of beautiful prose. I want to read more RLS, and I’m very drawn to New Arabian Nights. Then there is poetry – perhaps I should have a couple of weeks of reading only verse???

Finally, here’s an author who’s been getting a lot of online love recently:

I was pretty sure that I’d read Jane Bowles, and I thought it was “Two Serious Ladies” that I’d read – but apparently not… The pretty Virago above is a fairly recently acquisition; the short story collection is a book I’ve had for decades (it has an old book-plate I used to use); and so I’ve obviously never read Bowles’ only novel. So tempting.

And there is, of course, this rather daunting volume – Dr. Richard Clay’s book on “Iconoclasm in revolutionary Paris”, which is currently sitting on my shelf glaring at me as if to say “Well, you went through all that angst to get me, so damn well read me!”

Here it is on the aforesaid shelf, and as you can see it has a new heavyweight companion…

The new arrival is another Big Book on iconoclasm which has just come out in paperback. It’s obvious I need to give up work and find some kind of employment that will pay me just to read…

So, I’m really not quite sure where to commit my reading energies at the moment: do I read review books or follow my whim? Or let myself by swayed by other people’s suggestions or go for a re-read? Or go for Difficult but Fascinating? Decisions, decisions…

The Arty Bit

This post is getting a bit long, but anyway. Ramblings readers will probably have picked up that I love a good art exhibition, but I pretty much always end up travelling to London for them as not much seems to happen locally. However, OH (that great enabler) noticed that the nearest Big Town had an art gallery and it was showing a collection of contemporary Chinese art, so I popped over during the recent half term break.

I confess that I know little about Chinese art (probably more about Japanese art, tbh) but this was fascinating. The works are remarkable varied, some drawing on traditional Chinese methods and others embracing more Western techniques. I took quick snaps of a few favourites (I’m never sure if you’re allowed to take photos in galleries, though phone cameras seem to be acceptable).

It really is an eye-opener of an exhibition, and even had free postcards!

What was disappointing, however, was how quiet the gallery was in the middle of a half term week. I do feel that perhaps they need to give themselves a higher profile; I wasn’t sure I even knew there was a gallery there, although I now find myself questioning that because of a very strange incident. I was on my up the stairs in the gallery to the upper mezzanine level, and halfway up there is a big list on the wall of supporters and past volunteers. I was a bit surprised to notice, therefore, that Middle Child’s name was featured…. Especially as when I quizzed her about it she claimed to have no idea why it’s up there!

She is, however, the arty one of the family, and I suspect may have been involved in something there when she was at college doing art. But obviously having a bad memory run in the family.

Well. I’m sorry – this is a really long post (but then I do like to live up to my name and ramble….) Now I just need to focus and decide what to read next…

The Society of Women


Roman Fever by Edith Wharton

Virago author of the month for March, as voted for by members of the lovely LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group, is Edith Wharton – an author I’ve read a little of before (most notably “Hudson River Bracketed”, which I absolutely loved). I was determined to join in this month, and have done, finishing the book comfortably before April arrived; but the hardest thing was choosing which one to read as I have a number of her titles lurking on the shelves. In the end, I plumped for “Roman Fever”, a collection of short stories, which was ideal for dipping into during a busy week.

Wharton known for sharply satirical stories of New York society and its mores, although HRB was set in a slightly different milieu. Here, however, we are well into a particular social strata and I can’t say it’s one I’d be particularly keen on belonging to…

The title story is, of course, one of Wharton’s most famous works, well-known for its wonderful last line. I’d read it before, but loved revisiting this tale of two society matrons watching their daughters experience Rome and reminiscing on their own past in the city. There are, of course, skeletons lurking and some wonderful revelations to come.

Pleasingly, the rest of the stories in the collection lived up to the wonderfully high standard of Roman Fever. When I’m talking about shorter works I don’t always mention each one individually, but since every story in the book was a winner I’m making an exception here. Xingu was a wonderfully clever tale, focusing on a group of society ladies who’d formed a club where they explored literature, philosophy and whatever was the current trend, thinking themselves a cut above everyone else. However, the visit of a famous author reveals their falsities and shows an unlikely member to be the sharpest of the lot.

It was Mrs. Ballinger’s boast that she was “abreast with the Thought of the Day,” and her pride that this advanced position should be expressed by the books on her table.

