Wednesday, 8 April 2020

Various thoughts on Persuasion

1/ As I reread Persuasion, I realised that I didn’t remember it quite as well as most of Jane Austen’s other works. 
I forgot, for example, that Anne Elliot moves around quite a bit: at the beginning of the story, she’s at Kellynch (Kellynch Hall) with her family, then she stays at Uppercross with her sister Mary and Mary’s husband Charles Musgrove, then she goes to Lyme with the entire group, then she visits Kellynch before moving to Bath with her family. 

2/ Look at these lines about Mary: 
“Though better endowed than the elder sister, Mary had not Anne's understanding nor temper. While well, and happy, and properly attended to, she had great good humour and excellent spirits; but any indisposition sunk her completely. She had no resources for solitude; and inheriting a considerable share of the Elliot self-importance, was very prone to add to every other distress that of fancying herself neglected and ill-used.” (Ch.5) 
“Resources for solitude” are important to Jane Austen, who highly values introspection and self-reflection. The line reminds me of the shallow Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park, who likes fun, cannot sit still, and gets bored easily because she has no resources for solitude. 
It’s also true for Emma Woodhouse—she has self-reflection and is capable of recognising her own fault (better than Mary Crawford), but Emma is essentially about a young woman who lacks resources for solitude and turns into a busybody.  
See what Anne thinks about the Musgrove sisters: 
“Anne always contemplated them as some of the happiest creatures of her acquaintance; but still, saved as we all are, by some comfortable feeling of superiority from wishing for the possibility of exchange, she would not have given up her own more elegant and cultivated mind for all their enjoyments; and envied them nothing but that seemingly perfect good understanding and agreement together, that good-humoured mutual affection, of which she had known so little herself with either of her sisters.” (ibid.) 
That’s a good quote. 

3/ Sir Walter Elliot is such a snob—see his reasons for being against the Navy: 
“"…First, as being the means of bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction, and raising men to honours which their fathers and grandfathers never dreamt of; and secondly, as it cuts up a man's youth and vigour most horribly; a sailor grows old sooner than any other man. I have observed it all my life. A man is in greater danger in the navy of being insulted by the rise of one whose father, his father might have disdained to speak to, and of becoming prematurely an object of disgust himself, than in any other line…"” (Ch.3) 
Mrs Clay takes a dig at him: 
“"…it is only the lot of those who are not obliged to follow any, who can live in a regular way, in the country, choosing their own hours, following their own pursuits, and living on their own property, without the torment of trying for more; it is only their lot, I say, to hold the blessings of health and a good appearance to the utmost: I know no other set of men but what lose something of their personableness when they cease to be quite young."” (ibid.) 
That’s delicious. 
The conversation is ended abruptly however, and the narrative moves onto Mr Shepherd and the tenancy applications—this is one of the few places where we can tell Jane Austen meant to fill in later, as she was racing against her illness. 

4/ See what Mrs Croft says to her brother, Captain Wentworth: 
“"But I hate to hear you talking so like a fine gentleman, and as if women were all fine ladies, instead of rational creatures. We none of us expect to be in smooth water all our days."” (Ch.8) 
Later, when she’s asked by Mrs Musgrove about her travels: 
“"Pretty well, ma'am in the fifteen years of my marriage; though many women have done more. I have crossed the Atlantic four times, and have been once to the East Indies, and back again, and only once; besides being in different places about home: Cork, and Lisbon, and Gibraltar. But I never went beyond the Streights, and never was in the West Indies. We do not call Bermuda or Bahama, you know, the West Indies."
Mrs Musgrove had not a word to say in dissent; she could not accuse herself of having ever called them anything in the whole course of her life.” (ibid.)  
I always dislike it when some people denigrate Jane Austen for being narrow and talk as though she’s unaware of the world outside “the little world” she depicts. She might work on a small canvas, but that passage above shows a glimpse of a larger world, and also suggests her thoughts about women and men. 

5/ Look at this passage, when Anne goes for a walk with Mary, the Musgroves (the brother and 2 sisters), and Captain Wentworth: 
“Her pleasure in the walk must arise from the exercise and the day, from the view of the last smiles of the year upon the tawny leaves, and withered hedges, and from repeating to herself some few of the thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn, that season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind of taste and tenderness, that season which had drawn from every poet, worthy of being read, some attempt at description, or some lines of feeling. She occupied her mind as much as possible in such like musings and quotations; but it was not possible, that when within reach of Captain Wentworth's conversation with either of the Miss Musgroves, she should not try to hear it; yet she caught little very remarkable.” (Ch.10) 
Is it just me, or does Anne seem to force herself to think about lines of poetry, instead of enjoying nature for what it is? Maybe I’m being unfair to her, thinking of Fanny Price’s rapture in Mansfield Park, but it feels like Anne occupies her mind in such musings and quotations so as to distract herself from Captain Wentworth and the Musgrove sisters, which doesn’t quite work.

6/ This is when Anne recommends some prose to Captain Benwick, who’s grieving his lost love: 
“When the evening was over, Anne could not but be amused at the idea of her coming to Lyme to preach patience and resignation to a young man whom she had never seen before; nor could she help fearing, on more serious reflection, that, like many other great moralists and preachers, she had been eloquent on a point in which her own conduct would ill bear examination.” (Ch.11) 
I’m not suggesting that Jane Austen is Anne Elliot (she is none of her heroines, and people must throw in the bin the asinine idea that she’s Elizabeth Bennet), but I can’t help wondering if she ever feels that way about herself: “eloquent on a point in which her own conduct would ill bear examination”. 
This is an interesting line about Captain Benwick: 
“…For, though shy, he did not seem reserved; it had rather the appearance of feelings glad to burst their usual restraints…” (ibid.) 
I like that. 

7/ This is the most important line in Persuasion, which sums up the idea of the entire book: 
“Anne wondered whether it ever occurred to him now, to question the justness of his own previous opinion as to the universal felicity and advantage of firmness of character; and whether it might not strike him that, like all other qualities of the mind, it should have its proportions and limits. She thought it could scarcely escape him to feel that a persuadable temper might sometimes be as much in favour of happiness as a very resolute character.” (Ch.12) 
It is Anne’s view, but the entire story of Persuasion supports the view—Captain Wentworth, apart from realising that he and Anne still have feelings for each other after many years, also has to learn that “a persuadable temper might sometimes be as much in favour of happiness as a very resolute character”. 
The idea of moderation and balance, as I’ve written several time before, seems also to be Jane Austen’s philosophy, as demonstrated by her 6 novels: balance between sense and sensibility, between emotional display and emotional restraint, between a romantic and pragmatic view of marriage, etc. 
In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen creates Elizabeth Bennet, a witty, independent, and resolute heroine, who, for example, stands up for herself by saying to Lady Catherine “I am only resolved to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me” (Ch.56). In Mansfield Park, she creates Fanny Price, a resolute heroine in a different way, who on the surface appears passive but holds fast to her principles, resists persuasions and threats from all sides, and stands by her decision all the way to the end. 
Then in Persuasion, Jane Austen creates a heroine who appears soft and persuadable, and shows that a resolute character can sometimes be bad, by depicting Louisa Musgrove, resolute in the extreme—headstrong, stubborn, and heedless of consequences. 

