Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy (1878)

I feel that I am flying headlong over some precipice but must not even try to save myself. And I can’t…I have no wishes at all. . . except that everything were at an end.

 

annak.jpegOne of my biggest accomplishments this year is reading my first Russian novel. I am not sure what I feared all of these years, but it was unfounded. At over 800 pages Anna Karenina is full of unforgettable characters and their stories of triumph and tragedy. Though there were parts that felt a little tedious, especially the politically philosophical sections discussing the responsibility of land-owning aristocracy over the peasants, I was so engrossed I don’t think I skipped one word. That one of my favorite characters was part of these conversations, I plowed through.

While the action centers on three couples and includes the rites of courting, marriage and infidelity, the book is also about other kinds of relationships. The elite of the novel divide themselves into the city elite and country elite with high passions defending the perspective of each. There is the relationship some have with the Church and some who are disbelievers.  And in each character whether rich or poor, man or woman, government official or country land owner, they are fighting the relationship with the inner demons of their personal truth.

The action takes place during the 1870s and centers around the extramarital affair annak1between Anna Karenina and a young cavalry officer, Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky that scandalizes the community of Saint Petersburg when Anna makes the decision to make public this liaison by leaving her husband. The pair to flee to Italy and try in vain to live a normal life. Happiness eludes them and they return to Russia, where everything gets worse.

There are several parallel and revolving stories including Anna’s brother Prince Oblonsky and his wife, Dolly who themselves are dealing with an extramarital affair, his. Kitty, Dolly’s sister, is of marriageable age and is being courted by Konstantin Lëvin, a wealthy country landowner. Kitty has to work through her attraction to Vronsky, before she is able to accept Levin’s marriage proposal. Levin has issues with the management of his estate, because he is caught between the traditional feudalistic aspect of the landowner/peasant relationship and the new reforms that see workers as autonomous beings. He is also plagued by his struggle to accept Christianity, a necessity in order to marry.

There is so much going on in this novel that held my interest whether it was watching a character’s journey or enjoying the details of daily life; even the descriptions detailing the bureaucracy of the system of government at that time kept my attention.

In my edition, the front matter includes a three-page character list, with Russian names that are themselves long! I found that extremely intimidating wondering how I would keep everyone straight, but due to Tolstoy’s very well drawn characterizations and the themes that make up this book I needn’t have worried. And the struggles the characters go through hold interest in their universality: love and marriage; infidelity that is expected for men, but scandalous for women; the power of the Church in matters of relationships, raising of children and divorce; the issues of peasants rights at a time when a feudal society is changing.

I did not like Anna at first, because she had no guilt about her feelings toward Vronsky and how this affected her husband or child, especially after their affair came to light. But in a system that gives only the wronged party the power to divorce when feelings change in a relationship, leaving with your lover may be the only recourse. And as the pair try to live a normal life as a couple, it is clear they will never be free to do so, because her status makes her a pariah within the Russian expat communities in which they socialize.

Vronsky is able to move more freely through society. He considers Anna his wife and wants her to be treated as such. But in a society where female agency is not recognized, the act of leaving a husband and living with another man is shameful and their peers react accordingly. Vronksky sees their kind of relationship as a modern construction and believes in the sifting progress of “public opinion” regarding such relationships.

But he very soon noticed that though the great world was open to him personally, it was closed to Anna. As in the game of cat and mouse, the arms that were raised to allow him to get inside the circle were at once lowered to prevent Anna from entering.

Anna’s inability to move freely causes her great mental and spiritual pain, in part because her forced seclusion keeps them from forming a social life as a couple. Vronksy spends time with his friends and she fears he will tire of her, something his mother would like to see. As the months in this liminal state drag on, Anna’s anxiety over Vronsky’s willingness to stay with her reach a breaking point. After a heated argument, Anna is convinced he will leave her and as her mental state breaks down further thinks of suicide as her only relief. As one of the world’s classic novels and as the subject of many films Anna’s fate is well-known, but her end is still shocking.

Tolstoy illustrates his themes against a backdrop of a changing Russian sensibility in all areas of life. Levin, the land owner, is caught up in the new land reforms developing throughout Europe and there is a considerable amount of discussion over whether these reforms would work in Russia. Levin wants to understand the people who work his land and some poignant scenes include his working alongside them, experiencing the celebratory effects of physical labor and working communally. How different is his life compared to his friends in the city.