The Other Two tackles a couple of Wharton’s regular themes: that of the use of an advantageous marriage as a tool for a woman to climb up in society, and also attitudes towards divorce, here of men. The protagonist is in love with his wife, but cannot shake off the shadow of her previous husbands who are still present in her life. I found this story particularly impressive, with the current husband unable to deal with the fact that his wife had had other relationships, so much so that it ate away at his marriage.

Souls Belated also deals with divorce, although here we have a couple who’ve run away from society and are travelling around Europe; this way, they can avoid bumping into embarrassing acquaintances as their unmarried status makes them outcasts. However, it takes an encounter with another woman in a similar situation to bring about a crisis, and show up the weaknesses in their bravado at attempting to live outside the accepted norm.

A different kind of woman features in Angel at the Grave, a story where the central character has spent her life in the shadow of her grandfather. Once a great figure in letters, he’s become a somewhat forgotten man; and her existence has become reclusive, living in his house and preserving his legacy. It takes a visit from an interested scholar to bring her back to life again, although much of what she could have been has passed her by, with all of her potential being sacrificed to men’s art.

A great man never draws so near his public as when it has become unnecessary to read his books and is still interesting to know what he eats for breakfast.

In The Last Asset we are back in society, in the marriage broking game. A separated high society woman, with plenty of men friends and hangers on, is desperate to arrange an advantageous marrige for her daugher; but the success of this depends upon her proving her extreme respectability. The last asset she can draw on is her estranged husband, should it be possible to track him down and persuade him to take part in this cynical maneouvre…

Mrs. Woolsey Hubbard was an expansive blonde, whose ample but disciplined outline seemed the result of a well-matched struggle between her cook and her corset-maker.

High society and its effects stay in focus in After Holbein, but here we meet a couple of its ageing habituees. Both have frittered their lives away circulating amongst the people to be seen with in places to be seen, until they are left with nothing but the shells of their former lives, the only thing they can still hang on to.

The final story in this excellent colection, Autre Temps, returns to the topic of divorce. The central character, Mrs Lidcote, is returning from Europe to visit her daughter in America. She is another woman who has gone into exile after a divorce, cutting herself off from American society, and her return to her home country is a painful one, necessitated by the mother instinct – as her daughter has now divorced as well. However, the visit is bittersweet as she soon comes to realise that times may have changed for the young, but not for her generation.

Her first distinct feeling was one of irrational resentment. if such a change was to come, why had it not come sooner? Here was she, a woman not yet old, who had paid with the best years of her life for the theft of the happiness that her daughter’s contemporaries were taking as their due.

“Roman Fever” is a really wonderful group of stories, beautifully written and with a memorable set of characters. Often in short story collections there’s the danger of one tale merging into another, but that’s not the case here – each invididual title remained vividly in my mind after I read it and each was equally outstanding. In all of these stories Wharton’s target is Society with a capital S – its expecations, restrictions and demands, the constraints it places on women and its harsh judgement of their behaviour. Her writing can be bitingly critical of many of the female characters in that society, with their ridiculous rules and prejudices, but she never loses sympathy for those women who are suffering from society’s strictures. Wharton’s writing is sharp social satire at its best and she deftly cuts through the hypocrisy of a way of life she obviously knew well and lays bare the effects it has on people’s lives.

So an excellent and very satisfying read for this Virago Author of the Month selection. I found myself musing while I was reading on the way we think about women and their behaviour nowadays. Of course, divorce is no longer frowned on and multiple marriages are common; yet women are still criticised and vilified daily in the press and on social media if they don’t conform to whatever standards that platform is supporting. So although the method of judgement may be different, it seems that women’s lives are still subject to different standards than that of men. Not much changes, does it? 😦

All Virago, All August : You can’t go home again…


Hudson River Bracketed by Edith Wharton

I confess to feeling a little smugger than usual this August, as I’ve managed to read several Viragos – more than I normally manage, as there are so many bookish distractions around. Particularly pleasing is that this book is a large (over 500 pages!) and epic tale by Edith Wharton, who I haven’t read enough of – and I absolutely loved it! I read it while I was on my travels, visiting my mum and my offspring, and it was the perfect companion for train journeys and reading whilst away.

hudson river
“Hudson River Bracketed” (the titled refers to a style of architecture) was published in 1929, and it tells the story of Vance Weston. Born in the American mid-west, the son of a successful real estate developer, Vance is used to a modern, comfortable, forward-looking life. The family have gradually moved upmarket, from smaller houses to larger, even more modern ones and Vance has had a college education. But instead of taking the obvious course and going into the family business, he wants something different; some of the spark of his grandmother is in him, something that sees more in the world than just the quotidian, and Vance wants to be a writer. After an illness, he leaves the family home in the town of Euphoria and goes to board with a distant cousin, Mrs. Tracy, who has a ramshackle house in Paul’s Landing, up the Hudson River from New York. Basing himself here, he plans to make an assault on the Big Apple and make it as an author. However, the culture shock he experiences when he arrives on the Hudson is immense; for the first time in his life he comes across a way of life unlike his, with long roots to early American settlers. And the sight of his first old house has a dramatic effect on Vance, so much so that it changes his course mid-stream.