8/ I should be writing about the style of Persuasion, but can’t help picking up the various interesting remarks. For example, after “the domestic hurricane” of the Musgrove kids and the Harville kids, comes this observation: 
“Everybody has their taste in noises as well as in other matters; and sounds are quite innoxious, or most distressing, by their sort rather than their quantity. When Lady Russell not long afterwards, was entering Bath on a wet afternoon, and driving through the long course of streets from the Old Bridge to Camden Place, amidst the dash of other carriages, the heavy rumble of carts and drays, the bawling of newspapermen, muffin-men and milkmen, and the ceaseless clink of pattens, she made no complaint. No, these were noises which belonged to the winter pleasures; her spirits rose under their influence; and like Mrs Musgrove, she was feeling, though not saying, that after being long in the country, nothing could be so good for her as a little quiet cheerfulness.” (Ch.14) 

9/ Speaking of relatability, look at this line: 
“"Now I have done," cried Captain Wentworth. "When once married people begin to attack me with,--'Oh! you will think very differently, when you are married.' I can only say, 'No, I shall not;' and then they say again, 'Yes, you will,' and there is an end of it."” (Ch.8) 
People never change—this is why Jane Austen endures. 
I suppose this line is more amusing to me than to other readers, but I get this kind of attack “oh you will think differently (when you’re older)” whenever I happen to mention I don’t want children. 

10/ Anne Elliot is different from Jane Austen’s other heroines in many ways. She is older, approaching “the years of dangers”; she is also more mature and more understanding, without delusions. There is a resignation about her that the other characters, being younger, don’t have.   
Unlike the other heroines, Anne doesn’t have a close relationship with either of her sisters. Even Fanny Price, who is often neglected, is close to her cousin Edmund, and when she returns to Portsmouth, finds a close friend in Susan. Anne isn’t close to either Elizabeth or Mary—she is neglected and taken for granted by everybody. 
This is something I remembered from my last reading, but I forgot that Anne didn’t particularly like her family—she tolerates them, rather than like them. 
When Admiral Croft talks about Sir Walter and the mirrors all over Kellynch Hall, for example (the excellent line “I should think he must be rather a dressy man for his time of life. Such a number of looking-glasses! oh Lord! there was no getting away from one's self.”—Ch.13), Anne is amused, in spite of herself. 
When she has to go to Bath to reunite with Sir Walter and Elizabeth:
“Anne did not share these feelings. She persisted in a very determined, though very silent disinclination for Bath; caught the first dim view of the extensive buildings, smoking in rain, without any wish of seeing them better; felt their progress through the streets to be, however disagreeable, yet too rapid; for who would be glad to see her when she arrived? And looked back, with fond regret, to the bustles of Uppercross and the seclusion of Kellynch.
[…] Anne was not animated to an equal pitch by the circumstance, but she felt that she would rather see Mr Elliot again than not, which was more than she could say for many other persons in Bath.” (Ch.14) 
It’s noted earlier that during the time at Uppercross and Lyme, she barely thinks of her family in Bath, though of course a large part of it is because of Captain Wentworth. 
Once she’s in the house: 
“Anne entered it with a sinking heart, anticipating an imprisonment of many months, and anxiously saying to herself, "Oh! when shall I leave you again?".” (Ch.15) 
The unhappiness with silly family members is more obvious in Persuasion than in other novels (I’m not counting Fanny, who finds much to be unhappy about in her real parents, but who doesn’t grow up with them—to her, family is the Bertrams).
And what does Anne think, when she asks herself why William Elliot suddenly wants to talk to her family again after several years of estrangement, and thinks it must be because he wants to marry Elizabeth? 
“Elizabeth was certainly very handsome, with well-bred, elegant manners, and her character might never have been penetrated by Mr Elliot, knowing her but in public, and when very young himself. How her temper and understanding might bear the investigation of his present keener time of life was another concern and rather a fearful one. Most earnestly did she wish that he might not be too nice, or too observant if Elizabeth were his object…” (Ch.15) 
 Yep. Anne has no illusion about her sister.