Levin: You can’t imagine how strange it all seems to me who live in the country…We try to get our hands into a state convenient to work with,…but here people purposely let their nails grow until they begin to curl,…we try to get over our meals as quickly as we can, so as to be able to get on with our work, here you and I try to make our meal last as long as possible….

Oblonsky: Of course, the aim of civilization is to enable us to get enjoyment out of everything.

annak2Levin is my favorite character, especially as he wrestles with his questions about the existence of God, a disbelief which concerns Kitty. The other characters seem to take the Church for granted whether they believe or not participating in its rites because ‘that’s just what one does.’ Levin is an agnostic struggling honestly with his disbelief. After a lightning storm catches Kitty and their son when they are outdoors their safe deliverance causes in him a change of heart in that he understands that he does believe at least in the goodness of God even though he will always have questions and may never feel as righteous as others. He understands that his belief cannot be reasoned out, but “I shall still pray, and my life, my whole life, independently of anything that may happen to me, is every moment of it no longer meaningless as it was before, but has an unquestionable meaning of goodness with which I have the power to invest it.”

My Thoughts

There is no adequate way to write a blog post about this novel. From all the details of daily life–there is a lot of eating and different kinds of food in this book which I particularly enjoyed!–that show the corruption of those in government jobs, to the differences in the way city people live against those in the country who work the land, to the role of established Christianity in major life-cycle events and with those who struggle to believe.

It is easy to invest yourself in the outcome of each character’s story, because their struggles feel very present; they transcend time and place. Tolstoy manages to show the major issues that plague the personal, the political and spiritual are really universal and concern 21st century folk as they did in the 19th.

 

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Title: Anna Karenina
Author: Leo Tolstoy
Publisher: Wordsworth Classics
Device: Paperback
Year: 1878
Pages: 806

Challenges: Readalong, winter 2019

O Pioneers!, Willa Cather (1913)

The land belongs to the future….We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it⁠—for a little while.

 

pioneersO Pioneers! tells the story of the Scandinavian, Bohemian and French immigrants who settled in the Nebraska prairies during the turn of the 20th century to farm, raise families and have the success impossible in the old country. But the land is harsh and uncooperative, the crops often fail and livestock die. Some families sell out and move to the city and some stay and try to tame the land. The Bergsons, who left Sweden 10 years prior, are one such family. As father Bergson is dying he gathers his children around him pleading with them to stay with the land; to follow the lead of their sister, Alexandra, to whom he leaves the farm and to make a go of it no matter what it takes.

But the difficulties aren’t only with the land. Alexandra is constantly fighting her brothers, Oscar and Lou, who see their neighbors leaving their farms and moving to the cities to work in factories.bohemians2.jpeg Alexandra will not give up on her promise to her father even when it looks grim. Drought and an unforgiving climate are not the only reason neighboring farms are failing; the tried and true methods of farming that worked in the old country are not relevant here. When Alexandra hears the communities “down river” are thriving she takes a trip to find out why. Upon her return she tells her brothers they have to sell their cattle and corn and buy up more land and they have to be open to innovation.

The rigidity in refusing to learn new farming methods as well as choosing different crops has raised another issue: gossip⁠—no one wants to make any innovation that their neighbor isn’t making. This fear of what others think affects many of the farmers including Oscar and Lou and they bring this up with regularity. But after her trip they see it is pointless to fight her; she has worked out all the financials and the new methods of tending the crops they will have to employ. Begrudgingly, Oscar and Lou accept Alexandra’s terms and after several years the farm is a great success

nebraskaplainsParallel to the growth and success of the land the people also flourish. The courtings, marriages and children populate the land along with the crops. Alexandra herself is like the generative force of nature, a divine spirit who resolves conflicts not only about the land, but with her neighbors. She sacrifices personal love and family for the greater love of honor to her father and for the greater good of the community.

Under Alexandra’s counsel the land and the people flourish. She doesn’t try to fight the land or to force certain crops, she tries to understand its needs. To see the land as it is and to not be afraid to go against the traditions of the past makes her land bloom. And this is how she is with her neighbors, a Mother Earth figure resolving arguments with compassion and understanding. Under her benevolent, but firm hand, the land and the people prosper.

