Edith Wharton

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton

Post originally published July 31, 2015

Title: The Custom of the Country
Author: Edith Wharton
Published in 1913

Summary from Goodreads: Considered by many to be her masterpiece, Edith Wharton’s second full-length work is a scathing yet personal examination of the exploits and follies of the modern upper class. As she unfolds the story of Undine Spragg, from New York to Europe, Wharton affords us a detailed glimpse of what might be called the interior décor of this America and its nouveau riche fringes. Through a heroine who is as vain, spoiled, and selfish as she is irresistibly fascinating, and through a most intricate and satisfying plot that follows Undine’s marriages and affairs, she conveys a vision of social behavior that is both supremely informed and supremely disenchanted. – Anita Brookner

This book is the second in Wharton’s cycle of books focusing on women and marriage in gilded age New York. The first, House of Mirth, was published in 1905. House of Mirth was her first full-length novel. The Custom of the Country was the second of the three, published in 1913. The Age of Innocence completes the cycle, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1920. Each of them explore female autonomy and marriage in the late nineteenth century, focusing primarily on upper-class New York society and the extensive rules and limitations of that society.

The anti-heroine of The Custom of the Country is Undine Spragg, a midwestern girl with seething ambitions who has dragged her newly rich family to New York. Born in the fictional Apex City, Undine has an outsized sense of importance coupled with absolutely no principles whatsoever. She is, and remains, total tabula rasa through the entire book, an empty vessel to be filled with whatever social niceties are required to fit into the group to which she aspires. She cares for essentially no one and provides no value at all save her extraordinary youthful beauty. Sirenlike, she convinces four different men: her father, Abner Spragg, her New York husband, Ralph Marvell, her French husband, Raymond de Chelles, and, coming full circle, her Apex City husband Elmer Moffatt that she is precisely who they want her – and believe her – to be.

In mythology, Undine is an elemental water spirit, a nereide, a nymph, who is born without a human soul and must marry a human male in order to achieve immortality. This is a fine analogy to Undine Spragg, a woman who is so utterly self-centered that she is incapable of even the barest human feeling for another person. Like a nymph, she is physically gorgeous, eternally youthful, lithe, slender and innocent of appearance. She has the ability to be completely artificial and yet appear utterly without artifice. The men whom she marries believe her to be exactly who she appears to be, until much too late.

Edith Wharton is frequently unkind to her female characters. Undine is different. She is never really forced to pay the price for her decisions, but, in part, I think that this is because she is incapable of feeling like she did anything wrong. She is a human wrecking ball, a vampire squid wrapped around the face of those who love her, sucking them dry and discarding the empty husk that she leaves behind.

In many ways, she reminds me of some of the other great anti-heroines in literature: Emma Bovary, Scarlett O’Hara, Daisy Buchanan, Becky Sharp. And there is nothing like reading about an anti-heroine and realizing that many of the qualities that make her an anti-heroine are the same qualities that might make a man a hero. Or, at a minimum, successful. Undine, as a woman, has no ability to make her own money or be independent, and she lacks any sort of a control or restraint to prevent her from behaving really, really badly. She is pure consumption, unbridled by convention, with no ability other than manipulation to achieve her aims.

She makes her parents miserable, with her constant social climbing and relentless demands. Near the beginning of the book, she has target-locked on a specific social class exemplified by old New York families, and demands that, in order to insinuate herself into that class, her father purchase her an opera box, so she can see and be seen the class with which she wants to associate herself. When her father demurs, because of the cost, but suggests he might be able to afford a seat, she responds:

“I’d a good deal rather have a box for the season,” she rejoined, and he saw the opening he had given her.

She had two ways of getting things out of him against his principles; the tender wheedling way, and the harsh-lipped and cold — and he did not know which he dreaded most. As a child they had admired her assertiveness, had made Apex ring with their boasts of it; but it had long since cowed Mrs. Spragg, and it was beginning to frighten her husband.

Every decision she makes turns out, in her mind, to be the wrong one because she is simply incapable of contentment. There is a great, grasping need at the bottom of her that can never be filled. She marries into New York society, and that turns to ashes because, as it turns out, old families don’t necessarily possess the kind of material resources that she needs in order to be amused. And because she is Undine Spragg, beautiful and demanding, she never, not even for one minute, feels that she should have to make the best of any situation. Rather, the situation must make the best of her, or she is out. When husband number one conveniently kicks off, opening the way for her to remarry a Catholic French Count as a widow, not as a divorcee, she is briefly contented with the great chateau and the title.

In some ways, she’s met her match in Raymond de Chelles. She tries to manipulate him, and he merely ignores her. When she throws a tantrum over their reduced circumstances, and attempts to guilt him into selling some of his heirloom tapestries in order to keep her in her accustomed splendor, he responds:

“Ah, that’s your answer — that’s all you feel when you lay hands on things that are sacred to us!” He stopped a moment, and then let his voice break out with the volume she had felt it to be gathering. “And you’re all alike,” he exclaimed, “every one of you. You come among us from a country we don’t know, and can’t imagine, a country you care for so little that before you’ve been a day in ours you’ve forgotten the very house you were born in — if it wasn’t torn down before you knew it! You come among us speaking our language and not knowing what we mean; wanting the things we want, and not knowing why we want them; aping our weaknesses, exaggerating our follies, ignoring or ridiculing all we care about — you come from hotels as big as towns, and from towns as flimsy as paper, where the streets haven’t had time to be named, and the buildings are demolished before they are dry, and the people are as proud of changing as we are of what we have — and we’re fools enough to imagine that because you copy our ways and pick up our slang you understand anything about the things that make life decent and honourable for us.”