As they left the house he realized that, instead of seizing the opportunity to explore every nook of it, he had sat all the afternoon in one room, and merely dreamed of what he might have seen in the others. But that was always his way: the least little fragment of fact was enough for him to transform into a palace of dreamss, whereas if he tried to grasp more of it at a time it remained on his hands as so much unusable reality.

The Tracy family are related to the Spear family (I could have done with a family tree here) but the latter are of a different class. Cultured and refined, their only contact with the Tracys is to employ them to clean and keep an eye on The Willows, an old house owned by a cousin in the Lorburn branch of the family.

Whilst helping his cousins Laura Lou and Upton, Vance stumbles on the library and it is here that his real education begins. A college education has not prepared him for the splendours of classic literature; neither is he prepared for his meeting with Heloise “Halo” Spear, another distant cousin who will become his muse and obsession, as well as guiding him through the books at The Willows..

“Don’t shake the books as if they were carpets, Vance; they’re not. At least they’re only magic carpets, some of them, to carry one to the other side of the moon. But they won’t stand banging and beating. You see, books have souls, like people: that is, like a few people…”

But Vance’s life is going to be anything but straightforward. As he begins to explore literature and try to find his voice as a writer, he’s pulled between the draw of his art and the need to live so as to feed that art. Halo, despite his adoration of her, seems as far from him as a goddess; however, Laura Lou is human and loves him, and they will eventually make an ill-judged marriage. Vance struggles to write, to make a living so as to support the sickly Laura Lou and soon realises the mistake he’s made by marrying her. Despite the success of an initial novel, Vance’s naivety and immaturity means that he finds it impossible to find a balance in his life, torn between his loyalty for Laura Lou and need for companionship, as against his desperate urge to write. The struggle will prove to be too much for some…

“Hudson River Bracketed” could really be subtitled “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” because that’s most definitely what it is; and how unusual to have that portrait painted by a female author! Vance is a remarkable creation – complex, nuanced and perhaps more finely drawn than might be the case by a male writer. Interestingly, in the afterword by Marilyn French, the latter states that she regards the book as flawed because of the fact that Vance, as hero, is flawed, which I personally found an odd judgement. Vance is certainly no perfect hero – he has talent, but he’s weak, and his compassion and need for companionship overtake any logical thinking at times in the story. His treatment of women is often unthinking, but he’s driven by the need to write and struggles to do this while he’s burdened with a wife who has no comprehension of his needs and also has no money to support her.

I chose the title of this post deliberately, as it also spotlights another strong trend in the book, the clash between Vance’s two lives. He pretty much abandons his family in Euphoria to follow his muse, rejecting their values and way of life. At one point in the story he’s forced to return because of lack of finances, but the situation is impossible as he’s moved away from his family and their beliefs. He stands it for a while until he’s impelled to leave once more for New York. However, there’s a saying that “You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy” and this kind of applies here; Vance is somehow caught between two worlds, neither of which he really fits into, and in the end you wish someone would give him some money to go off and write his masterpiece. The title of this post is also relevant because Wharton apparently based her story on the early life of American author Thomas Wolfe, who wrote a book of that name, and his books (like this one) reflect the culture of the time. In Wharton’s book in particular New York’s literary elite of the 1920s come in for quite a lot of sly criticism and it’s obvious the author had no love for faddish writing (though she does allow Vance to discover and be entranced by “The Russians”!)

HRB is a long book yet immensely readable, and beautifully written. There are vivid scenes of Vance and Halo watching a sunrise over the Hudson River; Vance and Laura Lou exploring in the snow; the countryside around The Willows and the house itself; and all of these are stunning and memorable, as were the characters. In particular, the troubled and intelligent Halo Spear is a wonderful creation. Married to a man she doesn’t love because of the fact that her family owe him money, she struggles to maintain an intellectual life and sees the genius in Vance Weston. Trying to help him draw this out, she becomes his muse and eventually the pair fall in love. This is always handled sensitively and convincingly by Wharton, and though they can’t be together out of loyalty to their spouses, I couldn’t help wishing they were as Halo seemed to be the only person able to help Vance attain his potential.