Tuesday, 7 April 2020

The difference between Captain Wentworth and Henry Crawford

Before I decided to reread Persuasion, my friend Knulp mentioned that Captain Wentworth had some behaviour similar to Henry Crawford’s in Mansfield Park
Indeed, on the surface there’s something similar. 
“Which of the two sisters was preferred by Captain Wentworth was as yet quite doubtful, as far as Anne's observation reached. Henrietta was perhaps the prettiest, Louisa had the higher spirits; and she knew not now, whether the more gentle or the more lively character were most likely to attract him.” (Ch.9)  
For those who haven’t read the book, or have read it but have forgotten the plot, Henrietta Musgrove has been seeing (but isn’t yet engaged to) Charles Hayter, who is absent for 2 Sundays and comes back to find himself forgotten, because of Frederick Wentworth, aka Captain Wentworth. 
Their brother Charles Musgrove and his wife Mary (Anne’s sister) discuss Captain Wentworth and whom he might prefer. Mary, on her part, hopes Henrietta to be the one preferred, because, as a snob like the rest of her family except for Anne, she looks down on Charles Hayter.  
Later, Anne Elliot has to hear Admiral Croft and his wife Sophy (Captain Wentworth’s sister) discuss Frederick. 
“"He certainly means to have one or other of those two girls, Sophy," said the Admiral; "but there is no saying which. He has been running after them, too, long enough, one would think, to make up his mind. Ay, this comes of the peace. If it were war now, he would have settled it long ago…"
[…] "... I wish Frederick would spread a little more canvass, and bring us home one of these young ladies to Kellynch. Then there would always be company for them. And very nice young ladies they both are; I hardly know one from the other."” (Ch.10)   
Anne herself wants Frederick to make up his mind. Is it not reminiscent of the way the characters discuss Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park and argue if he prefers Maria or Julia Bertram? 
However, the 2 situations are only similar on the surface—there are 2 main differences.  
First of all, when Henry is introduced to the Bertrams, Maria is already engaged to Mr Rushworth. Under the circumstances, his options would be Julia Bertram and Fanny Price—instead, he flirts with both Julia and Maria, often in front of Mr Rushworth. In Persuasion, Henrietta is not yet engaged to Charles Hayter—in Captain Wentworth’s eyes, Henrietta and Louisa are both free and eligible, and he’s getting to know them. 
More importantly, their behaviour is different. Look at these observations from Anne: 
“Anne had soon been in company with all the four together often enough to have an opinion, though too wise to acknowledge as much at home, where she knew it would have satisfied neither husband nor wife; for while she considered Louisa to be rather the favourite, she could not but think, as far as she might dare to judge from memory and experience, that Captain Wentworth was not in love with either. They were more in love with him; yet there it was not love. It was a little fever of admiration; but it might, probably must, end in love with some. Charles Hayter seemed aware of being slighted, and yet Henrietta had sometimes the air of being divided between them. Anne longed for the power of representing to them all what they were about, and of pointing out some of the evils they were exposing themselves to. She did not attribute guile to any. It was the highest satisfaction to her to believe Captain Wentworth not in the least aware of the pain he was occasioning. There was no triumph, no pitiful triumph in his manner. He had, probably, never heard, and never thought of any claims of Charles Hayter. He was only wrong in accepting the attentions (for accepting must be the word) of two young women at once.” (ibid.)
Anne acknowledges that he’s wrong in accepting the attentions of 2 women at once, but the key is that he doesn’t deliberately flirt with them for fun or play with their feelings. He doesn’t set out to break their hearts, as Henry does.  
Let’s look at Mansfield Park
When the young people go to Sotherton, Henry chooses to sit with Julia at the front of the barouche-box, leaving Maria with others. 
“Happy Julia! Unhappy Maria! The former was on the barouche-box in a moment, the latter took her seat within, in gloom and mortification; and the carriage drove off amid the good wishes of the two remaining ladies, and the barking of Pug in his mistress's arms.
[…] For the first seven miles Miss Bertram had very little real comfort: her prospect always ended in Mr. Crawford and her sister sitting side by side, full of conversation and merriment; and to see only his expressive profile as he turned with a smile to Julia, or to catch the laugh of the other, was a perpetual source of irritation, which her own sense of propriety could but just smooth over.” (Ch.8) 
Once they’re at Sotherton, Henry switches to Maria, slighting Julia. 
“Mr. Crawford was soon followed by Miss Bertram and Mr. Rushworth […] Julia, whose happy star no longer prevailed, was obliged to keep by the side of Mrs. Rushworth, and restrain her impatient feet to that lady's slow pace, while her aunt, having fallen in with the housekeeper, who was come out to feed the pheasants, was lingering behind in gossip with her. Poor Julia, the only one out of the nine not tolerably satisfied with their lot, was now in a state of complete penance, and as different from the Julia of the barouche-box as could well be imagined.” (Ch.9) 
He spends all day going to Maria. When they’re due to return, Fanny notices Julia’s unhappiness. 
“She felt, as she looked at Julia and Mr. Rushworth, that hers was not the only dissatisfied bosom amongst them: there was gloom on the face of each.” (Ch.10) 
Henry now softens Julia again, by offering her to sit at the front with him on the barouche-box. 
“The request had not been foreseen, but was very graciously received, and Julia's day was likely to end almost as well as it began.” (ibid.) 
It is clear that Henry’s not simply getting to know Maria and Julia to see whom he prefers. He’s deliberately flirting with them both and playing games with them—he charms and gives each woman attention, then slights her and makes her jealous, then soothes her again whilst slighting the other. 
Later, when the young people discuss the casting for the play “Lovers’ Vow”, Henry knows both Julia and Maria want to play the role of Agatha—to act opposite him. He cleverly manoeuvres so that the role goes to Maria.   
“Pleasantly, courteously, it was spoken; but the manner was lost in the matter to Julia's feelings. She saw a glance at Maria which confirmed the injury to herself: it was a scheme, a trick; she was slighted, Maria was preferred; the smile of triumph which Maria was trying to suppress shewed how well it was understood…” (Ch.14) 
Soon after he tries to soften Julia by arguing why she should play Amelia. 
“The influence of his voice was felt. Julia wavered; but was he only trying to soothe and pacify her, and make her overlook the previous affront? She distrusted him. The slight had been most determined. He was, perhaps, but at treacherous play with her. She looked suspiciously at her sister; Maria's countenance was to decide it: if she were vexed and alarmed—but Maria looked all serenity and satisfaction, and Julia well knew that on this ground Maria could not be happy but at her expense.” (ibid.) 
Julia is upset—the only people who notice are Fanny, and Henry himself. 
“Henry Crawford had trifled with her feelings […] She either sat in gloomy silence, wrapt in such gravity as nothing could subdue, no curiosity touch, no wit amuse; or allowing the attentions of Mr. Yates, was talking with forced gaiety to him alone, and ridiculing the acting of the others. 
For a day or two after the affront was given, Henry Crawford had endeavoured to do it away by the usual attack of gallantry and compliment, but he had not cared enough about it to persevere against a few repulses; and becoming soon too busy with his play to have time for more than one flirtation, he grew indifferent to the quarrel…” (Ch.17) 
Of course, I notice that there’s no sense of competition between Henrietta and Louisa, but we don’t see Captain Wentworth play the Musgrove sisters against each other. As observed by Fanny, Henry’s fully aware of Julia’s feelings—he just doesn’t care. 
If before, Henry seems to switch between the Bertram sisters, throughout the time of the play, he makes it clear, especially to Maria, that she is preferred. At the play is interrupted and everything comes to an end, she expects him to declare himself, which is of utmost importance to her. Instead, Henry decides to leave and acts like nothing has happened. 
“The hand which had so pressed hers to his heart! the hand and the heart were alike motionless and passive now! Her spirit supported her, but the agony of her mind was severe. She had not long to endure what arose from listening to language which his actions contradicted, or to bury the tumult of her feelings under the restraint of society; for general civilities soon called his notice from her, and the farewell visit, as it then became openly acknowledged, was a very short one. He was gone—he had touched her hand for the last time, he had made his parting bow, and she might seek directly all that solitude could do for her. Henry Crawford was gone, gone from the house, and within two hours afterwards from the parish; and so ended all the hopes his selfish vanity had raised in Maria and Julia Bertram.” (Ch.20)
There is no need to write again about how Henry afterwards chooses Fanny to be his new target and tries to force her to fall in love with him. 
Captain Wentworth’s wrong is in accepting attentions from the 2 young women at the same time. This is comfortably resolved after a meeting at the aunt’s house, when the group have a long walk: 
“Charles and Henrietta returned, bringing, as may be conjectured, Charles Hayter with them. The minutiae of the business Anne could not attempt to understand; even Captain Wentworth did not seem admitted to perfect confidence here; but that there had been a withdrawing on the gentleman's side, and a relenting on the lady's, and that they were now very glad to be together again, did not admit a doubt. Henrietta looked a little ashamed, but very well pleased;--Charles Hayter exceedingly happy: and they were devoted to each other almost from the first instant of their all setting forward for Uppercross.
Everything now marked out Louisa for Captain Wentworth; nothing could be plainer; and where many divisions were necessary, or even where they were not, they walked side by side nearly as much as the other two.” (Ch.10) 
I have heard many times before the criticism of Mansfield Park that the resolutions at the end all take place off-screen, and Jane Austen avoids writing about Henry’s affair with Maria, now Mrs Rushworth. That criticism is wrong-headed because the story of Mansfield Park is about Fanny Price—some people (including Nabokov) might want to see the scandalous stuff such as the affair and its aftermath, as well as Julia’s elopement with Mr Yates, but to Jane Austen, and to the right readers, the interesting and important stuff take place at Portsmouth. Mansfield Park, if we have to put it in a few terms, is about the sense of displacement, and it is at Portsmouth that Fanny finally learns about herself and realises her place in the world. 
Jane Austen also spends a long time developing and depicting the character of Henry and Maria, so there’s no real need to write how they get into an affair.  
However, as I’m rereading Persuasion, I can’t help feeling that the novel as a whole is rather thin and feels a bit bare, compared to Mansfield Park and Emma. Captain Wentworth’s interactions with Louisa aren’t developed so well as Henry’s with Maria and Julia or Fanny. The thing above about Henrietta and Charles Hayter seems to be resolved easily and comfortably, one can’t help wondering what happens and feeling a bit unsatisfied.  
I imagine that Jane Austen’s the kind of writer to lay out all the facts, the skeleton so to speak, then add flesh and everything later. This we can see clearly in her unfinished works. 
It’s a pity she died so soon.