After this, she finally, ultimately, frees herself from him and marries her equal, Elmer Moffat, a man who is just as newly rich, just as crass, just as brash as Undine herself. With unlimited resources and a husband who will make no demands upon her, she believes that she has finally achieved that which she is due.

But even at the end of the book, I’m left with a strong belief that this one will not stick. That the black widow spider that is Undine Spragg de Chelles Moffat will not be content for long. The book ends:

But under all that dazzle a tiny black cloud remained. She had learned that there was something she could never get, something that neither beauty nor influence nor millions could ever buy for her. She could never be an Ambassador’s wife; and as she advanced to welcome her first guest she said to herself that it was the one part she was really made for.

Honestly, is there anyone, finishing this book, who doesn’t think that somewhere there is a president who doesn’t have a prayer in hell of standing in her way when she decides to marry the ambassador to France? Because seriously, Undine Spragg could reduce Donald Trump to a pile of quivering ectoplasm in thirty seconds flat.

Edith Wharton is, as always, brilliant. But, unlike so many of her other books, this book is a hard diamond of a thing. I cannot sympathize with Undine Spragg, because there is no humanity in her at all. She is the ultimate expression of the Randian ideal: pure selfishness, gorgeous and demanding, standing with hand outstretched, wearing a beautiful dress.

Elizabeth Gaskell

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Post previously published on August 29, 2015

Title: North and South
Author: Elizabeth Gaskell
First published 1855

Summary from Goodreads: ‘How am I to dress up in my finery, and go off and away to smart parties, after the sorrow I have seen today?’

When her father leaves the Church in a crisis of conscience, Margaret Hale is uprooted from her comfortable home in Hampshire to move with her family to the north of England. Initially repulsed by the ugliness of her new surroundings in the industrial town of Milton, Margaret becomes aware of the poverty and suffering of the local mill-workers and develops a passionate sense of social justice. This is intensified by her tempestuous relationship with the mill-owner and self-made man John Thornton, as their fierce opposition over his treatment of his employees masks a deeper attraction. In North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell skillfully fused individual feeling with social concern, and in Margaret Hale created one of the most original heroines of Victorian literature.

I read this all the way back in January, and I loved it so much and I had so much to say that I never managed to say any of it. So, settle in. Because this is my favorite Victorian novel of all time. I adore Middlemarch, which comes close, but nothing by Dickens or Collins or Hardy or Trollope can approach the love that I feel for North and South. I can’t believe that I’d never read it.

If I must make full confession, I have to admit that this:

May have something to do with my love for John Thornton. Yes, I’m shallow.

But Richard Armitage isn’t the only reason that I fell in love with North and South. The reasons are numerous:

First, I love the fact that it is set in the industrial north of England, which is a change from much Victorian literature that is set in London. Added to that, the fact that some of the characters are “working class” was a tremendous treat. Nicholas Higgins was a complex character who was treated respectfully by Gaskell, which delighted me. Uneducated though he was, and a bit of a political firebrand, he was willing to humble himself in an effort to get his job back when he took on the obligation of supporting the children of a fellow mill worker who had died.

Second, Mrs. Thornton was a bad ass Victorian lady. After John Thornton’s father speculated badly and lost his money, committing suicide in despair, she was left to raise two children basically by her wits alone. Her son, hardworking and ambitious, is ultimately able to buy the mill and become the owner. He says about his mother:

“My mother managed so that I put by three out of these fifteen shillings regularly. This made the beginning; this taught me self-denial. Now that I am able to afford my mother such comforts as her age, rather than her own wish, requires, I thank her silently on each occasion for the early training she gave me.”

When I take a moment to reflect on how difficult it would have been for a woman like Mrs. Thornton to not merely survive, but to thrive and remain unbowed and unbroken, I am even more impressed by Mrs. Gaskell. Mrs. Thornton has a backbone of steel – talk about strong female characters. In addition, though, she is complex and flawed, which makes her even more compelling.

Finally, the romance between John Thornton and Margaret Hale brings out the best in both of them – eventually. Margaret begins the book haughty, upset at being moved to Milton, missing the sophisticated society of southern England. She is out of her element in the industrial north, and looks down on the working class mill workers. Over time, however, she begins to see the value in their lack of sophistication, plain speech and work ethic.

This same transition occurs with her opinion of Mr. Thornton who proves himself to be more than worthy of Margaret. It is a reversal of the Lizzie Bennett/Mr. Darcy conflict. As Darcy must come to recognize that Lizzie is his equal in spite of her lack of fortune and crazy family, so must Margaret come to the conclusion that Mr. Thornton is her equal, even if he is in trade. He proves again and again that a gentleman is not born, but is made – including when he initially proposes to her, and she rejects summarily rejects him, rather than responding with anger, he takes a different approach:

“Miss Hale might love another — was indifferent and contemptuous to him — but he would yet do her faithful acts of service of which she should never know. He might despise her, but the woman whom he had once loved should be kept from shame; and shame it would be to pledge herself to a lie in a public court, or otherwise to stand and acknowledge her reason for desiring darkness rather than light.”

It takes many months for her to realize that she has fallen in love with him, as he has fallen in love with her.

“At that third call she turned her face, still covered with her small white hands, towards him, and laid it on his shoulder, hiding it even there; and it was too delicious to feel her soft cheek against his, for him to wish to see either deep blushes or loving eyes. He clasped her close. But they both kept silence.

At length she murmured in a broken voice: ‘Oh, Mr. Thornton, I am not good enough!’ ‘Not good enough! Don’t mock my own deep feeling of unworthiness.’”