Despite its length HRB finished too soon for me; I had become completely absorbed in the story of Vance and Halo, and so it was a real delight to find out that there’s a follow-up book, “The Gods Arrive”. I’ve read little Wharton up until now, but I’ll certainly be looking out for “Gods…” and also checking out the other books by the author that are lurking on my shelves! 🙂

Goodbye, July – and August reading plans!


I’m really not sorry to see the back of July – it was a long and busy month, and I spent a lot of it reading one book, Dostoevsky’s “The Adolescent” (the review for which will be appearing in the next Shiny New Books). It wouldn’t normally take me so long to read 600 pages, but I *was* busy and I *was* tired! The minute I finished work for the summer, I raced through the rest of the book….!

So, with July out of the way, do I have plans for August? Well, yes – there are a number of challenges up this month and I’d like to take part if I can.

hudson river

First of all there’s All Virago/All August, which the LibraryThing Virago group organise. I never go for reading nothing but Viragos for the month, because I would fail – like Jane at Beyond Eden Rock, I prefer the approach of “Very Virago/All August” and just read the ones that fall in with my mood. This month, I hope to catch up with the Dorothy Richardsons I’m behind on, and also read a large and interesting-looking Edith Wharton, “Hudson River Bracketed”.


I’d also like to keep up the impetus with the Penguin Modern Poets project; the next one is volume 6 and it features two poets I know of (and at least one I’ve read) so it should be an interesting experience.


August is also Women in Translation month. Goodness knows I have a ton of books by translated women, but choosing will be hard! There are two lovely Irmgard Keun titles lurking on the shelves so I may pick one of them.

baum colette

There’s also “Grand Hotel” which I’m doing for Shiny. Plus I may well re-read my favourite Colette, “Break of Day”, as I picked up the Capuchin edition in a charity shop!

woolf orlando recollections

Last, but most definitely not least, I want to dip into HeavenAli’s #Woolfalong; the current phase is biography of all sorts and I’m considering “Orlando” or possibly “Recollections of Virginia Woolf”. Knowing me, I may end up reading neither of these, but I do want to read something Woolfish soon!

So those are the plans for August as they stand on the first day of the month – watch this space to see what materialises! 🙂

And it was all going *so* well…..


… my decluttering of the house, that is – as I’ve been carting off books to the charity shops every week and even selling a few online. However, I’m still not sure the ratio is right, and the four I took in to donate yesterday have alas been replaced by five…

The problem is that yesterday I decided to pop into *all* of the local charity shops, which I haven’t done for a while – and these the are the ones that came home:

finds 14 5 16 b

I have perfectly good reasons for all of them: “Kolymsky Heights” has been on the wishlist since it came out and couldn’t be turned down for 75p; the rather frail Wharton is a Virago I’ve never seen before so it was a no-brainer; the British Library edition of “The Hog’s Back Mystery” is in perfect condition for £1.75; the Stephen Spender I’d never heard of, but sounded fab; likewise the Mary McCarthy – I have several of hers and I really need to get reading her!

finds 14 5 16 a

So basically I spent £6.20 on five rather wonderful books. And apart from the issue of space, I really don’t think I can be blamed for that – do you???? 😉

(As an aside, there were a couple of tempting titles in the Oxfam – but their prices have gone rather silly again, so I figured I should quit while I was ahead and just settle for these five….)

Mothering Sunday fun!


Yesterday was Mothering Sunday in the UK, and I was rather spoiled I must say (even though all three offspring were away – two local ones visiting Middle Child in Leicester). They left gifts and instructions with Other Half and so I was treated to breakfast in bed and pressies anyway!

Eldest and Youngest got me lovely things (book tokens, notebooks, things from my wish list) but Middle Child rather surpassed herself by finding four lovely Green Viragos I don’t have – and here they are:

Lovely new (old) green Viragos!

Lovely new (old) green Viragos!

I was chuffed to say the least – the Willa Cather sounds fascinating; I’ve always wanted to read “Roman Fever”; the Molly Keane is one I don’t have; and I’m trying to get the set of Antonia Whites so this helps a lot!

Well done offspring!


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