The Custom of the Country, Edith Wharton (1913)

Ralph Marvell: You know nothing of this society you’re in; of its antecedents, its rules, its conventions; and it’s my affair to look after you, and warn you when you’re on the wrong track.

Undine: I don’t believe an American woman needs to know such a lot about their old rules. They can see I mean to follow my own, and if they don’t like it they needn’t go with me.

 

customcountryUndine Spragg, the main character in Edith Wharton’s, The Custom of the Country, must surely be ranked in the top ten of the most disliked protagonists of literary history. Narcissist, taker, Queen of the Most-Selfish do not describe fully the ruin she wreaks as she pursues life in high society.

I have now read most of Edith Wharton’s major novels and novellas as I continue this year of reading specific writers. Her main characters have this in common: they dream of a better life than the one they find themselves in, they make plans for it and plot through the roadblocks that may be in the way, the goal seems just within reach and then the outcome is thwarted in some way and they are stuck where they have always been. And in each of these stories I have cheered for the protagonist to reach that goal, to fulfill the dream he or she has worked so hard for. But in Undine Spragg I found the exception. Her shockingly malicious behavior had me wondering who or when her reign of ruin would be put to an end.

The Narrative

Set in early 20th century New York City, Paris and Italy, The Custom of the Country concerns Undine Spragg, a startling beauty with grand ambitions beyond her small midwestern town of Apex. After her father has some business success, she begs her parents to move to New York City where she hopes to establish herself in the higher echelons of society. Armed with Town Talk and Boudoir Chat she devours the articles describing the fashionable trends for women, the best places to be seen and the names of those she hopes to meet. After two years of many false and humiliated starts where the difference between old and new money is important, but never apparent to the newcomer, Undine marries Ralph Marvell, whom she believes is the answer to her dreams of upper class life.

But it becomes clear on their honeymoon to Italy that old-monied Ralph iflorences not as rich as Undine had hoped. What also becomes apparent to the cultured, would-be novelist is his wife is not suited to his own visions of married life. The solitude of the remote places Ralph thought perfect for a honeymoon Undine finds boring and craves the excitement of people and parties. She has no desire for new experiences or to broaden her mind:

An imagination like his peopled with such varied images and associates…could hardly picture the bareness of the small half lit place in which his wife’s spirit fluttered. Her mind was as destitute of beauty and mystery as the prairie school-house in which she has been educated; and her ideals seemed to Ralph as pathetic as the ornaments made of corks and cigar-bands with which her infant hands had been taught to adorn it….

As they try to settle into life in his ancestral home in Washington Square, both become miserable. He, because he has to put his dreams as a writer on hold to work at a job he hates in order to pay for her enormous appetite for fashion and socializing and she, because once married she never expected to have to pay attention to how much things cost or to budget. When Undine becomes pregnant, which is a joyous occasion for Ralph he is shocked to see how devastated she is over what a pregnancy will do her physical beauty and mopes about until a son is born, whom she soon neglects.

edwardianThe recurring theme for Undine is outlined above and follows her through subsequent marriages and affairs. She believes her beauty should be showcased by the best fashions Paris has to offer and to be seen with the best people at the best places her duty; having a successful effect on those of society reflects on her family. And though custom forces husbands and fathers to provide for their wives and daughters, she refuses to be fitted with anything less than the finest whether there is enough money or not. And when there is not she manipulates, cajoles, pouts and generally makes it impossible for “the best” not to be delivered and laid out the next day.

Leaving her infant son with Ralph, Undine flees to her friends in Europe. The flirtation she’s had with wealthy Peter Van Degen, the husband of Ralph’s cousin Clare and his best friend, becomes a full-blown affair. Undine obtains a divorce giving her custody of Paul, but has made no contact with him since leaving. She is certain Peter will divorce his wife for her and continues to press him, because she knows without a marriage contract she is vulnerable. But when Peter cools to her, she is once more with little money and is unable to keep up with her friends.

Several years pass with a miserable Undine living with her parents. She convinces her father to send her to Europe where she hopes to once again climb the ladder of success. When the French count Raymond de Chelles falls in love with her and they plan to marry, she tells Ralph she wants Paul to join her in France, though her long-time absence is disturbing to both father and son. Distraught at the thought of losing his son Ralph makes a business deal with Elmer Moffatt, with whom he has done business in the past. Hoping to raise a hundred thousand dollars as a sort of buy off, he is confident that for Undine there is a price for everything, including her son. But the deal goes bad and what is worse, he discovers Moffatt and Undine were once married when they were teenagers, but her father forced an annulment. In shock at this, coupled with the loss of his son, he commits suicide. Undine is now free to marry the Count.