And she’s right, really – society will think she is marrying down, but it is Thornton who has proven himself to be the more noble person. In the end, they both stand up to their families and declare their love for one another

‘How shall I ever tell Aunt Shaw?’ she whispered, after some time of delicious silence. ‘Let me speak to her.’ ‘Oh, no! I owe to her, — but what will she say?’

‘I can guess. Her first exclamation will be, “That man!”‘

‘Hush!’ said Margaret, ‘or I shall try and show you your mother’s indignant tones as she says, “That woman!”‘

Overall, I highly recommend this book to fans of Austen or Eliot. It is a novel of manners, but tackles significant themes as well: the struggle between modernity and tradition, the plight of the working class, appearance of virtue versus appearance of vice, and other things. I predict that it will turn out to be one of those books that I reread frequently.

Willa Cather

Alexander’s Bridge by Willa Cather

Review previously published in January, 2014.

Title: Alexander’s Bridge
Author: Willa Cather
First published in 1912

Plot summary from Goodreads: Alexander’s Bridge, Willa Cather’s first novel, is a taut psychological drama about the fragility of human connections. Published in 1912, just a year before O Pioneers! made Cather’s name, it features high society on an international stage rather than the immigrant prairie characters she later became known for. The successful and glamorous life of Bartley Alexander, a world-renowned engineer and bridge builder, begins to unravel when he encounters a former lover in London. As he shuttles among his wife in Boston, his old flame in London, and a massive bridge he is building in Canada, Alexander finds himself increasingly tormented. But the threatened collapse of his marriage presages a more fatal catastrophe, one he will risk his life to try to prevent.

Barely more than a novella, Alexander’s Bridge is Cather’s first novel. It is always interesting to see the seeds of genius in an author’s early work, and this book is primarily interesting for that reason. The story itself is a bit of wish-fulfillment: set internationally, in London, Canada and New York, the main character Bartley Alexander is a man of accomplishment.

The preface to my edition was written by Willa Cather herself, in 1922, and beings:

It is difficult to comply with the publisher’s request that I write a preface for this new edition of an early book. Alexander’s Bridge was my first novel, and does not deal with the kind of subject matter in which I now find myself most at home. The people and the places of the story interested me intensely at the time when it was written, because they were new to me and were in themselves attractive. Alexander’s Bridge was written in 1911, and O Pioneers! the following year. The difference in quality in the two books is an illustration of the fact that it is not always easy for the inexperienced writer to distinguish between his own material and that which he would like to make his own.

The preface goes on from there, in the same insightful vein. Two things jump out at me in this passage. First, Cather herself is able to acknowledge that this book is qualitatively less as compared to her next book. I’ve not read O Pioneers!, although I plan to and soon, but having read My Antonia, One of Ours and Death Comes for the Archbishop, all later, and very different, works, I am in total agreement with her assessment. She did grow as a writer, and a great deal. I’m also fascinated by the fact that she referred to the writer in the masculine, when she herself is a woman, and is more or less talking about herself.

With respect to this book, it is worth reading because it was written by Willa Cather and Willa Cather is always worth reading. Having said that, she is at her best when she is writing about the prairie and men and women who are eking out a hardscrabble life on it. She is able to imbue their struggle with a nobility and beauty that is unique to Cather.

This book is ordinary, by comparison. It tells a story that, in essence, has been told hundreds of times before by dozens of skilled writers – a story of a wealthy man who builds great things in great cities, and who finds himself undergoing a rather trite and somewhat embarrassing midlife crisis that is inconsistent with his greatness. The middle aged man with feet of clay is a story that has been told before, and Cather brings little new or fresh to it. Bartley Alexander’s struggles with his penis and where he wants to put it, and his commonplace experience of being torn between two lovers, feeling like a fool, are as yawningly boring as the 1976 pop song that tells the same story, or the guy that you know on Facebook who just dumped his wife of twenty years for the girl he knew in high school because his wife just doesn’t understand him.

Conclusion: It’s Cather, so, yeah, it’s good. But her other stuff is so much better.

And, as an aside, these Vintage Classics editions are completely gorgeous!

Lucy Maud Montgomery

Jane of Lantern Hill by Lucy Maud Montgomery

This review was previously published in January, 2017.

Title: Jane of Lantern Hill
Author: Lucy Maud Montgomery
First published in 1937

Plot summary from Goodreads: From the author of Anne of Green Gables, the enchanting story of a young girl’s dream to reunite with her long-divided family

For as long as she could remember, Jane Stuart and her mother lived with her grandmother in a dreary mansion in Toronto. Jane always believed her father was dead—until she accidentally learned he was alive and well and living on Prince Edward Island. When Jane spends the summer at his cottage on Lantern Hill, doing all the wonderful things Grandmother deems unladylike, she dares to dream that there could be such a house back in Toronto—a house where she, Mother, and Father could live together without Grandmother directing their lives—a house that could be called home.

I actually read this one during the October read-a-thon and never got around to writing up a post. I’ve read a lot of L.M. Montgomery: the entire Anne Shirley series (more than once) and the Emily Starr series (time for a reread, I think). I picked up Jane of Lantern Hill, at least in part, because of the cover. I like pretty things. It is just as pretty in person as it is on a computer screen, by the way. And, as a total aside, I am so impressed with the Virago Classics because they are clean and well-edited. No one grabbed an old public domain version and OCR’d it and then slapped a cover on it and hit publish.

Back to Jane.