Her face was so radiant…For the first time, perhaps, since that land emerged from the waters of geologic ages, a human face was set toward it with love and yearning. It seemed beautiful to her, rich and strong and glorious. Her eyes drank in the breadth of it, until her tears blinded her. The Genius of the Divide, the great, free spirit which breathes across it, must have bent lower than it ever bent to a human will before. The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.

One of the engaging aspects of this novel is in the crafting of the characters⁠—the Bergson family and their friends and neighbors. They have an archetypal feel that gives this novel depth and a larger purpose.

  • Ivar the Fool, the solitary old man of odd habits and perhaps a little “touched in the head,” but whose knowledge of animal welfare is unsurpassed; his connection and ability to heal them is at once a boon to his neighbors as well as the source of their suspicion of him
  • Emil (Alexandra’s youngest brother) and Marie-the requisite Doomed Lovers
  • Oscar and Lou Bergson-the Evil Brothers, the naysayers, who want to undermine Alexandra’s success
  • Carl Linstrum-the childhood best friend who becomes the Delayed Love Interest
  • Alexandra-Demeter, the Great Goddess of the Harvest who brings fertility to the Earth
  • The Land-the Life Force, a sentient being that begs to be understood

The novel ends on a triumphal note, but not before a great tragedy occurs. Love and death are central themes in O Pioneers!

My Thoughts

The narrative describes many of the great themes in the settling of the US; immigration, taming the land, individual freedom and independence as well as the importance of community, love of tradition as well as innovation. Through the Bergsons and their neighbors the failures and successes of the immigrant families who made America, especially in this area of the country, are illustrated with a detailed and perceptive hand.

I found this book to be quite profound. The writing is spare, with a matter-of-fact style that is deep and poetic, but without sentimentality. For example, when Ivar discovers the bodies of Emil and Marie, above them

…two white butterflies from Frank’s alfalfa-field were fluttering in and out among the interlacing shadow; diving and soaring, now close together, now far apart; and in the long grass by the fence the last wild roses of the year opened their pink hearts to die. 

And the ending thus

Fortunate country, that is one day to receive hearts like Alexandra’s into its bosom, to give them out again in the yellow wheat, in the rustling corn, in the shining eyes of youth!

I remember when I reviewed Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier and some of the commenters said they wished they hadn’t read the book, so they could read it again for the first time. I feel this way about O Pioneers! This is a multi-layered book with insights that continue long after reading. And for me a prose that sings to the love of Nature and the land that sustains us. This is reading as pleasurable as it can be.

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Title: O Pioneers!
Author: Willa Cather
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Device: Paperback
Year: 1913
Pages: 309

Challenges: Classics Club, Back to the Classics

 

Washington Square, Henry James (1880)

Father: The principal thing that we know about this young man—leads us to suppose that, however much he may value your personal merits, he values your money more….If Morris Townsend has spent his own fortune in amusing himself, there is every reason to believe that he would spend yours.

Daughter: That is not the principal thing we know about him…He is kind, and generous, and true…and his fortune—his fortune that he spent—was very small!

 

washsquarebookCatherine Sloper is the only child of Dr. Austin Sloper, a well-respected physician among the upper classes of New York City. Mrs. Sloper died a week after giving birth to Catherine and left her a large inheritance. Upon Dr. Sloper’s death, her inheritance will greatly increase. In this lies the tension between the two.

When Catherine is 10 years old, Dr. Sloper’s widowed sister, Lavinia, comes to live with them as a companion and confidante to Catherine with the expressed mandate from Dr. Sloper that she “make a clever woman of her.” But that order is an utter failure and instead, Catherine grows into an extremely modest young woman with a dullness of wit and creativity. In social situations she prefers to lurk in the background which has given her a lack of romantic as well as general experience of the world.

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Washington Square Park, 1890

These character traits put off young men, even with the expectation of a large fortune, so Catherine is rarely courted. Disappointed that he produced an unremarkable child, her father acknowledges, at least, her faithfulness and affection to him. Catherine is not aware of the specifics of his disappointment, but makes up for what she feels by having developed the sense that all her decisions in life must please her father and in that sacrifice resides her own happiness.

But the unexpected happens when Catherine meets Morris Townsend, a friend of her cousin, who has recently returned from Europe. He begins courting her with Aunt Lavinia encouraging the couple to the irritation of Dr. Sloper. Townsend has no job, which is suspicious enough since he just returned from abroad. His intuition tells him not to trust Townsend, but Catherine has fallen in love.