However, the Count’s family are traditionalists and though as lovers Undine and frenchRaymond had a vibrant social life, as his wife there are different expectations. He wants no more of that life for her and sequesters her and Paul to an out of the way old family residence where she, of course, is not happy. This time it is she who cools to a relationship and divorces Raymond. When at a chance meeting with Elmer Moffatt she realizes how rich he is, she marries him and thinks the days of “how much does this cost” are over. Does she finally have everything she wants?

That can never be true for Undine Spragg. There is never enough and always some new bright and shiny object to chase.

Rich beyond imagination Moffatt is satisfied with his life, but he is not as ambitious as Undine would like. When giving a dinner party she hears about an Ambassadorship to England granted to an old nemesis from her small town in Apex and she is intrigued. She wants that for her husband, too.

She had a great vague vision of the splendors they were going to—all the banquets and ceremonies and precedences….Turning to her husband goading him for his lack of ambition saying he could have that easily, he delivers to her the most devastating piece of news she could hear: no amount of money, connections or titles could allow him such a position, because he is married to a divorced woman and “They won’t have divorced Ambassadresses.” This she could never get. And as she advanced to welcome her guests she said to herself that it was the one part she was really made for.

Conclusion

This novel is a challenging read; it is complex and rich in commentary on the American expat experience of which Wharton’s writing is superb.

Wharton is a bold critic on the type of wealthy semi-resident traveler who has come to be known as the ‘ugly American.’ Though Undine is a fictional character within a fictional landscape, she is nonetheless a symbol for this type of narcissistic, rich destroyer of tradition that Wharton, herself an expat American living on and off in Paris, rails against. Wharton has Raymond deliver a speech to Undine that brilliantly decries this kind of superficial American sensibility. They are at the end of their marriage when Raymond discovers Undine tried to sell his family’s centuries-old wall tapestries, because she wanted money.

That’s all you feel when you lay hands on things that are sacred to us! And you’re all alike, 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’re dry, and the people are as proud of changing as we are of holding to what we have—and we’re fools enough to imagine that because you copy our ways and pickup up our slang you understand anything about the things that make life decent and honorable for us.

If this had any effect on Undine, one would never know it. Empathy, recognition of her faults, growth into adult behavior was not part of her make up. She threatened to leave Raymond for “speaking to me this way,” and soon she did.

I have to admit it: Although Edith Wharton has become one of my favorite writers it was a bit of a relief to turn the last page on this one!

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Title: The Custom of the Country
Author: Edith Wharton
Publisher: Signet Classic
Device: Paperback
Year: 1913
Pages: 370

Challenges: The Classics Club, my 2019 Author Reads

Night and Day, Virginia Woolf (1919)

You come and see me among flowers and pictures, and think me mysterious, romantic, and all the rest of it. Being yourself very inexperienced and very emotional, you go home and invent a story about me, and now you can’t separate me from the person you’ve imagined me to be. You call that, I suppose, being in love; as a matter of fact it’s being in delusion…I won’t have you do it about me.

 

nightday

If I were to sum up Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day I could easily do it in one sentence: It is about a group of young men and women contemplating marriage, but illusions about love are a stumbling block: if true love does not come is compatibility the better alternative? But the book clocks in at 450 pages, so there must be more to it than that. The difficulty with this review is that though there is a narrative, so much of it is contained in the thoughts and conversations of the characters. And as shall be explained below, they followed a multi-lane winding road.

Katharine Hilbery lives with her parents in the Chelsea area of London where she spends her days assisting her mother with the biography of her grandfather, the well-known poet Richard Alardyce. Katharine is bored with her life, and her impending marriage to William Rodney, himself a writer and poet, does not give her peace. She is not in love with him, but has consented to the marriage and it is understood by all they are a couple, which adds to her discomfort. William has been invited to the apartment of Mary Datchet a suffragette who opens her apartment to young writers to showcase their work. Katharine accompanies William on this particular evening and it is here she sees Ralph Denham, a young lawyer who writes for her father and whom she met recently at a tea given by her mother. Katharine feigns interest in him, but Ralph’s feelings are strong. Mary has known Ralph through her job and is in love with him, but he sees her only as a friend. When Cassandra, Katharine’s younger cousin comes to visit, she and William find themselves in love with each other.