Saturday, 4 April 2020

Pandemic journal (2)

LEEDS, THE UNITED KINGDOM—I’m neither learning a new skill/ new language, nor writing a book. In fact, I’ve been very unproductive. 
Not much has changed since my last pandemic article. Physically I’m better, though the cough is still there, and I sometimes sneeze. Mentally I’m worse—my concentration is quite bad, even for a short story. 
Some posts and memes I’ve seen here and there on social media puzzle me, the way they frame public health vs the economy as though it’s an either-or thing. It isn’t. Things are not black and white. The question of how to handle the pandemic isn’t simple. Not everyone can work from home, not everyone can get sick pay, not everyone can get financial support. I’m not afraid of contracting the virus as much as stressed about money and worried about my career. 
To lots of people, everything turns upside down. When will things return to normal? Nobody knows. Will things even return to normal? 
I miss the library. I miss the cinemas. I miss the Italian café. I miss dining out. I miss sushi. I miss bubble tea. I miss window shopping.  
People have different ways of coping with the pandemic. Mine is reading, blogging, talking to friends on whatsapp and twitter, looking at cat photos and watching cat videos, and watching easy TV. My concentration these days is rubbish. The other day I watched Ingmar Bergman’s The Rite, because it’s on Mubi, and it turned out to be a bad idea—not because of the film itself, but because I wasn’t in the right mood for it. 
However, the quarantine has forced me to evaluate things differently—do I want to engage in a conversation that will lead nowhere, with a guy who seems to fill his head with conspiracy theories and “spiritual” nonsense? Or should I talk to intelligent people about literature, film, or jazz? Do I want to seek out other book blogs, most of which will be bad, to see what they say about some books I like? Or should I just spend that time reading Edith Wharton?  Do I want to click on the link to an article that I know would annoy me? Or should I watch some cat videos that make me happy? 
Of course, I should always think that way, anyway, and prioritise things that are useful, but sometimes my morbid curiosity led me astray and made me waste time on ignorant people or asinine subjects. Now my lack of energy and gloomy mood force me to have priorities. 
There might be people who are learning a new skill, or a new language, or tacking a big important book they’ve always meant to read. Here I am just trying not to become dull.

Reading women’s short stories: Kate Chopin and Willa Cather

As the libraries are closed, I don’t buy books, and didn’t borrow enough before the lockdown, reading becomes a bit of an issue. I still want to read more works by women this year, so now the option seems to be reading short stories in the Norton Anthology of American Literature (my copy is the shorter edition). 
(This probably shows how extreme my view is regarding print books vs e-books—I’d rather hold the Norton Anthology than read an e-book from Gutenberg on the laptop or on the phone). 
Some brief thoughts: 
- Kate Chopin:  
I read at least one of her short stories at UiO, and read The Awakening in 2017—badly. There is nothing interesting I can say about The Awakening, except that I remember thinking the prose was good and she didn’t pass judgment. 
The 3 stories in the anthology are “At the ‘Cadian Ball” (1892), its sequel “The Storm” (1898), and “Désirée’s Baby” (1895). They’re all good, interesting. “The Storm”, which wasn’t published in her lifetime, is particularly interesting, because it deals with sexuality and depicts a passionate affair between 2 ex-lovers, who are now both married—it is erotic, and there is no judgment. 
Look at this sentence: 
“Alcée clasped her shoulders and looked into her face. The contact of her warm, palpitating body when he had unthinkingly drawn her into his arms, had aroused all the old-time infatuation and desire for her flesh.” 
And this sentence about Calixta: 
“As she glanced up at him the fear in her liquid blue eyes had given place to a drowsy gleam that unconsciously betrayed a sensuous desire.” 
If these 2 sentences don’t make you want to check out the story, I don’t know what will. 
“The Storm” can stand on its own, but it doesn’t hurt to read “At the ‘Cadian Ball” first to get to know the background and the characters, as well as the people Alcée and Calixta marry (Clarisse and Bobinôt respectively). 
“Désirée’s Baby” is about racism and miscegenation. I’m going to “spoil” the plot by saying that it’s about a racist man who kicks his wife (Désirée) out because their baby is part black, which suggests that Désirée, who is of unknown origins, is mixed race, but it’s revealed in the end that the racist man himself is part black. 
I don’t think that’s a spoiler, because the twist isn’t much of a twist—the key is how it’s done, how the story unfolds. 
Overall: good stuff. I should read more from Kate Chopin. 

- Willa Cather: 
I’ve not read anything by Willa Cather.  
Whilst Kate Chopin’s stories are quite short, the selected stories by Willa Cather in the Anthology are much longer. “Neighbour Rosicky” (1930) is a long short story, comprising of 6 parts, about Anton Rosicky, an old Czech farmer who resides in Nebraska with his wife and 6 children. 
She writes shorter, simpler sentences than I usually read. For instance:  
“But as the years passed, all alike, he began to get a little restless.  When spring came round, he would begin to feel fretted, and he got to drinking.  He was likely to drink too much of a Saturday night.  On Sunday he was languid and heavy, getting over his spree.  On Monday he plunged into work again.  So he never had time to figure out what ailed him, though he knew something did. When the grass turned green in Park Place, and the lilac hedge at the back of Trinity churchyard put out its blossoms, he was tormented by a longing to run away.  That was why he drank too much; to get a temporary illusion of freedom and wide horizons.” (P.3)
I like the flow and rhythm of her sentences. Willa Cather captures well the voices of her characters, but I can also hear the narrator’s voice. It’s hard to explain, but most of the time whilst reading a book, I see the words on the page and they stay on the page, so to speak, but once in a while, the narrator has such a strong voice that I can hear their voice speaking in my ears whilst I’m reading. An example is The Catcher in the Rye, but that’s an obvious one because Holden Caulfield uses colloquial language and slang, but I get the same effect with “Neighbour Rosicky”—I can hear the voice talking, like narration in a film.    
Take a look at this passage: 
“Rosicky, the old Rosicky, could remember as if it were yesterday the day when the young Rosicky found out what was the matter with him. It was on a Fourth of July afternoon, and he was sitting in Park Place in the sun. The lower part of New York was empty. Wall Street, Liberty Street, Broadway, all empty. So much stone and asphalt with nothing going on, so many empty windows. The emptiness was intense, like the stillness in a great factory when the machinery stops and the belts and bands cease running. It was too great a change, it took all the strength out of one. Those blank buildings, without the stream of life pouring through them, were like empty jails. It struck young Rosicky that this was the trouble with big cities; they built you in from the earth itself, cemented you away from any contact with the ground. You lived in an unnatural world, like the fish in an aquarium, who were probably much more comfortable than they ever were in the sea.” (ibid.) 
Does that not sound like the narration in Golden Hollywood films? That’s a good passage, though. 
“Neighbour Rosicky” has warmth—there’s some element of idealism, but it has warmth, and the characters appear very real.  
“The Sculptor’s Funeral” (1905) is a shorter story. The sculptor in the title is Marvey Merrick, who returns to his hometown in Kansas when he dies—the story mostly focuses on the perspective and impressions of his pupil Steavens, as he watches the Merrick family and other town people at the funeral. 
Compared to “Neighbour Rosicky”, the story is much shorter, and the prose is different—I don’t hear the narrating voice. 
The writing is good, like this one about the mother’s insincere display of grief: 
“… wailed the elder woman between her sobs. This time Steavens looked fearfully, almost beseechingly, into her face, red and swollen under its masses of strong, black, shiny hair. He flushed, dropped his eyes, and then, almost incredulously, looked again. There was a kind of power about her face—a kind of brutal handsomeness, even; but it was scarred and furrowed by violence, and so colored and coarsened by fiercer passions that grief seemed never to have laid a gentle finger there. The long nose was distended and knobbed at the end, and there were deep lines on either side of it; her heavy, black brows almost met across her forehead, her teeth were large and square, and set far apart—teeth that could tear. She filled the room; the men were obliterated, seemed tossed about like twigs in an angry water, and even Steavens felt himself being drawn into the whirlpool.” 
It is overall a good story, with some fine moments such as when Steavens and the lawyer, Jim Laird, overhear the mother cruelly abusing a servant for a small mistake (soon after her performance as a grieving mother), or when Steavens hear the town people speaking disrespectfully of Merrick. However, I think Laird’s passionate speech at the end feels a bit forced and clumsy, almost like a device to express the author’s own rage at the narrow-mindedness and bitterness of the town people.  
The stories do make me want to read more Willa Cather though. 

After this, I’m not quite sure what to read next. These days my concentration is rubbish.