I loved this book. Jane reminds me a lot of Little Elizabeth, from Anne of Windy Poplars, but all grown up. She is living in Toronto, with her rather weak-spirited, beaten down mother, and her deeply angry grandmother, who still hasn’t gotten over the fact that her daughter went off and abandoned her to, (ungrateful child), get married and have a daughter of her own. L.M. Montgomery’s method of dealing with the problem of separating father and mother is fairly convenient, and is quite similar to how she separated Miss Lavender and Paul’s father in the Anne series. They get into a fight, and instead of acting like reasonable adults, mother takes baby and flees home, where grandmother spends more than a decade interfering in reconciliation. This is all set up to explain Jane’s sterile and unloved life in Toronto. Grandmother is wealthy, so she wants for nothing material or physical, but spiritually and emotionally, she is completely bereft. And Montgomery makes a convincing case that true happiness is dependent much more on wealth of spirit and love than it is on having nice stuff.

The book really comes into its own when Jane goes off to spend a summer with her father in Lantern Hill. Her adventures are charming. Her father is a writer, and cannot provide Jane with the material comforts of home, but with him, she receives much greater gifts: freedom, self-sufficiency, love and true friendship. She does not have the imagination of the bewitching Anne Shirley, or the literary talent and ambition of Emily Starr, but she has a homelike sweetness that is endearing.

I don’t believe that Montgomery ever wrote a sequel to Jane of Lantern Hill, which is unfortunate, because it would have been worth reading!

Virginia Woolf

The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

Title: The Voyage Out
Author: Virginia Woolf
First published in 1915

Plot summary from Goodreads: Woolf’s first novel is a haunting book, full of light and shadow. It takes Mr. and Mrs. Ambrose and their niece, Rachel, on a sea voyage from London to a resort on the South american coast. “It is a strange, tragic, inspired book whose scene is a South America not found on any map and reached by a boat which would not float on any sea, an american whose spiritual boundaries touch Xanadu and Atlantis”

My personal experiences with Virginia Woolf have historically been fraught. I want to love her – she is iconic, so important in the pantheon of women in literature and feminism that she very nearly stands alone. But she is also impenetrable, a cipher for which I, sadly, lack the necessary decoder ring with which to make sense of her. Her writing is achingly, heartstoppingly beautiful, and yet I find that I understand almost none of it.

It was with some delight, then, that I began reading her first, and most autobiographical, novel, The Voyage Out. Written in narrative style that makes sense to my admittedly limited brain (i.e., linear) it contains her trademark gorgeous language. There is so much in it to admire, as well. Rachel, the main character, is an interesting character – a young woman who has been sheltered from everything except music, the product of a strange upbringing in an oppressive society. One of the matronly characters says about Rachel:

This girl, though twenty-four, had never heard that men desired women, and, until I explained it, did not know how children were born. Her ignorance upon other matters as important” (here Mrs. Ambrose’s letter may not be quoted) . . . “was complete. It seems to me not merely foolish but criminal to bring people up like that. Let alone the suffering to them, it explains why women are what they are—the wonder is they’re no worse. I have taken it upon myself to enlighten her, and now, though still a good deal prejudiced and liable to exaggerate, she is more or less a reasonable human being. Keeping them ignorant, of course, defeats its own object, and when they begin to understand they take it all much too seriously.

Woolf approaches feminist ideas obliquely, through several characters. Mrs. Ambrose, above, talking about the sheltering of women. Mr. Dalloway (yes, that Mr. Dalloway), talking about suffragettes:

“Oh, I’m entirely with you there,” said Dalloway. “Nobody can condemn the utter folly and futility of such behaviour more than I do; and as for the whole agitation, well! may I be in my grave before a woman has the right to vote in England! That’s all I say.” The solemnity of her husband’s assertion made Clarissa grave. “It’s unthinkable,” she said. “Don’t tell me you’re a suffragist?”

Or, this quote, from the young man who ends up as Rachel’s love interest:

“I’ve often walked along the streets where people live all in a row, and one house is exactly like another house, and wondered what on earth the women were doing inside,” he said. “Just consider: it’s the beginning of the twentieth century, and until a few years ago no woman had ever come out by herself and said things at all. There it was going on in the background, for all those thousands of years, this curious silent unrepresented life.

This curious silent unrepresented life. This isn’t entirely true, of course, because women have been part of fiction since fiction was written, although their stories were primarily told by men. But, still, it is true, right? Women did not lead public lives, in the same sense that men did. Their lives were entirely private, lived out in the quiet, domestic domain. She talks a great deal about loneliness, about the way that people live out their lives in solitary fashion, even when surrounded by others.

The Voyage Out takes a turn late in the book, into something that, given that it was written by Woolf, I might have expected. But, I didn’t. I won’t say more, because I don’t want to spoil. But, for readers who struggle with Woolf, this book is a good place to begin.

Shirley Jackson

Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson

Title: Hangsaman
Author: Shirley Jackson
First published in 1951

Plot Summary from Goodreads: Seventeen-year-old Natalie Waite longs to escape home for college. Her father is a domineering and egotistical writer who keeps a tight rein on Natalie and her long-suffering mother. When Natalie finally does get away, however, college life doesn’t bring the happiness she expected. Little by little, Natalie is no longer certain of anything—even where reality ends and her dark imaginings begin. Chilling and suspenseful, Hangsaman is loosely based on the real-life disappearance of a Bennington College sophomore in 1946.