These attachments and attractions to and for each character form the ebb and flow of the narrative. Their inner lives are melodramatic as their thoughts twist and turn. And when they converse they are never honest, speaking of marriage when they are not in love or declaring friendship when they really mean they are in love. They are both false and brutally honest with each other forcing confusion and turmoil into their relationships.

I did say I would marry you, but it was wrong, for I don’t love you William; you’ve noticed it, every one’s noticed it; why should we go on pretending? When I told you I loved you, I was wrong. I said what I knew to be untrue.

Indecision impairs each with an uncertainty as to their future. Do you marry for love or friendship? For romance or compatibility? Can Katharine Hilbery marry William Rodney because she loves, but is not in love with him? Should Ralph Denham ask Mary Datchet to marry him because he only likes her very much and should she say yes, even though she is in love with him?

strolling2When not ruminating in their individual heads one of the great features of this novel is the quality of the conversations. In fact, there is a certain irony in the fact that the main characters speak so often to each other about their feelings, yet the words are never honest so there is a continual confusion over where each stands. And even when they have come to a decision and know what they feel, they do the opposite. This is never more startling as when Ralph, who is mad for Katharine, proposes to Mary anyway telling her his relationship with Katharine has been a fantasy he made up in his mind. Mary, however, wants a marriage based on love. Answers Ralph:

But love—don’t we talk a great deal of nonsense about it?…It’s only a story one makes up in one’s mind about another person and one knows all the time it isn’t true. Of course one knows; why, one’s always taking care not to destroy the illusion. One takes care not to see them too often, or to be alone with them for too long together. It’s a pleasant illusion, but if you’re thinking of the risks of marriage, it seems to me that the risk of marrying a person you’re in love with is something colossal.

It is easy to become exasperated with the continual indecision of the characters, but there is a certain humorous quality about a group of well-liked intelligent young people who can’t make up their minds, who are unable to tell anyone the truth of their feelings, to be gossiped about being seen alone with someone they tell people they only ‘like,’ yet everyone can see they are actually in love with them!

The characters do have rich inner worlds that Woolf plumbs and dissects. And there is a plot and a sense of the narrative, but it is wide-ranging and convoluted. If you skip a page or skim a conversation, you will miss something important, because Woolf relishes the intimate details that make up a person. Katharine’s mother, for example, floats in and out of the novel and though is often lost in the world of her father’s biography comes up with gems. Surprising Katharine, who has finally declared to her that she is in love with Ralph Denham and not William Rodney, she tells her, “Do not marry unless you are in love!…Who knows where we are bound for, or why, or who has sent us, or what we shall find—who knows anything, except that love is our faith—love.”

Or in Mary Datchet’s world love is her work. While Katharine and Ralph and William and Cassandra pair up, Mary’s partner will be her work. Mary is a character I wish Woolf gave more attention. She is put-upon by the other characters who treat her like a cross between a Mother Confessor and an ill-used personal assistant. Katharine shows up at her apartment at any time of night or day when her thoughts are too much to handle suff2alone. Ralph, too, depends on Mary to make his fears of commitment to Katharine bearable, yet Mary is in love with Ralph and they both know it. I wanted from Mary more fight, more push against this meanness and sadly Woolf uses her strength to keep her alone, but in love with her work failing, in my opinion, that she can’t have both.

Work…I’ve only found out myself quite lately. But it’s the thing that saves one—I’m sure of that…—Where should I be now if I hadn’t got to go to my office every day? Thousands of people would tell you the same thing—thousands of women. I tell you, work is the only thing that saved me, Ralph…It’s all turned out splendidly for me. It will for you, too. I’m sure of that. Because, after all, Katharine is worth it.

The ending was no surprise and in fact, quite a relief after all the angst and push pull of feelings, rumination and the endless talking; honesty triumphed, decisions were made and proposals accepted.

Conclusion

If I would dare criticize Woolf, I would beg for some heavy editing. But I also have to admit I enjoyed what I am criticizing, because the writing, especially the myriad conversations, are so well done. Still, the repetition…I suppose I just wanted to reach into the book to shake up Katharine and the rest and ask, “don’t you know the definition of insanity is doing (in this case, thinking) the same thing over and over again expecting a different result?” Ah well, in a few years I may do a reread after I’ve read more Woolf and maybe I will understand the point of Night and Day a little better.

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Title: Night and Day
Author: Virginia Woolf
Publisher: Barnes & Noble
Device: Paperback
Year: 1919
Pages: 442

CCSpin, Classics Club, Back to the Classics, Roof Beam Reader’s TBR

 

WorldsEndDistillery

Welch Ale Brewery, Kings Road, Chelsea. Absolutely irrelevant to this post and sadly, no relation 🙂 But a girl can dream!