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

On finishing The Age of Innocence

I’ve finished reading The Age of Innocence. A magnificent novel. It must be Edith Wharton’s best book. 
“… he had built up within himself a kind of sanctuary in which she throned among his secret thoughts and longings. Little by little it became the scene of his real life, of his only rational activities; thither he brought the books he read, the ideas and feelings which nourished him, his judgments and his visions. Outside it, in the scene of his actual life, he moved with a growing sense of unreality and insufficiency, blundering against familiar prejudices and traditional points of view as an absent-minded man goes on bumping into the furniture of his own room. Absent—that was what he was: so absent from everything most densely real and near to those about him that it sometimes startled him to find they still imagined he was there.” (Ch.26) 
I see The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence as masterpieces, and both are greater than The Custom of the Country, because they’re written with compassion and sympathy, whereas The Custom of the Country is a cold dissection of an essentially hollow character. It is masterfully done, and Undine Spragg is a fascinating, vivid character, among the most memorable female characters in literature, but something is lacking in the novel as a whole, especially after Ralph’s death (except for the final chapter, which is haunting).  
In an earlier blog post, I wrote that there was a sameness to Wharton’s 3 great New York novels, but that was only my initial reaction. Compared to The House of Mirth and The Custom of the Country, The Age of Innocence has a different tone—the sense of suffocation is still there, but the social criticism is more muted, and there is a tenderness and melancholy that the other books don’t have.  
Look at these wonderful lines from the final chapter: 
“He preferred to spend the afternoon in solitary roamings through Paris. He had to deal all at once with the packed regrets and stifled memories of an inarticulate lifetime.”   
That is what the novel is about—longing, passion, then “packed regrets and stifled memories”. 
There are some magnificent passages in the final chapter, which serves as epilogue, but I will save them, for those of you who haven’t read the book. 
I began reading The Age of Innocence, thinking it was about Newland Archer’s choice between individual needs (Ellen Olenska) and social duty (May Welland), but it’s a lot more complex, and his choice cannot be seen merely in such abstract terms. Nor is it a choice between a passionate, unconventional woman (Ellen) and an innocent, conventional, and narrow-minded woman (May). 
Both Ellen and May are portrayed with lots of compassion. Ellen sacrifices her own happiness because she cannot betray the people who have welcomed her back and accepted her with kindness, and has too much self-respect to agree to be Newland’s mistress; whilst May turns out to have much more depth and understanding than Newland recognises, and she too probably sacrifices herself in accepting a life with him, knowing that he passionately loves someone else. 
The 2 women, the way I see it, seem to correspond to the 2 sides in Newland: he recognises the limitations, hypocrisy, and the stifling nature of his society, but he is part of it—he shares its conventions and hypocrisy. Newland has many shortcomings, but his shortcomings are those of his class—he’s more of a product of society than he sometimes realises. In middle age, as he looks back at his life and choices, Newland knows he has missed “the flower of life”, but “he thought of it now as a thing so unattainable and improbable that to have repined would have been like despairing because one had not drawn the first prize in a lottery” (Ch.34). He must know, at the back of his mind, that life with Ellen might not be as happy as his fantasy. 
If we must compare The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence, some readers might see the former as having more tragic weight, and prefer it for the harsh, merciless analysis of high society, but I think of the latter as greater for having more emotional depth, more sympathy, and a greater vision. I won’t say more, both are great. 

See my previous blog posts about The Age of Innocence: random thoughts, passion, and the things people leave unsaid

Tuesday, 31 March 2020

The things left unsaid in The Age of Innocence

Writing about Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf ponders, if she had lived longer: 
“She would have devised a method, clear and composed as ever, but deeper and more suggestive, for conveying not only what people say, but what they leave unsaid; not only what they are, but (if we may be pardoned the vagueness of the expression) what life is.” (full essay)   
This is something I’ve noticed in The Age of Innocence: Edith Wharton writes a lot about things people leave unsaid.  
(From where we are, the 2 writers may not seem that far apart, at least to some of us, but more than 100 years passed between Jane Austen’s last novel, Persuasion, which was published in 1818, and The Age of Innocence, which was published in 1920, exactly 100 years ago). 
In The Age of Innocence, I think there are 3 main kinds of silence: 
1/ As Edith Wharton focuses on Newland Archer’s perspective (instead of switching between perspectives as she does in The Custom of the Country or The House of Mirth), such moments are about him—we know the things he thinks but doesn’t say. 
Newland has a gentleman’s restraint. For example, look at this exchange between him and his sister Janey: 
“"Not the half of one—if she thinks such old maid's rubbish."
"Mother is not an old maid," said his virgin sister with pinched lips.
He felt like shouting back: "Yes, she is, and so are the van der Luydens, and so we all are, when it comes to being so much as brushed by the wing-tip of Reality." But he saw her long gentle face puckering into tears, and felt ashamed of the useless pain he was inflicting.” (Ch.10)
 As he’s a gentleman, bound by conventions, there is lots of restraint in his conversations with Ellen Olenska. For example, this is when he and Ellen discuss her intention to file for divorce: 
“It was on his lips to exclaim: "My poor child—far more harm than anywhere else!" Instead, he answered, in a voice that sounded in his ears like Mr. Letterblair's: "New York society is a very small world compared with the one you've lived in. And it's ruled, in spite of appearances, by a few people with—well, rather old-fashioned ideas."” (Ch.12) 
“"And you take their view?"
He stood up at this, wandered across the room, stared with void eyes at one of the pictures against the old red damask, and came back irresolutely to her side. How could he say: "Yes, if what your husband hints is true, or if you've no way of disproving it?"
"Sincerely—" she interjected, as he was about to speak.” (ibid.)   
He cannot bring himself to ask if she’s involved with her husband’s secretary, as her husband threatens to bring against her in the divorce. 
“Since she would not or could not say the one word that would have cleared the air, his wish was not to let her feel that he was trying to probe into her secret. Better keep on the surface, in the prudent old New York way, than risk uncovering a wound he could not heal.” (ibid.) 
As they both leave things unsaid, especially on Newland’s side, they keep the discussion on the surface and make assumptions about each other, and end up misunderstanding each other. In the end, Ellen chooses not to have a divorce, to protect him, May, and their families, and they cannot be together. 
There are many more such moments in The Age of Innocence. Newland may see all the conventions and restrictions in his society, but he too is part of society—he too has been brought up that way. He also chooses restraint and leaves thing unsaid, he also hints or avoids subjects instead of speaking frankly, he also keeps things on the surface, he also uses stock phrases like everyone else. He is exactly like the people he secretly condemns. 
However, this makes it so good when he confesses his feelings to Ellen. There is lots of passion, and a real sense of release.  
Later on, Newland, now married, still has restraint when seeing Ellen. Here is the scene in Boston: 
“The young man's blush deepened. She had pronounced the word as if it had no more significance than any other in her vocabulary. For a moment it was on the tip of his tongue to ask: "Did he send his secretary, then?" But the remembrance of Count Olenski's only letter to his wife was too present to him. He paused again, and then took another plunge.
"And the person?"— ” (Ch.23) 
A bit later: 
“They sat silent, not looking at each other, but straight ahead at the people passing along the path. Finally she turned her eyes again to his face and said: "You're not changed."
He felt like answering: "I was, till I saw you again;" but instead he stood up abruptly and glanced about him at the untidy sweltering park.” (ibid.) 
There he’s repressing his passion. It is no use. He’s now married. Anything with her is impossible. 