Hangsaman was Jackson’s second novel, after The Road through the Wall, which was published in 1948. Published in 1951, Hangsaman is nominally a bildungsroman about a college freshman named Natalie Waite who attends a Bennington College-like institution. She is the daughter of a second-rate writer and a mother who is a rather desperate housewife. Broken into basically three sections, the novel begins with Natalie at home, on the cusp of going away to college. The second part deals with her first weeks at school, and her fragility and difficulty adjusting to the changes. The third part is a frankly strange look at Natalie’s devolution into what appears to be mental illness. The ending is cryptic and unresolved.

There are several important women in this book. The male characters are largely superfluous to the story – being entirely self-absorbed and interacting with the women primarily as extensions of themselves, Eves to their Adams, created from their ribs, without independent significance. Natalie herself, as a college student, is in a state of limbo, as a young woman who has left the shelter of her father’s home but hasn’t yet transitioned to the shelter of a husband. She is very much in a waiting period – hence, probably, the last name that she was given. Her role in the community and in the larger world is unclear to the reader, and it is unclear to Natalie.

Her interactions with her father show disturbing and inappropriate amounts of enmeshment and a cavalier attitude towards Natalie’s autonomy. Confronted with her unhappiness, her father responds:

There is no doubt but what the class of girls you have as friends is not a representative one, but my plans for you never did include a broad education; an extremely narrow one, rather—one half, from the college, in people and surroundings; the other half, from me, in information. My ambitions for you are slowly being realized, and, even though you are unhappy, console yourself with the thought that it was part of my plan for you to be unhappy for a while.

Natalie’s relationship with her mother is even more tenuous and fraught than her relationship with her father. The first section focuses extensively on a party which her mother is hostessing, which her father has arranged, and there is a long discussion between Natalie and her mother in which her mother explains to her all of her father’s faults, and warns her against marriage. The party itself is excruciating and bizarre, with Natalie interacting with the guests and simultaneously carrying on a mental conversation with a detective who has, in her imagination, accused her of murder. And then there is the sexual assault, alluded to but unexplained, which occurs when one of the guests takes her into the woods behind her home and does something which is never described, nor really referenced again, but which hangs like a pall over the rest of the book.

Both of her parents only see her in relation to themselves, and not as an independent entity.

“It seemed that perhaps her father was trying to cure his failures in Natalie, and her mother was perhaps trying to avoid, through Natalie, doing over again those things she now believed to have been mistaken.”

In addition, Natalie’s fellow students, mostly women, largely dislike her as they jockey for social position, and at least one of her peers is involved in a sordid affair with a professor who is already married to an emotionally fragile ex-student who has grasped the brass ring (marriage, to a handsome intellectual, like Natalie’s mother. Or Shirley Jackson herself) and yet found her prize hollow, retreating into an alcoholic haze to cope. The other young women are superficial, dismissive, and occasionally even mean, but they are brashly capable of navigating a world that is causing Natalie to fall apart completely. Jackson was writing this book in 1951, while her husband was a teacher at Bennington College in Vermont, and as such she would have been intimately familiar with young women in Natalie’s position. There are references, some off-handed, some less so, about conflict between young women living in dormitories, about affairs, sometimes with professors, and suicides, and pregnancies and abortions. As the novel progresses, Natalie’s very grasp on reality seems to splinter, until, after her trip home for Thanksgiving, she is on a bus back to college , and

She wanted to sing and did so, soundlessly, her mouth against the fogged window of the bus, thinking as she sang, And when I first saw Natalie Waite, the most incredible personality of our time, the unbelievably talented, vivid, almost girlish creature—when I first saw her, she was sitting in a bus, exactly as I or you might be, and for a minute I noticed nothing of her richness . . . and then she turned and smiled at me. Now, knowing her for what she is, the most vividly talented actress (murderess? courtesan? dancer?) of our time or perhaps any time, I can see more clearly the enchanting contradictions within her—her humor, her vicious flashing temper, so easily aroused and so quickly controlled by her iron will; her world-weary cynicism (she has, after all, suffered more than perhaps any other from the stings and arrows of outrageous fortune), her magnificent mind, so full of information, of deep pockets never explored wherein lie glowing thoughts like jewels never seen . . .

The narration changes, briefly from third person to first person. Even now, looking back, I don’t know what any of this means – who is the narrator of this passage? Is he – she – real? Natalie’s imagination, again? When Natalie returns to campus, the tension ratchets up, and the book becomes almost a thriller, with midnight wanderings and a terrifying plunging through the dark Vermont woods.

Jackson was adept at plumbing the psyches of disturbed, repressed young women – Merricat, from We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and Eleanor from The Haunting of Hill House, and Natalie. This is an unsettling book, with its look backwards at the cost that society imposed on young women who didn’t fit into the roles that society prepared for them. Not a ghost story, not a murder mystery, Hangsaman is something more abstract but in some ways even more terrifying – a narration of the mental disintegration of a sensitive young woman in a society that neither makes an effort to understand her, nor cares little for her psychological well-being.

Edith Wharton

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

This is an old review from 2015. I am closing down a blog, and republishing book reviews that fit this blog theme prior to deleting the old one.

Title: The Age of Innocence
Author: Edith Wharton
First Publication: 1920

Plot Summary from Goodreads: When the Countess Ellen Olenska returns from Europe, fleeing her brutish husband, her rebellious independence and passionate awareness of life stir the educated sensitivity of Newland Archer, already engaged to be married to her cousin May Welland, “that terrifying product of the social system he belonged to and believed in, the young girl who knew nothing and expected everything.” As the consequent drama unfolds, Edith Wharton’s sharp ironic wit and Jamesian mastery of form create a disturbingly accurate picture of men and women caught in a society that denies humanity while desperately defending “civilization.”