 

 

 

 

 

Daisy Miller: A Study, Henry James (1878)

“What has she been doing?”
“Everything that is not done here. Flirting with any man she could pick up; sitting in corners with mysterious Italians; dancing all the evening with the same partners; receiving visits at eleven o’clock at night.”

 

Daisymiller

Published in 1878, Daisy Miller is one of Henry James’s early works. It foreshadows his reputation as a chronicler of the exploits of late 19th century American expatriates in Europe. For a novella, it is bursting with action and the detailed thought processes of his characters that distinguish his longer works. I am reading several James this year along with his friend and contemporary Edith Wharton, both of whom have given me a new appreciation of the novella.

Daisy Miller is a young American woman traveling abroad in Europe with her younger brother and mother. The first stop for the Miller family is Switzerland where one day Miss Miller, who is looking for her brother throughout their hotel, runs into the young Mr. Winterbourne. He is visiting his aunt and is immediately attracted to her unconventional manner. He finds her refreshingly honest and forthright, when for example, she speaks to him right away without being formally introduced by a third party suggesting he accompany her on an outing. Recounting this meeting with his aunt she tells him Daisy Miller is “common” and warns him to stay away.

daisymiller2

A Spring Evening, G. A. Sartorio. Rome, 1902

This criticism of Daisy’s behavior characterizes much of the story and leads to her estrangement from the rest of the expat community, both in Switzerland and Rome where the Millers travel next. But Winterbourne is smitten even though his association with her is a threat to his own good reputation, and though she is hot and cold to his advances which confuses him he cannot let her go.

Their outings are unchaperoned and Daisy does not seem to understand this great faux pas. When she tells Winterbourne her mother is moving the family to Rome and demands he visit her, he gladly tells her his aunt has taken a house there, but business in Geneva will keep him awhile. When he arrives he finds Daisy the talk of the Roman expat community for similar “offenses” as in Switzerland. She not only openly goes out with several Italian men, she often goes alone with a Mr. Giovanelli in what seems to be a serious relationship.

Daisy is an interesting character because she is not particularly likable throughout most of the novel. She flirts shamelessly with her gaggle of men only to discard them all to favor one—yet, she still wants to see Winterbourne, while everyone can see she is seeing Mr. Giovanelli exclusively. Daisy’s mother is weak and unable to advise her and when her female friends try to counsel her she shuts them down. Their concern is that she is too young and naive to understand that her future in this very conventional society is at stake. Toward the end, however, I saw a young woman who is consciously bucking a system that she finds unfair. Why shouldn’t she spend time with people she likes? And what of it, if those people she likes are men?

As the weeks in Rome go by, Daisy is shunned and her reputation in tatters. The American women of the expat community are quick to point out to the vacationing European contingent who themselves are uncomfortable with her conduct, that “her behavior was not representative—was regarded by her compatriots as abnormal.”

Winterbourne is scolded by his friends for continuing to see her; though he does wrestle with his observations of her actions questioning whether she is really so innocent as to not understand how she is perceived or does she just not care? And is his willingness to excuse her behavior due to his honest attraction or is it just his “free-spun gallantry?” When he tries his own hand at counseling her what is at stake:

“I have never allowed a gentleman to dictate to me, or to interfere with anything I do.”


Conclusion
daisymiller1

Colosseum, Ellis. Rome, 19th-century

Daisy continues to disregard any criticism her behavior, walking with ‘the Italians’ in the evenings despite being warned of the dangers of Roman fever—malaria—at that time of day. Her friend Mr. Giovanelli a native of Rome and aware of this danger for non-Romans takes her to the Colosseum one evening, because she wants “to see it in the moonlight.” Sadly, it is not long before the fever’s devastating effects do their work.

What did Daisy Miller want with her life that the conventions of the day made impossible for her? It isn’t really a girl’s actions in such a strict society that gets her in trouble, but the wagging of the matriarchs’ tongues, I think. Affected by Daisy Miller’s life and her untimely passing Winterbourne thinks of her often and one day realizes that she only wanted respect.

One day he spoke of her to his aunt—….She [Daisy] sent me a message before her death which I didn’t understand at the time. But I have understood it since. She would have appreciated one’s esteem.”

___________________

Title: Daisy Miller: A Study
Author: Henry James
Publisher: Bantam Classics
Device: Paperback
Year: 1878
Pages: 52

Thérèse Raquin, Émile Zola (1867), #ZolAddiction2019

This life of alternating excitement and calm went on for eight months. The lovers lived in perfect bliss. Thérèse was no longer bored, and had nothing left to wish for; Laurent sated, coddled, heavier than ever, had only one fear, that this delectable existence might come to an end.