2/ The 2nd kind of silence is the silence of nearness and understanding, between Newland and Ellen—it is enough to be near each other, they do not speak. 
“As the paddle-wheels began to turn, and wharves and shipping to recede through the veil of heat, it seemed to Archer that everything in the old familiar world of habit was receding also. He longed to ask Madame Olenska if she did not have the same feeling: the feeling that they were starting on some long voyage from which they might never return. But he was afraid to say it, or anything else that might disturb the delicate balance of her trust in him. In reality he had no wish to betray that trust. There had been days and nights when the memory of their kiss had burned and burned on his lips; the day before even, on the drive to Portsmouth, the thought of her had run through him like fire; but now that she was beside him, and they were drifting forth into this unknown world, they seemed to have reached the kind of deeper nearness that a touch may sunder.” (ibid.) 
“"And that's to be all—for either of us?"
"Well; it is all, isn't it?"
At that he sprang up, forgetting everything but the sweetness of her face. She rose too, not as if to meet him or to flee from him, but quietly, as though the worst of the task were done and she had only to wait; so quietly that, as he came close, her outstretched hands acted not as a check but as a guide to him. They fell into his, while her arms, extended but not rigid, kept him far enough off to let her surrendered face say the rest.
They may have stood in that way for a long time, or only for a few moments; but it was long enough for her silence to communicate all she had to say, and for him to feel that only one thing mattered. He must do nothing to make this meeting their last; he must leave their future in her care, asking only that she should keep fast hold of it.” (Ch.24) 
This is a magnificent scene. Newland and Ellen understand each other without speaking, they don’t need to say a word. They just stand there, in the moment. 

3/ The 3rd kind of silence, which I find particularly interesting, is May’s silence.  
Wharton does something interesting when she chooses to focus on Newland’s perspective, instead of switching between different points of view. We know what he thinks, we can guess what Ellen thinks, but what about May? How much does she know? 
Through Newland’s eyes, Wharton creates the impression that May is young, inexperienced, conventional, narrow, pure, and innocent—a nice girl, basically. But at the same time, we can see that May is not really what he thinks she is.  
Take this passage: 
“His wise May—how he had loved her for that letter! But he had not meant to act on it; he was too busy, to begin with, and he did not care, as an engaged man, to play too conspicuously the part of Madame Olenska's champion. He had an idea that she knew how to take care of herself a good deal better than the ingenuous May imagined. She had Beaufort at her feet, Mr. van der Luyden hovering above her like a protecting deity, and any number of candidates (Lawrence Lefferts among them) waiting their opportunity in the middle distance. Yet he never saw her, or exchanged a word with her, without feeling that, after all, May's ingenuousness almost amounted to a gift of divination. Ellen Olenska was lonely and she was unhappy.” (Ch.13) 
May has a sensitivity and perceptiveness that Newland doesn’t realise she has. She’s not naïve and ignorant either—he thinks nothing reaches her, but for a long time she knows about his previous affair with Mrs Rushworth, she just doesn’t ask about it.  
In this aspect, Newland is reminiscent of Ralph Marvell in The Custom of the Country—he looks down on his wife and underestimates her. 
To me, it’s obvious that May knows Newland’s involved with Ellen. When he speaks of going to Boston for business, it’s not stated in the novel but it should be easy for her to know that Ellen would also be there, as they’re cousins.  
The whole thing about the trip to Washington makes it even clearer, to the reader though not to Newland, that she knows. When he mentions the trip the 1st time, she tells him to remember to visit Ellen, I suppose, to see his reaction, and to let him know that she knows he lies. When their grandmother Mrs Manson Mingott has a stroke and wants Ellen back, the way May mentions Newland’s Washington business trip, in front of everybody, shows her cunning. They would cross paths. 
Later on, when the Wellands argue about who should pick up Ellen, and Newland volunteers, it seems obvious that May has been waiting to see what he says, then she acts like it’s all good, to keep up the happy couple image in front of her parents. But afterwards, she cross-examines Newland about why his employer (Mr Letterblair) goes to Washington but he doesn’t. 
I’ve written enough. May is no simpleton, and her silence is much more interesting as Wharton hints that she knows a lot more than she shows.

Monday, 30 March 2020

Passion in The Age of Innocence

Edith Wharton can sure write about passion. Look: 
“"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.” (Ch.8) 
That is from an early meeting between Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska. 
“The words stole through him like a temptation, and to close his senses to it he moved away from the hearth and stood gazing out at the black tree-boles against the snow. But it was as if she too had shifted her place, and he still saw her, between himself and the trees, drooping over the fire with her indolent smile. Archer's heart was beating insubordinately. What if it were from him that she had been running away, and if she had waited to tell him so till they were here alone together in this secret room?” (Ch.15) 
If I had good concentration now, I would be very tempted to reread Anna Karenina to see the way Tolstoy writes about passion.
Contrast the way Newland feels about Ellen, with the way he feels about May: 
“The young man was sincerely but placidly in love. He delighted in the radiant good looks of his betrothed, in her health, her horsemanship, her grace and quickness at games, and the shy interest in books and ideas that she was beginning to develop under his guidance.” (Ch.6) 
The word “radiant” or “radiance” seems to be linked to May: 
“The day was delectable. […] It was the weather to call out May's radiance, and she burned like a young maple in the frost. Archer was proud of the glances turned on her, and the simple joy of possessorship cleared away his underlying perplexities.” (Ch.10) 
He loves May’s looks, and he’s aware that she’s seen as a prize, so to speak (especially after they’re married), but she doesn’t inspire passion in him as Ellen does. Several times he travels to meet Ellen, on an impulse (Skuytercliffe, then the Blenkers’ house, then Boston). 
“He was not sure that he wanted to see the Countess Olenska again; but ever since he had looked at her from the path above the bay he had wanted, irrationally and indescribably, to see the place she was living in, and to follow the movements of her imagined figure as he had watched the real one in the summer-house. The longing was with him day and night, an incessant undefinable craving, like the sudden whim of a sick man for food or drink once tasted and long since forgotten. He could not see beyond the craving, or picture what it might lead to, for he was not conscious of any wish to speak to Madame Olenska or to hear her voice. He simply felt that if he could carry away the vision of the spot of earth she walked on, and the way the sky and sea enclosed it, the rest of the world might seem less empty.” (Ch.22) 
The passages about passion in The Age of Innocence are too great not to share. 
“As the paddle-wheels began to turn, and wharves and shipping to recede through the veil of heat, it seemed to Archer that everything in the old familiar world of habit was receding also. He longed to ask Madame Olenska if she did not have the same feeling: the feeling that they were starting on some long voyage from which they might never return. But he was afraid to say it, or anything else that might disturb the delicate balance of her trust in him. In reality he had no wish to betray that trust. There had been days and nights when the memory of their kiss had burned and burned on his lips; the day before even, on the drive to Portsmouth, the thought of her had run through him like fire; but now that she was beside him, and they were drifting forth into this unknown world, they seemed to have reached the kind of deeper nearness that a touch may sunder.” (Ch.23) 
Is that not magnificent? 
The writing is even better because the passion is unfulfilled: 
“… for a man sick with unsatisfied love, and parting for an indefinite period from the object of his passion, he felt himself almost humiliatingly calm and comforted. It was the perfect balance she had held between their loyalty to others and their honesty to themselves that had so stirred and yet tranquillized him; a balance not artfully calculated, as her tears and her falterings showed, but resulting naturally from her unabashed sincerity. It filled him with a tender awe, now the danger was over, and made him thank the fates that no personal vanity, no sense of playing a part before sophisticated witnesses, had tempted him to tempt her. Even after they had clasped hands for good-bye at the Fall River station, and he had turned away alone, the conviction remained with him of having saved out of their meeting much more than he had sacrificed.” (Ch.25) 
The Age of Innocence is such a great book. Like The House of Mirth and The Custom of the Country, it has some critique of high society and social conventions, but it’s much mellower, especially as Edith Wharton wrote this novel after the war and her perspective now changed. The Age of Innocence has a tenderness and melancholy not in the other novels, and there is also lots of passion. 