The Age of Innocence is the third book in Wharton’s loosely-linked cycle focused on upper class New York of the 1870’s (the other two books are The House of Mirth, published in 1905, and The Custom of the Country, published in 1913). She’s writing from a distance, looking backward between 30 and 50 years, but this is an era and subject that is deeply familiar to her by dint of her birth. Wharton herself was fairly unconventional – unhappily married to a man who was seriously mentally ill, she commenced an affair with a newspaperman and divorced her husband.

The Age of Innocence, unlike the other two books, is narrated by a male character, Newland Archer, who provides a bridge between the older, conventional attitudes and newer, more liberated attitudes, and is, to some degree, crushed by convention. He lives on the cusp of change, but chooses to follow the strictures of society. He is conflicted about what he really wants from his life.

On the one hand, when speaking of his future wife, he says:

He did not in the least wish the future Mrs. Newland Archer to be a simpleton. He meant her (thanks to his enlightening companionship) to develop a social tact and readiness of wit enabling her to hold her own with the most popular married women of the “younger set,” in which it was the recognised custom to attract masculine homage while playfully discouraging it. If he had probed to the bottom of his vanity (as he sometimes nearly did) he would have found there the wish that his wife should be as worldly-wise and as eager to please as the married lady whose charms had held his fancy through two mildly agitated years; without, of course, any hint of the frailty which had so nearly marred that unhappy being’s life, and had disarranged his own plans for a whole winter.

He chooses May Welland to be his wife, an athletic, beautiful and extremely proper young girl who is totally conventional. He announces this choice with desperately unfortunate timing on the very evening that he will meet May’s cousin, Ellen Olenska, who, as it turns out, represents the consuming passion of his life. There are many moments during the book that are turning points, where he could choose passion, but, instead, he follows duty and societal expectation.

There is something both noble and sad about Newland Archer. He was an anachronism, even in Wharton’s time – the honorable man who would sacrifice passion for domesticity. As the book continues, the shackles around Archer tighten by his own choice. At any moment, he could throw caution to the wind, leave May, leave New York, and follow his heart. But he never does, and I end up thinking more of him for the sacrifice, not less.

He could not deplore (as Thackeray’s heroes so often exasperated him by doing) that he had not a blank page to offer his bride in exchange for the unblemished one she was to give to him. He could not get away from the fact that if he had been brought up as she had they would have been no more fit to find their way about than the Babes in the Wood; nor could he, for all his anxious cogitations, see any honest reason (any, that is, unconnected with his own momentary pleasure, and the passion of masculine vanity) why his bride should not have been allowed the same freedom of experience as himself.

Archer acknowledges that May has been raised to be just that which she has become – a “blank page.” She has been raised to go, innocent, from father’s home to husband’s home. The entire society is in a conspiracy to ensure that ladies like May never have to confront the difficulties of life. How terribly suffocating and infantilizing that must have been. But, in spite of that, she knows, of course, that her husband is passionately in love with someone else. And it isn’t just sexual passion, it is also intellectual passion. With Ellen, he has found his soulmate and his intellectual equal, someone who would challenge him. May was not capable of engaging him.

Archer had reverted to all his old inherited ideas about marriage. It was less trouble to conform with the tradition and treat May exactly as all his friends treated their wives than to try to put into practice the theories with which his untrammelled bachelorhood had dallied. There was no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free; and he had long since discovered that May’s only use of the liberty she supposed herself to possess would be to lay it on the altar of her wifely adoration.

In the end, what does Archer gain? Well, his children of course, who love him quite dearly. And May, who, limited as she was, sacrificed as well.

He had been what was called a faithful husband; and when May had suddenly died — carried off by the infectious pneumonia through which she had nursed their youngest child — he had honestly mourned her. Their long years together had shown him that it did not so much matter if marriage was a dull duty, as long as it kept the dignity of a duty: lapsing from that, it became a mere battle of ugly appetites. Looking about him, he honoured his own past, and mourned for it. After all, there was good in the old ways.

By the end of the book, Archer’s world has changed inalterably. His son is marrying the daughter of Julius Beaufort, a young woman who resembles Ellen Olenska in many ways – sparkling, vibrant, unconventional – with the approval of society. Archer knows that it has changed too late for him – he is the old guard, his children are the new. They will get their chances. He sacrificed his for duty.

Wharton knows how to end her books with a knife twist to the gut, and we get one here, too. Archer doesn’t hold out for happiness at the end. He lived the life he chose, and he will honor that choice, painful, limiting, sometimes sad and always dutiful, even to the end.

He sat for a long time on the bench in the thickening dusk, his eyes never turning from the balcony. At length a light shone through the windows, and a moment later a man-servant came out on the balcony, drew up the awnings, and closed the shutters. At that, as if it had been the signal he waited for, Newland Archer got up slowly and walked back alone to his hotel.

That hurts.

Willa Cather

Portrait of an Artist as a Young Woman

This is an old review from 2016. I am closing down a blog, and republishing book reviews that fit this blog theme prior to deleting the old one.

Title: The Song of the Lark
Author: Willa Cather
First published in 1915

Plot Summary from Goodreads: In this powerful portrait of the self-making of an artist, Willa Cather created one of her most extraordinary heroines. Thea Kronberg, a minister’s daughter in a provincial Colorado town, seems destined from childhood for a place in the wider world. But as her path to the world stage leads her ever farther from the humble town she can’t forget and from the man she can’t afford to love, Thea learns that her exceptional musical talent and fierce ambition are not enough.