 

raquinThe premise of Émile Zola’s, Thérèse Raquin is simple: a man and a woman fall in love, but the woman’s husband is hampering their future plans, so they kill him, guilt ensues and they don’t live happily ever after. A rather common premise. But the way Zola tells it as he gets into the minds of Laurent and Thérèse and describes what lives there results in a thrilling narrative of lies, deceit and descent into depravity.

Thérèse was brought to her aunt when she was an infant by her father after her mother died. She grew up with her cousin, Camille, the only child of Madame Raquin. She has brought him up as a weak and sickly boy who she must always have near her. She decided early on that when the two grew up they would marry. Camille fights for some autonomy from his mother at the beginning of his marriage and decides he wants to move to Paris to find a career.

Madame Raquin uses the proceeds from the sale of her home to buy a haberdashery in what turned out to be a dark and dismal throughway in Paris, called Passage du Pont-Neuf, that she and Thérèse can work in to support the little family and to tide them over until Camille finds a job, which he does at the Orleans Railway Company. Thérèse, who at this point, does not seem to have a mind of her own accepts the fate of a life working in a dingy shop and a passionless marriage. Her outlook changes when Camille brings home his co-worker Laurent and he and Thérèse begin a fanatical love affair. In their overwhelming desire to be together, Thérèse and Laurent think murdering Camille will solve their problem.

One day while boating in the Seine Laurent strangles and pushes Camille out of the boat where it is presumed he has died. Laurent haunts the morgue for weeks hoping to find Camille’s body. When it finally shows up, Laurent realizes the sight of the bloated slimy body will always haunt him. For Thérèse, too, the murder of her husband did not have the effect she had hoped for and her nightmares and wracked nerves give her no peace.

Laurent and Thérèse finally marry, but the fervor that characterized the early weeks of their relationship is gone, because both find the presence of Camille filtering into their waking and sleeping life. In fact, they can’t even sleep together as both feel Camille between them in the bed.

The memory of Camille, his presence, his haunting their days and nights, the murder itself has the opposite effect of allowing their relationship to flourish as the shock and guilt of the crime has ruined any chance of a future together.

Laurent must work and Thérèse must tend to the shop, and neither are happy when together. When Laurent quits his job and rents a garret to further his interest in painting he finds no matter the sex or age of the figures he paints, they all take on the features of Camille; even the dogs and cats he paints reflect him. Thérèse, who is stuck in the shop with her mother-in-law can only go through the motions of serving customers.

When Madame Raquin suffers a physically paralyzing stroke Thérèse must take on her care as well as continuing the work in the shop. A second stroke renders her mute. And as the strain and toll of Camille’s murder wears on Laurent and Thérèse, they stop guarding their tongue in front of the old woman making it apparent they killed her son.

Unable to speak, Madame Raquin tries in the company of some friends to accuse the two and in a suspenseful scene struggles laboriously to lift one finger and begins to air-write the names of Laurent and Thérèse in front of her. But her friends think she means to thank them for their care of her. She is devastated that the murderers will go unpunished and that she is powerless to bring Camille justice. On top of her frustration, Thérèse has taken to making lengthy declarations of remorseful pleas of apology while she sits helplessly in her chair.

The telling of the story is riveting because of the way Zola lets the reader in on the thought processes of the characters. We are lead into the nooks and crannies of the minds of Thérèse and Laurent, but not in a heavy-handed manner. This is not a psychological study into what motivates murderers, even though Zola meticulously describes the phases of their mental state after the murder. These phases are quite damaging and wretched to Thérèse and Laurent as individuals as well as how they treat each other. But Zola describes their unfolding insanity as part of the narrative rather than discussing it as a treatise into the ‘mind of a murderer;’ the difference between a police report vs a psychiatric analysis. For me it is a chilling (and very effective) way to tell a story like this, where emotion is described, but not psychoanalyzed.

At first Thérèse is on top of the world after killing Camille. She spends more time out in the world, has an affair with a younger man, sits at cafes meeting people and starts reading novels which give her a window into adult relationships that she did not grow up with. She understands how her friend Suzanne, like the women in these novels, can accept the difficulties of living in a passionless marriage and still be kind to her husband. In other words, these novels showed her, “it was possible to be happy without killing your husband.”