Now, I must admit that a part of me disapproves of Newland Archer. I empathise with him, but can’t help feeling that he’s a coward and he’s being unfair to both May and Ellen, especially May. When he meets and falls in love with Ellen, he’s engaged but not married to May, he’s still free; Ellen is legally married, but separated, and seeking a divorce. It would be difficult, there would be a scandal, but he’s not in the same situation as, say, Anna Karenina. 
I don’t think I’m judging Newland from the modern perspective. His choice, I can’t help thinking, cannot be seen purely in abstract terms as a choice between individualism/ human needs and social conventions/ public image/ other people’s expectations. On the one hand, I understand that breaking the engagement in order to marry Ellen would hurt everyone involved and both families, but on the other hand, is it not worse that he marries May but yearns for Ellen and keeps thinking that May is innocent, conventional, limited, and doesn’t have what Ellen’s got? Newland himself says that Ellen gives him a glimpse of real life, and his life with May is a sham one. 
On a personal level I find it difficult to sympathise with Newland completely—he realises his feelings for Ellen, but instead of thinking about it and considering everything, he decides to shorten the engagement and hurry the wedding. Then he goes on with the wedding after he and Ellen have confessed their feelings to each other. 
Perhaps it’s too early to write about these things—I might change my view at the end of the book. People feel for Newland and Ellen, and their thwarted desire, I find myself caring more about May. It’s unjust to her.

Saturday, 28 March 2020

Edith Wharton and other writers

I have written before about the similarities and differences between Edith Wharton and Jane Austen, so there’s no need to write again. The gist of it is that I love and admire them both for their acute perception and deep understanding of people, their sharp tongue, irony, and wry humour, and for their vividly drawn characters, but they have different styles, approaches, themes, and concerns, which is a good thing. 
If anyone asks, I’d say I prefer Jane Austen, which is to be expected because I discovered her several years ago and have read all her works, including the incomplete works, just not the juvenilia. She’s also the author that I feel closest to my heart (even though Tolstoy’s a greater writer), because of her views on relationships, and her ideas about balance, moderation, self-awareness, and the different virtues. However, that’s my personal taste, I get it if someone else prefers Wharton.    
In terms of psychological insight, I think Wharton is comparable to George Eliot, and both of them are interested in moral choice, except that Wharton’s novels don’t have an intrusive narrator and a moralising tone. Some critics have said Wharton’s very harsh on her female characters, but so is George Eliot on the female characters she disapproves of—just look at her stabs at Celia Brooke and Rosamond Vincy. I can’t help trying to imagine Undine Spragg under George Eliot’s pen. 
The main difference between these 2 writers is that, even though both deal with moral choice, George Eliot’s interested in sympathy (selflessness vs selfishness), kindness/ philanthropy, and human connection, Edith Wharton’s more concerned with dignity and self-respect. George Eliot focuses on the relations between people, Wharton concentrates on the conflict between the individual and society, exploring ideas about freedom vs conventions, human needs/ passions vs social duties, and so on. 
As I have written several times before, George Eliot is a writer I respect immensely but always struggle with. Readers who can get along well with her would probably find her more philosophical, and in a way, larger than Wharton. My aesthetics is heavily influenced by Tolstoy, Flaubert, and Nabokov, so I personally dislike the intrusive narrator, especially when I feel she is spoon-feeding readers something that could be suggested or hinted (here and here). It is easy to see why I prefer and think more highly of Wharton as an artist. 
Now, what about Edith Wharton and Henry James? So far, I have deliberately avoided mentioning James or making any comparison, because I have read lots of articles and essays in which the author writes at length about how James is superior and how Wharton doesn’t do certain things he does. This is something I don’t understand, because if they love James so much, why do they write about Wharton at all?  
I also take issues with it when someone sees her as a lesser James, or [insert adjective] James, because to me, she’s not [anything] James, she’s Edith Wharton. 
Whilst it is true that he’s her mentor, they both write about the American upper class, and they both tell a single story in each novel (instead of several strands of stories as Tolstoy and George Eliot do), they are very different. 
Look at this passage from Edmund Wilson: 
“Her work was then the desperate product of a pressure of maladjustments; and it very soon took a direction totally different from that of Henry James, as a lesser disciple of whom she is sometimes pointlessly listed. James's interests were predominantly esthetic: He is never a passionate social prophet; and only rarely—as in The Ivory Tower, which seems in turn to have derived from Mrs. Wharton—does he satirize plutocratic America. But a passionate social prophet is precisely what Edith Wharton became. At her strongest and most characteristic, she is a brilliant example of the writer who relieves an emotional strain by denouncing his generation.” (full essay
(Notice how Wilson has to say she’s a lesser disciple?)
Here is a fairer comparison, from Marilyn French: 
“It is true that they were personally close and perhaps had similar sensibilities, and that they were looking at the same world. But James, a man, emphasized the individual within society; he had a strong sense of legitimacy that strengthened and colored what he created, Wharton was far more aware of the power of the environment over the individual, of the sapping of energy caused by a sense of illegitimacy, and of the impossibility of getting beyond the bodily and social consequences of sex. James’s genius was linguistic and psychological; Wharton’s was sociological and psychological. Without seeming to diminish James—who cannot be diminished—one must separate the two authors and focus on Wharton’s excellences. She has a wider scope; she is more interested in the particular experience of women; and she had a profounder sense of constriction.” (full essay)
Comparison is not necessarily a problem, but critics usually pair Edith Wharton with, and compare her to, Henry James, in order to diminish and denigrate her, which is not only pointless but also foolish, because they’re different. 
Personally I prefer Wharton. It might be too early to say, because I’m reading the 3rd Wharton novel, and from James have only read The Portrait of a Lady, Washington Square, The Turn of the Screw, and some short works including “Daisy Miller”. However, my impression so far is that I admire James but can’t warm to him. Wharton’s also interested in nuance and subtlety, but she’s more direct, more energetic, and not so vague.  
Her characters are also more vivid. Lately I’ve been thinking about The Portrait of a Lady—a novel I struggled with at the beginning and came to appreciate. I finished it, thinking it’s a great book and particularly admiring the way James writes about silence and things left unsaid. But having finished reading, I find myself rarely thinking about it afterwards (the way I often think about Anna Karenina, Mansfield Park, or Madame Bovary), and a few years later, barely remember anything beyond the general plot. My memory of the book is all muddled up, and all the characters, including Isabel Archer, are very vague to me. It’s not about time, as Anna Karenina or Nastasha Rostova is still vivid to me, for instance, but about the book, as I remember thinking the characters are never not vague, I just came to accept it as I learnt to appreciate the other strengths and qualities of James’s book. Their motives are never clear, but even their character is not very clear. 
The vagueness is the point of The Portrait of a Lady—Isabel Archer is always behind some kind of screen, we never come to understand her or see her clearly, the same way the men in the story never fully understand her. Within the book, it works—we wonder what she would do next, then wonder why she does what she does, but never get a clear answer. The same argument can be made for Washington Square—it’s about the battle of minds, and a lot hinges on other characters predicting Catherine’s actions and guessing her motives.   
But somehow I like Washington Square (my preference is probably a controversial opinion), but The Portrait of a Lady becomes very abstract to me. The vagueness of the characters in The Portrait of a Lady works for the novel and what James was doing, but to me, it seems to work in an abstract sense—the vagueness becomes a hindrance to me appreciating the book in the long run, as I forget the book and can’t see any of the characters.
I don’t expect to forget Lily Bart and Undine Spragg. 
The more I write about Henry James, the clearer it appears to me how different they are. 
I also think Edith Wharton’s more visual. To quote from Marilyn French again: 
“Wharton had an intense visual awareness, especially of nature—a sensitivity she shares with many of her characters. She had an intense visual awareness of interiors as well. […] She was able to conjure an entire way of life with a few concrete details.    
[…] Wharton’s visual apprehension included people as well as things. She noted vividly postures, gestures, manners of speech, manners of walk, the tilt of a head, the way someone held a handkerchief. She paid attention to clothes, but also to the way they were worn. She knew that surfaces reveal values, that the depiction of significant details creates the texture of a life, and that the deepest beliefs of a person or a culture are perceptible in that texture.” 
As a writer, James is more psychological and metaphorical than visual. Wharton doesn’t go as far as Flaubert, but she’s more visual than James, her writing is more sensuous. I have written before about the use of light in The House of Mirth, for instance. This is another reason I prefer Wharton. 
Most importantly, The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country, and now The Age of Innocence have affected me a lot more strongly than anything I’ve read from James.
Edith Wharton’s not a lesser Henry James. She’s Edith Wharton. And she should be recognised for her own excellences.