Dr. Sloper is aware that his unworldly daughter would always be prey to fortune hunters, so it is with an eye trained to ferret out these deceivers that he sees Townsend. To prove his intuition, he goes to the home of Townsend’s sister, with whom he lives, and discovers not only did he spend what little inheritance he received from their parents in Europe he has no money or interest in getting a job. As poor as the widowed Mrs. Montgomery is, she supports him. After a difficult and lengthy conversation in which Dr. Sloper shares his reservations about his daughter marrying her brother, she acknowledges his fears and parts with these words, “Don’t let her marry him!”

When Dr.Sloper lays down the law that Catherine is not to marry Townsend, she is distraught. She cannot disappoint him and is convinced he just needs time to get to know Townsend. And so begins a battle of wills, a game cat and mouse over who will break first. Catherine’s duty to her father is just as strong as her desire for Townsend. In a bid to rid Catherine of her affection for Townsend Dr. Sloper takes her to Europe for an entire year. They rarely bring up Townsend’s name, but upon their return her father is stunned at her anxiousness to see him. When he threatens to disinherit her, leaving only her mother’s money if she marries him, she responds with, “if only you would get to know him…”

Would it help her father’s argument to tell Catherine of his conversation with Townsend’s sister and the true motive of his interest in her? It might, but he doesn’t. His pride dictates that Catherine’s duty and faithfulness to his wishes must be the only reason she gives up Townsend, not the evidence of an ulterior motive. To make matters worse and more complicated Townsend is persuaded by Aunt Lavinia to wait it out for she too believes Dr. Sloper only needs “to get to know you.” Townsend urges Catherine to elope, but she puts him off several times. Such an act is a betrayal of her father she could never commit. He has finally had enough of her hesitation and leaves her; whether for good, she is not sure.

My Thoughts

washsquare2If this sounds like a melodrama, you’d not be far off. In true Henry James fashion the reader is privy to all the internal strife and conversations each character experiences in his or her mind. This is a hallmark of any of his novels, long or short, and in this I am always reminded he is the younger brother of the great 19th century psychologist William James. But in this novella the mental processing works very well making this simple story richer, with the actors fully fleshed by their thoughts.

The narrative moves fast despite the psychological wrestling. This device may not be to every reader’s liking, but it gives a depth to a character’s internal process and struggles making their actions clear. There is never a doubt as to why a character in a James novel acts the way he or she does!

The obvious question is, of course, did Catherine marry Townsend or not? It took discipline not to jump to the end to find out. I was surprised!

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Title: Washington Square
Author: Henry James
Publisher: Bantam Classic
Device: Paperback
Year: 1880
Pages: 159

Challenges: My 2019 Author Reads

Nonfiction Friday-The Lost Words: A Spell Book, Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris, 2018

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Once upon a time, words began to vanish from the language of children. They disappeared so quietly that at first almost no one noticed—fading away like water on stone. The words were those that children used to name the natural world around them: acorn, adder, bluebell, bramble, conker—gone! Fern, heather, kingfisher, otter, raven, willow, wren…all of them gone! The words were becoming lost: no longer vivid in children’s voices, no longer alive in their stories.

 

LL2In the latest edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary (OJD) over 40 words from the natural world were removed from the previous edition. New words added were those of technology. In response to this decision by the publishers, Oxford University Press (OUP), the writer Robert Macfarlane and illustrator Jackie Morris created The Lost Words: A Spell Book to conjure the words back into existence. It is a large picture book, with verse/rhyme/poetry that encourages the speaking out of the words and getting lost in the pictures.

Ivy

I am ivy, a real high-flyer.

Via bark and stone I scale tree and spire.

You call me ground-cover; I say sky-wire.

The editors at OUP justified their decision by saying these removals and additions reflect the world children live in now. But this choice begs the question, what are dictionaries for? If only to describe where children live, how do children see a world outside the one they inhabit?

The mental and physical (I would add creative and spiritual) benefits children receive from nature have been well-documented and the lack of this exposure even has a name: nature-deficit disorder. Adding words that have to do with technology, while removing the words that speak to a child’s natural environment was worrisome enough that it caused 28 well-known authors, nature experts and education specialists to sign a letter to OUP stating their concerns. The signatories included, Margaret Atwood, Sara Maitland, Helen Macdonald, Andrew Motion and Ruth Padel. The letter, in part:

“We recognise the need to introduce new words and to make room for them and do not intend to comment in detail on the choice of words added. However it is worrying that in contrast to those taken out, many are associated with the interior, solitary childhoods of today…The research evidence showing the links between natural play and wellbeing; and between disconnection from nature and social ills, is mounting.”