Weeks and months go by proving to Thérèse and Laurent that getting rid of Camille isn’t giving them their hoped for ‘happily ever after.’ Their once demanding and insatiable drive for each other now fills them with a loathing. Murder is the bucket of cold water against desire.

The lovers made no further attempt to see each other alone. They never arranged a single meeting or even exchanged a furtive kiss. For the time being murder had cooled the voluptuous fevers of their flesh, and by killing Camille they had succeeded in slaking the wild and unquenchable desires which they had failed to satisfy even when crushed in each other’s arms. Crime seemed an acute enjoyment that made their embraces boring and sickening.

The slow deterioration of the couple makes it obvious they cannot go on together haunted as they are both mentally and physically by Camille.

As I turned the pages I could not for the life of me figure out how this was all going to end. If Madame Raquin died and the two were left alone together without her as a buffer or confessor, I couldn’t see how they could stay together without going insane. Maybe the ending is obvious to some, but it left me stunned.

Murder, which came to their minds, seemed natural and inevitable, the logical outcome of the murder of Camille. They did not even weigh the pros and cons, but accepted the idea as the only means of salvation.

But who murdered whom and who got the final vindication is yours to discover if you so choose to read the book?!

Personal Thoughts

I read this in conjunction with #ZolAddiction2019 a reading event of the life and work of Émile Zola hosted by Fanda at Klasikfanda. Thérèse Raquin was written early in his career and the matter of fact way he narrates this murder mystery really worked for me. I responded to his simplicity of describing the complicated descent into insanity, instead of creating a more complicated narrative delving into early life experiences, negative parental influences or traumatic events.

Another point I admire is the fairly self-contained space of the action which is mostly in the shop and the living quarters above it. Except for the scenes in Laurent’s garret and the river where Camille is killed, the characters are confined to these two settings. And if murder is a dirty business, Zola makes the setting fit the atmosphere. His depiction of the little shop Madame Raquin bought that Thérèse is supposed to turn into a money-maker is so viscerally descriptive as a prelude for the moral and physical decay of Thérèse’s future, that you know as a reader, things are not going to go well in any aspect of her life.

As Thérèse entered the shop that from now on was to be her home, she felt as though she were going down into a newly-dug grave. A sort of nausea seized her in the throat and she shuddered. She looked at the dingy, damp arcade, went over the shop, went upstairs, went round each room, and these bare unfurnished rooms were terrifying in their solitude and decay. She could not move or utter a word, but was chilled through and through. When her aunt and husband had gone downstairs again she sat on a trunk. Her hands were numbed and her breast was bursting with sobs but she could not cry.

Thank you to Fanda and to all the ZolAddicts for opening my eyes to a new author!

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My Edition
Title: Thérèse Raquin
Author: Émile Zola
Publisher: Penguin
Device: Paperback
Year: 1867
Pages: 256

#ZolAddiction2019

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis (1950)

None of the children knew who Aslan was. At [his name] each one of the children felt something jump in its inside. Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realise that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer.

lionwitchOne of my commitments this year is to read the complete Narnia series. I started with The Magician’s Nephew (some would argue that is actually the 6th book). But this one gets into the heart of the matter—the struggle between good and evil in the Land of Narnia and the ethics of choosing sides. I love the layers with which you can understand this book; how you can see a Christian allegory or “just” a magical adventure. Like many fantasies Narnia is a land where animals talk, Witches are cruel, quests are taken and bravery against evil is the key to survival.

Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy Pevensies are siblings who have been sent out of London for the duration of the war to the country home of an old professor. During one rainy day Lucy discovers that the back of the big wardrobe in a mostly empty room is actually a gateway to a magical land called Narnia. After her first adventure she returns home to tell her brothers and sister, but they do not believe her, especially after investigating the wardrobe themselves and finding nothing but old coats.

Lucy is distraught that her sanity has been called into question, even after Edmund finds his way into the Land. Finally, in one last effort to quell Lucy’s insistence her siblings try again and successfully find themselves in the cold snowy winter of Narnia. They soon realize they are caught in a battle for rulership of Narnia between the wicked White Witch who wants to subjugate the population and Aslan the Lion who wants all beings to be free. The children learn they are part of the prophecy of Narnia, which they hear from the first friends they meet, Mr. and Mrs. Beaver:

…down at Cair Paravel there are four thrones and it’s a saying in Narnia time out of mind that when two Sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve sit in those four thrones, then it will be the end not only of the White Witch’s reign but of her life, and that is why we had to be so cautious as we came along, for if she knew about you four, your lives wouldn’t be worth a shake of my whiskers.