Thursday, 26 March 2020

Random thoughts on The Age of Innocence

1/ At the beginning, The Age of Innocence has a harshness that can be found in The House of Mirth and The Custom of the Country. I mean, look at this passage for instance: 
“The immense accretion of flesh which had descended on her in middle life like a flood of lava on a doomed city had changed her from a plump active little woman with a neatly-turned foot and ankle into something as vast and august as a natural phenomenon. She had accepted this submergence as philosophically as all her other trials, and now, in extreme old age, was rewarded by presenting to her mirror an almost unwrinkled expanse of firm pink and white flesh, in the centre of which the traces of a small face survived as if awaiting excavation. A flight of smooth double chins led down to the dizzy depths of a still-snowy bosom veiled in snowy muslins that were held in place by a miniature portrait of the late Mr. Mingott; and around and below, wave after wave of black silk surged away over the edges of a capacious armchair, with two tiny white hands poised like gulls on the surface of the billows.” (Ch.4) 
“…she waved one of her tiny hands, with small pointed nails and rolls of aged fat encircling the wrist like ivory bracelets.” (ibid.) 
That is Mrs Manson Mingott, or Old Catherine, May’s grandmother. I didn’t feel it at the time, but now that I’ve singled it out, there’s something about the passage that makes it stand out a bit, like it belongs in a different kind of book. 
Later on, I started to notice a change, and compared to the other 2 novels, The Age of Innocence has a tenderness and melancholy that I like.

2/ For those who don’t know the story, The Age of Innocence is about Newland Archer, in New York high society in the 1870s, who is engaged to a young woman named May Welland but finds himself falling in love with her cousin Ellen Olenska. 
I keep thinking about May as the brunette Winona Ryder and Ellen as the blond Michelle Pfeiffer, but Martin Scorsese’s film switches the hair colour. 
In Edith Wharton’s novel, Ellen has dark hair. 
“It was that of 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.” (Ch.1) 
“The light touched to russet the rings of dark hair escaping from her braids, and made her pale face paler.” (Ch.9) 
Now look at May: 
“As Madame Nilsson's "M'ama!" thrilled out above the silent house (the boxes always stopped talking during the Daisy Song) a warm pink mounted to the girl's cheek, mantled her brow to the roots of her fair braids, and suffused the young slope of her breast to the line where it met a modest tulle tucker fastened with a single gardenia.” (Ch.1) 
“Across the warm brown of her cheek her blown hair glittered like silver wire; and her eyes too looked lighter, almost pale in their youthful limpidity.” (Ch.16) 
I’m not quite sure what colour her hair is meant to be—platinum blond?  
This is interesting, because of the traditional association of blond hair with a pure and innocent image, and dark brown hair with something mysterious, exotic/ foreign, passionate, dark, and dangerous (the outsider Mrs Struthers, for example, has intensely black hair). 
(There is, as it turns out, a book called Representations of Hair in Victorian Literature and Culture). 
Wharton also uses colours and flowers to present May and Ellen as opposites: May wears white a few times, Ellen wears dark blue velvet or red velvet; Archer associates May with lilies-of-the-valley and Ellen with yellow roses, and so on.  

3/ There is a lot of interior design in the novel, a lot more than in the other 2 novels. Wharton herself wrote a book called The Decoration of Houses, and also wrote about garden design in Italian Villas and Their Gardens
I find myself missing out on all these descriptions and details because I don’t understand anything from mahogany to rosewood and damask and such.  
However, something stands out in the description of Ellen’s house: 
“…what struck him was the way in which Medora Manson's shabby hired house, with its blighted background of pampas grass and Rogers statuettes, had, by a turn of the hand, and the skilful use of a few properties, been transformed into something intimate, "foreign," subtly suggestive of old romantic scenes and sentiments. He tried to analyse the trick, to find a clue to it […] in the vague pervading perfume that was not what one put on handkerchiefs, but rather like the scent of some far-off bazaar, a smell made up of Turkish coffee and ambergris and dried roses.” (Ch.9) 
Ambergris! That probably doesn’t mean much to other people, but it sure is exciting to a fan of Moby Dick
Also this line:
“It was usual for ladies who received in the evenings to wear what were called "simple dinner dresses": a close-fitting armour of whale-boned silk…” (Ch.12) 
What is whale-boned silk? Is it silk from baleen? Silk and baleen? 

4/ This is a funny passage: 
“Mr. Jackson, if perfection had been attainable on earth, would also have asked that Mrs. Archer's food should be a little better. But then New York, as far back as the mind of man could travel, had been divided into the two great fundamental groups of the Mingotts and Mansons and all their clan, who cared about eating and clothes and money, and the Archer-Newland-van-der-Luyden tribe, who were devoted to travel, horticulture and the best fiction, and looked down on the grosser forms of pleasure.
You couldn't have everything, after all. If you dined with the Lovell Mingotts you got canvas-back and terrapin and vintage wines; at Adeline Archer's you could talk about Alpine scenery and "The Marble Faun"; and luckily the Archer Madeira had gone round the Cape.” (Ch.5) 
I like travel and the best fiction, but also like good food, nice clothes, and money. Maybe I’m greedy. 
Canvas-back and terrapin is fancy duck and turtle meat, in case anyone wonders. 

5/ See this passage about Archer’s previous relationship: 
“He passed for a young man who had not been afraid of risks, and he knew that his secret love-affair with poor silly Mrs. Thorley Rushworth had not been too secret to invest him with a becoming air of adventure. But Mrs. Rushworth was "that kind of woman"; foolish, vain, clandestine by nature, and far more attracted by the secrecy and peril of the affair than by such charms and qualities as he possessed.” (Ch.11) 
Hold on, is that a Mansfield Park reference? It looks like it.
The next bit is more interesting: 
“The affair, in short, had been of the kind that most of the young men of his age had been through, and emerged from with calm consciences and an undisturbed belief in the abysmal distinction between the women one loved and respected and those one enjoyed—and pitied. In this view they were sedulously abetted by their mothers, aunts and other elderly female relatives, who all shared Mrs. Archer's belief that when "such things happened" it was undoubtedly foolish of the man, but somehow always criminal of the woman. All the elderly ladies whom Archer knew regarded any woman who loved imprudently as necessarily unscrupulous and designing, and mere simple-minded man as powerless in her clutches. The only thing to do was to persuade him, as early as possible, to marry a nice girl, and then trust to her to look after him.” (ibid.) 
This is, I believe, an important passage, especially the bit about “the abysmal distinction between the women one loved and respected and those one enjoyed—and pitied”.