“The Oxford Dictionaries have a rightful authority and a leading place in cultural life. We believe the OJD should address these issues and that it should seek to help shape children’s understanding of the world, not just to mirror its trends.”

Said Andrew Motion, former poet laureate [UK]: “by discarding so many country and landscape-words from their Junior Dictionary, OUP deny children a store of words that is marvellous for its own sake, but also a vital means of connection and understanding.

Lark

Little astronaut, where have you gone, and how is your
song still torrenting on?

Aren’t you short of breath as you climb higher up, up there
in the thin air, with your magical song still tumbling on?

Right now I need you, for my sadness has come again
and my heart grows flatter – so I’m coming to find
you by following your song,

Keeping on into deep space, past dying stars and
exploding suns, to where at last, little astronaut,
you sing your heart out at all dark matter.

LL9

In its defense, the head of the children’s dictionaries said, “When you look back at older versions of dictionaries, there were lots of examples of flowers for instance. That was because many children lived in semi-rural environments and saw the seasons. Nowadays, the environment has changed.”

Macfarlane countered, “We do not care for what we do not know, and on the whole we do not know what we cannot name. Do we want an alphabet for children that begins ‘A is for Acorn, B is for Buttercup, C is for Conker’; or one that begins ‘A is for Attachment, B is for Block-Graph, C is for Chatroom’?”

My Thoughts

I managed to find about 30 of the removed words.

acoLL8rn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, bramble, buttercup, catkin, cauliflower, chestnut, clover, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, herring, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, leopard, lobster, magpie, minnow, mistletoe, mussel, nectar, newt, otter, ox, oyster, panther, pasture, raven, starling, weasel, willow, wren

 

LL13

Raven? They removed raven.

I am struck at the literary and cultural symbols here. Willows? The Wind in the Willows.  And raven; magical, terrifying and so much a part of horror and mystery books. Can you read Poe without knowing about such creatures? Then there are the trees of Britain beech, ash, hazel that feature in so much literature and poetry. And isn’t it a rite of passage when you know that a cygnet is a young swan? The significance goes on and what to make of it…?

As children become further estranged from the natural world what will that do for metaphor and simile? If you spend your days indoors and read, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” and your idea of a summer’s day is talking on your Iphone or playing computer games, how do you understand Shakespeare’s meaning or other literature where the natural world is not personally experienced? Can you appreciate Vaughan Williams, The Lark Ascending if you have never seen or read of the heights to which larks can fly? Then there is newt. Oh, the spells that include “eye of newt!”

How will the nature-deficit disordered child read literature and understand their culture without being able to find definitions of words, or even know the words exist? Or am I going overboard?

 

Newt

LLnewt

The too-cute newt

Newt, oh newt, you are too cute!”
Emoted the coot to the too-cute newt,

With your frilly back and your shiny suit
and your spotted skin so unhirsute!”

Too cute?!’ roared the newt to the
unastute coot. ‘With all this careless
talk of cute you bring me into
disrepute, for newts aren’t cute:
we’re kings of the pond, lions of the duckweed, dragons of the water;
albeit it’s true,’—he paused—‘minute.’

But that does come back to the reason we have dictionaries. Omitted words omit experiences, concepts, ways of seeing and understanding. Does language change, because our experience of the world changes? Or does our experience of the world change when we have no language for it? For gatekeepers such as editors of our great dictionaries, do they shape our world and those of our children by what words they keep in and those they leave out? Or are they just responding to the “signs of the time,” the priorities and lived experiences of our everyday lives and cut or add accordingly?

You hold in your hands a spellbook for conjuring back these lost words—and it holds not poems but spells of many kinds that might just, by the old, strong magic of being spoken aloud, unfold dreams and songs, and summon lost words back into the mouth and mind’s eye.

 

LL4

LL6

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Title: The Lost Words: A Spell Book
Author: Robert Macfarlane, Jackie Morris
Publisher: House of Anasi Press Inc.
Device: Harcover
Year: 2018
Pages: N/A

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.”

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