The children readily give themselves up to the cause and the tasks Aslan asks them to complete. The ultimate cruelty for the Witch in order to gain Narnia for herself is to kill Aslan, who willingly sacrifices himself for the greater good. His resurrection, though, is not part of her plan.

As an adult, I found some of the writing simplistic compared to the writing in The Magician’s Nephew, which was written years later. Especially at the beginning I felt like my hand was being held throughout the action. Once all of the children get into Narnia, however, the book reads like any adventure story with complex characterizations and the challenge of making moral choices. When Aslan makes his moral choice Lewis is at his writerly best when after the shock of Aslan’s murder by the Witch and her minions, he explains to the children why he cannot really die:

…that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.

Aslan and the children and the rest of the animals in Aslan’s service go to the Witch’s castle in the last battle for Narnia. Her courtyard is full of statues, her enemies she turned to stone and as Aslan breathes on each one animating them back to life they join his cause. She is killed and Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy sit on their thrones, taking their rightful place as the Kings and Queens of Narnia.

But they are not meant to stay and in the course of trying to capture the White Stag, come upon the lamppost that got them to and from Narnia. Leaving their friends, they scramble back through the wardrobe, where they decide they need to tell the Professor everything. A wise man who had an adventure himself, he assures the children they will return to Narnia but not by the wardrobe. How will they know when it’s time? “Keep your eyes open.”

I am not sure what to expect next if Narnia has been saved and Aslan triumphs. Mr. Beaver tells the children about Aslan, “He’ll be coming and going….One day you’ll see him and another you won’t. He doesn’t like being tied down—and of course he has other countries to attend to. He’ll often drop in. Only you mustn’t press him. He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.” Will I see these “other countries” and Aslan again? Will these children return to Narnia or go elsewhere? Will other children take their place in the stories to come?

I guess I’ll find out! And no spoilers, please 🙂

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My Edition
Title: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Author: C. S. Lewis
Publisher: HarperCollins
Device: Paperback
Year: 1950
Pages: 206

Challenges: Personal 2019 Challenge, Roof Beam Reader’s TBR

The Grey King, Susan Cooper (1975): Wales Readathon 2019

“It is because you are not properly human, but one of the Old Ones of the Light put here to hold back the terrible power of the Dark. You are the last of that circle to be born on earth. And I have been waiting for you.”

 

greykingOne of the bonuses of joining the book blogging community is participating in special months or readalongs that expose me to new authors. In this case, I can honestly say I would probably not have read Susan Cooper’s, The Grey King had the Wales reading event, The Dewithon 2019, not come along.

Though this book is number four in a series I have not read, this did not seem to affect my reading experience: I read it in two sittings wholly drawn in by the storytelling. And though I may have missed some elements by not having read the previous books, especially regarding the eleven year-old protagonist Will Stanton and how he realized he was an Old One on his first full quest to overcome the rising Dark, the book worked fine as a stand alone title for me. For a full summary of the book, I recommend the Kirkus Review.

I choose this book for two reasons: one, the Wales setting, of course; and two, I wanted something fantasy-related as I thought I needed a little “light” reading at the moment. Ha! Let’s just say quests to overcome the Dark are far from light and I should have known!

Will Stanton comes to his relatives in Wales to convalesce after a bout with hepatitis. During his illness he was plagued by a delirium that filled his head with words and images he didn’t understand and now that he is well, can’t let go of them or a feeling of foreboding and something he is supposed to do about it. Once in Wales he awakens to the meaning of these signs and realizes he is on a mission, the details of which are not always obvious until he is in danger.

What makes the novel compelling is how gradually it is revealed to Will that many of those in the family he is staying with and their friends also have a part to play against this rising Dark. Yet, they as well do not know the extent of their role until called upon. So, the reader is carried along with the story, not knowing who is who until the final pages.

The book is based on Welsh legends that the people of the village have grown up with and talked about all of their lives. From the hills and mountains to the lakes, rock outcroppings, to magical beasts and fabled people the story is steeped in the mythology of this distinct place. And as Will goes about gaining strength it is obvious that his presence with these particular relatives is no coincidence; that he had to be here, in this place, at this time.

Will’s memory is gradually activated to specific tasks, to words of ancient spells in the Old Language and to the people around him and to what they mean for the quest. He senses the power of the Grey King, the rising Dark and how to fight it, the identity of the three-robed Old Ones, to the evil neighbor Caradog Prichard, the kindness of John Rowland and his deep knowledge of all the legends and tales of the land and to the final revelation of his friend and ally, Bran, and his true identity.