It is in the solitude of a tiny rock chamber high in the side of an Arizona cliff–“a cleft in the heart of the world”–that Thea comes face to face with her own dreams and desires, stripped clean by the haunting purity of the ruined cliff dwellings and inspired by the whisperings of their ancient dust. Here she finds the courage to seize her future and to use her gifts to catch “the shining, elusive element that is life itself–life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose.” In prose as shimmering and piercingly true as the light in a desert canyon, Cather takes us into the heart of a woman coming to know her deepest self.

Richly imagined, Cather’s third novel is an exploration of the passion of the artist and the strength of youth. Her main character, Thea Kronborg, child of immigrants from Moonstone, Colorado, has all of the brazen energy and boundless potential of her prairie town. She is the exceptional child in a family of many children, the others quite ordinary, a girl so relentlessly herself that the triumphant arc of her life has a feeling of inevitability, in spite of the many obstacles that she must overcome with the force of her mind and character.

The early part of the book concentrates on her time spent in Moonstone. Even as a child, many of her friends and acquaintances seem to recognize in Thea something to be nurtured. Dr. Archie, the unhappily married town doctor, introduces her to great writers, and spends time with her – in an entirely uncreepy way, thankfully – helping her intellectual development along. Her mother ensures that she has what music lessons are available, and private space in which to practice, which is a luxury in a home of at least five children. Thea herself possesses all of the engaging hubris of the child, confident in her future.

Of this child, laying in her attic room, at home, Cather says:

Life rushed in upon her from that window – or so it seemed. In reality, of course, life rushes from within not without. There is no work of art so big or so beautiful that it was not once contained within some youthful body, like this one which lay on the floor in the moonlight, pulsing with ardour and anticipation. [page 129]

Thea is a character who bursts with possibility. I can’t help but contrast Cather’s writing with Edith Wharton, another woman who was writing very different books at nearly the same time, and compare Thea to Lily Bart. Where Lily is frozen and constricted, an expensive piece of carved marble, Thea is red-blooded and expansive, fully human. Where Wharton’s characters are limited by complicated societal rules, Cather’s characters, like her landscape, are boundless and free.

When Thea is 15, her family, along with Dr. Archie, arrange for her to leave Moonstone to study music in Chicago, after she inherits a small life insurance policy from a friend. She finds herself on the train, headed east:

She smiled — although she was ashamed of it — with the natural contempt of strength for weakness, with the sense of physical security which makes the savage merciless. Nobody could die while he felt like that inside. The springs there were wound so tight that it would be a long while before there was any slack in them. The life in there was rooted deep. She was going to have a few things before she died. She realized that there were a great many trains dashing east and west on the face of the continent that night, and that they all carried yong people who meant to have things. But the difference was that she was going to get them! That was all. Let people try to stop her! She glowered at the rows of feckless bodies that lay sprawled in the chairs. Let them try it once! [page 200]

Thea bursts off the page, with her her self-confidence, her fearlessness, and her prodigious talent. Cather writes the western experience better than any other author I have ever encountered, with the possible exception of Wallace Stegner. Growing up under open skies has an impact on her characters, and she ensures that the reader understands this. You look at the world differently when you’ve lived in a place where you can stand and mark the curve of the world untouched by signs of civilization.

It was over flat lands like this, stretching out to drink the sun, that the larks sang — and one’s heart sang there, too. Thea was glad that this was her country, even if one did not learn to speak elegantly there. It was, somehow, an honest country, and there was a new song in that blue air which had never been sung in the world before. [page 202]

Her time in Chicago moves her further along the path to musical success, and one of her teachers discovers that rather than piano, it is her voice that is truly remarkable. Ultimately, over the next several sections of the book, Thea leaves Chicago, studies in Germany, and returns to New York a fully-fledged opera singer. I am again reminded of Wharton – her Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Age of Innocence begins in an opera house, where Newland Archer is knuckling under to the societal pressure that he must marry, and he must marry a young woman who is, in many ways, the polar opposite of Thea Kronborg. When Cather speaks to Thea through Fred Ottenburg, Thea’s married lover and greatest supporter, she might be speaking about May Welland:

Don’t you know that most of the people in the world are not individuals at all? They never have an individual idea or experience. A lot of girls go to boarding school together, come out the same season, dance at the same parties, are married off in groups, have their babies at about the same time, send their children to school together, and so the human crop renews itself. Such women know as much about the reality of the forms they go through as they know about the wars they learned the dates of. They get their most personal experiences out of novels and plays. Everything is second hand with them. Why, you couldn’t live like that.” [page 327]

Among Cather’s longest books, The Song of the Lark moves quickly through Thea’s development as an artist and represents a remarkable character study of a young woman who is unbowed by convention. As I continue with my Willa in Winter project, I plan to return to some of the themes that Cather is developing in this book, as my understanding deepens through further reading. I’ll end this review with Thea’s words:

She rose impatiently and walked to the edge of the cliff. “It’s waking up every morning with the feeling that your life is your own, and your strength is your own, and your talent is your own; that you’re all there, and there’s no sag in you.” [page 290].

I can’t help but feel that Willa Cather had no sag in her, either.

Jane Austen

Lady Susan by Jane Austen

This is an old review from 2015. I am closing down a blog, and republishing book reviews that fit this blog theme prior to deleting the old one.

Title: Lady Susan
Author: Jane Austen
First published: 1794

Plot summary from Goodreads: Beautiful, flirtatious, and recently widowed, Lady Susan Vernon seeks an advantageous second marriage for herself, while attempting to push her daughter into a dismal match. A magnificently crafted novel of Regency manners and mores that will delight Austen enthusiasts with its wit and elegant expression.