And as far as this final revelation of the whole quest and success of it, I have only three words: What. An. Ending….

A spoiler, of course, so I won’t say. But as I sat reading the last pages surprised and shocked, I thought, “Of COURSE, King Arthur would have a place in this story…of course!

A final note on Susan Cooper’s writing—which at times is wonderfully poetic and lyrical—the narrative is so beautifully constructed due to her superb knowledge of the old legends and stories that make even the setting itself feel alive with its magic.

I am not sure if I will read the other books in this series, because I can’t imagine I would enjoy them as much as this one. But who knows, I may have to find out….

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My Edition
Title: The Grey King
Author: Susan Cooper
Publisher: Atheneum
Device: Hardcover
Year: 1977
Pages: 208

Challenges: Library Love, Dewithon19

Madame de Treymes, Edith Wharton (1907)

And Madame de Treymes has left her husband?
Ah, no, poor creature: they don’t leave their husbands—they can’t.

 

treymesMadame de Treymes, published in 1907, is Wharton’s first work after The House of Mirth. As one of the themes in most of her fiction, this novella is very much concerned with the male/female dynamic around marriage. In this short work Wharton’s prose weaves a consummate tale of cunning and deceit, good intentions, hope and promise and the final let down.

The story revolves around the American Fanny de Malrive (née Frisbee) and her wish to divorce her husband. At this time in France, the husband must initiate the proceedings and though he granted a separation six years ago, he has not allowed for this greater termination of their union. As John Durham has proposed the need for a divorce is pressing and they hope the influence of Christiane de Treymes, her husband’s sister, can convince him. One of the issues holding back her consent to marry Durham is the requirement in the separation that she remain in France where her husband’s family has full access to their young son, which she believes will also be part of any divorce settlement. It is this control she fears and something she knows Durham cannot understand:


The moment he passes out of my influence, he passes under that other—the influence I have been fighting against every hour since he was born!—There is nothing in your experience—in any American experience—to correspond with that far-reaching family organization, which is itself a part of the larger system, and which encloses a young man of my son’s position in a network of accepted prejudices and opinions. Everything is prepared in advance—his political and religious convictions, his judgments of people, his sense of honour, his ideas of women, his whole view of life…Already he is only half mine, because the Church has the other half.

Gallantly, John responds, “If you’ll marry me, I’ll agree to live out here as long as you want, and we’ll be two instead of one to keep hold of your half of him.” And so, they are resolved.

We are never certain about the crimes Fanny’s husband committed, be they against her and their marriage or something else, but his family willingly supported the separation. Divorce is another matter entirely, though. Christiane is the most important member of his family and she has always been sympathetic to Fanny, so it is to her she and John turn. However, when John asks for her support, she asks him for help with her own serious matter: she is in debt after having taken her husband’s and family’s money and now has no means to pay it back. The debtor turns out to be her lover and she wants John to bail him out. Blackmail? He hesitates with his answer as such a despicable request sinks in. She responds:

Do you mean to give me nothing—not even your sympathy—in return? Is it because you have heard horrors of me? When are they not said of a woman who is married unhappily? Perhaps not in your fortunate country, where she may seek liberation without dishonor., But here–! You who have seen the consequences of our disastrous marriages—you who may yet be the victim of our cruel and abominable system; have you no pity for one who has suffered  in the same way, and without the possibility of release?…I don’t pretend to deny that I know I am asking you a trifle. You Americans, when you want a thing always pay ten times what it is worth.

He won’t do it. He won’t help her in this way. But in the end, Christiane still presses her brother for a divorce.

Months pass as the proceedings and court papers are worked out and prepared. John has gone abroad with his mother and sisters to wait out the decision. Days before the divorce is finalized, John pays Christiane a visit. When Christiane tells him the particulars of the settlement, which Fanny does not know yet, he is shocked to realize Christiane’s “payback.” It slowly dawns on him this means Fanny may not be able to proceed with the divorce, which of course means their marriage is in jeopardy. The full weight of the deceit contained in the divorce decree will come after the marriage and the only moral thing to do is to tell Fanny the truth now.

Wharton’s long residence in France gives her intimate access to the contrasts between American and French culture and views of American individualism vs French ties to family, church and society, which are of major importance in this novella. The story and characters are just as vivid as if this was one of Wharton’s longer works. And the ending is just as shocking! (A major spoiler, but since this is a novella it won’t take you long to know)!

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My Edition
Title: Madame de Treymes and Three Novellas
Author: Edith Wharton
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 1907
Pages: 70

Challenges: Back to the Classics