Fiddle Dee Dee. The Scarlett O’Hara of Regency England

I am a woefully underread Janite, as it turns out. Sure, I’ve read the big six – her half-dozen beautifully written novels – many times. But in all of the years I’ve been reading Austen, I had never ventured into her other, sadly scarce, works. Laziness, maybe. Haughtiness, maybe. I’d read the best, why would I go backwards from there?

Well, at least in the case of Lady Susan, because it was freaking awesome. This is Jane Austen at the beginning of her career – rumor has it that she wrote Lady Susan at the age of 19 and it is undeniable that she was a born writer and a woman of great perspicacity. She nailed Lady Susan.

This is a short little novella, but it fairly crackles with wit, humor, nastiness, judgment, and realism. It is written in letters, but I never wondered what was happening. She lays bare the soul and the facade of Lady Susan, a woman who raises manipulation and calculation to its highest art. Lady Susan does everything for effect, but appears completely natural.

“She is delicately fair, with fine grey eyes and dark eyelashes; and from her appearance one would not suppose her more than five and twenty, though she must in fact be ten years older, I was certainly not disposed to admire her, though always hearing she was beautiful; but I cannot help feeling that she possesses an uncommon union of symmetry, brilliancy, and grace.”

She is a magnificent creation, the ultimate expression of what a society that praises form and ignores substance deserves. Empty of compassion, wholly self-absorbed and hedonistic, never concerned with anyone but herself. I wish that Austen had written a full-length novel including her as a character. I am left wondering about her marriage, her widowhood, her future. I’d like to know more about her long-suffering daughter, Frederica, about whom she said, cruelly:

“She is a stupid girl, and has nothing to recommend her.”

In Frederica, I saw shades of Georgiana Darcy. A shy young woman, overwhelmed by her much more assertive mother. The novella implies that she gets her happy ending. I hope so!

A woman like Lady Susan will always land on her feet (often on top of her rival). She doesn’t get the comeuppance she deserves, but her outcome is more realistic than satisfying.

This was a lot of fun. So much fun that I ended up reading sections of it out loud to my daughter, including this gem, contained in a letter from Lady Susan to her equally unscrupulous friend Mrs. Johnson, relating how she has been able to yank her young admirer back into line after it becomes apparent that she is terribly cruel to her young daughter:

“There is something agreeable in feelings so easily worked on; not that I envy him their possession, nor would, for the world, have such myself; but they are very convenient when one wishes to influence the passions of another. And yet this Reginald, whom a very few words from me softened at once into the utmost submission, and rendered more tractable, more attached, more devoted than ever, would have left me in the first angry swelling of his proud heart without deigning to seek an explanation. Humbled as he now is, I cannot forgive him such an instance of pride, and am doubtful whether I ought not to punish him by dismissing him at once after this reconciliation, or by marrying and teazing him for ever.”

Louisa May Alcott

Alcott and heavy-handed moralizing

This is an old review from 2013. I am closing down a blog, and republishing book reviews that fit into this new blog prior to deleting the old one.

Title: Work: A Story of Experience
Author: Louisa May Alcott
First Published: 1873

Plot Summary from Goodreads: In this story of a woman’s search for a meaningful life, Alcott moves outside the family setting of her best known works. Originally published in 1872, Work is both an exploration of Alcott’s personal conflicts and a social critique, examining women’s independence, the moral significance of labor, and the goals to which a woman can aspire. Influenced by Transcendentalism and by the women’s rights movement, it affirms the possibility of a feminized utopian society.

I read this for a reading event in a private group over on Goodreads. When I began reading this, I mistakenly believed that it was one of her early novels. I was quite wrong about that – according to Wikipedia, it was published in 1873, after both Little Women and Little Men, as well as after her melodramatic stories that were published in the 1860’s. So, looking at it with this in mind, some of what I thought were the seeds of Little Women are really more recycled bits from that particular book.

This is not Alcott’s best work, which makes sense, since it is a largely forgotten story. Written for adults, it is more overtly political even than her other books, with very obvious feminist and abolitionist overtones. Although it is well-worth reading, Alcott is – as she has a tendency to be – heavy-handed in her moralizing.

The book generally tells the tale of a young woman, Christie Devon, who leaves the care of her resentful uncle and long-suffering but loving aunt and seeks employment to make her way in the world. She is engaged in various fairly menial jobs: governess, companion, actress, seamstress, and struggles to support herself. Many issues are addressed, and Alcott’s abiding abolitionist beliefs are openly articulated.

There were a couple of things that I found particularly interesting about the book. First, reminiscent of the proposal of Laurie and Jo’s refusal to marry him, Christie also turns down a proposal from a wealthy gentleman. There are shades of Pride and Prejudice, as well, in the dialogue from this section of the book. Christie initially turns him down politely, and when he reacts badly, we have a very “Lizzie Bennett” moment where she calls him out for his sense of superiority. It left me wondering if Alcott had read P&P close in time to writing the book – the scenes were so similar.

In addition, it has a bit of a WTF ending. Alcott is a deeply religious woman, and believes fervently (as many of her era did) in a heaven. The book takes place during the years of the Civil War and much is made of the heroic sacrifice of the men and women who fought for the union and who died, or had loved ones die, in the war. Louisa always was one for the grand sacrificial gesture – if you are looking for a traditional happily ever after for our heroine, well, you’re not going to get one.

Anyway, it was an interesting read. A bit too sweet and preachy for my taste, but, still, Alcott was a very principled woman, and it was interesting to read something that is so clearly feminist and egalitarian from the early part of my nation’s history.