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

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.

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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
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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

The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton (1920)

It was not the custom in New York drawing rooms for a lady to get up and walk away from one gentleman in order to seek the company of another. Etiquette required that she should wait, immovable as an idol, while the men who wished to converse with her succeeded each other at her side. But the Countess was apparently unaware of having broken any rule, she sat at perfect ease in a corner of the sofa beside Archer, and looked at him with the kindest eyes.

 

AgeinnocenceThis the fourth book I’ve read by Edith Wharton after Ethan Frome, Summer and The House of Mirth. I see similar patterns in all of them, but each one is from a fresh perspective, from the particular protagonist.

Wharton seems to be interested in the struggle between a person’s freedom versus society’s demands; between the ability to dream a new reality for yourself and what your class says you can and cannot do. In each of the aforementioned books the main character is caught in what they want for their life and their inability to get it. There is always interference and it is then that their conscience kicks in or their chance to choose is lost. And then they resign themselves to their fate. This is my perspective, anyway.

The Age of Innocence tackles marriage and after only a few pages in it is obvious that this particular courtship is not going to go well.

It is an opera night in 1870s New York City and the well-known Swedish opera singer Christine Nilsson is performing. Newland Archer is scanning the audience and rests his eyes on the box across from him where May Welland, his soon to be announced fianceé is sitting with her mother and aunt. He has the vantage to observe her unnoticed.

His thoughts at first are to his love and what he will make of her and how she has been raised to be molded by her husband. “…he contemplated her absorbed young face with a thrill of possessorship in which pride in his own masculine initiation was mingled with a tender reverence for her abysmal purity.” He is interrupted when a friend points out a young woman who has just entered the Welland box and whose foreign dress is causing a stir. She is Madame Ellen Olenska, May’s cousin, who has come from Europe having run away from her husband and has come home to get a divorce.

At first, Ellen is shunned by many of her American relations who fear the disgrace divorce would cast on their reputation. When Newland’s law firm takes on the handling of the divorce, he is asked by the family to intercede with Ellen and encourage her not to file. Later he is asked to dam this breach between Ellen and the family due to his marriage to May, which leads to a disaster as the two fall in love.

As Newland navigates the thorny rules and rituals of courtship and marriage, he exposes the faults and farce of the new state he is entering into. He catches himself musing on what he expects his wife to be; while not quite equals, he wants something that is more free than what he sees in his circle. But the way women are raised, how can this be?

He reviewed his friends’ marriages—the supposed happy ones—and saw none that answered, even remotely, to the passionate and tender comradeship which he pictured as his permanent relation with May Welland. He perceived that such a picture presupposed, on her part, the experience, the versatility, the freedom of judgment, which she had been carefully trained not to possess; and with a shiver of foreboding he saw his marriage becoming what most of the other marriages about him were: a dull association of material and social interests held together by ignorance on the one side and hypocrisy on the other.

Would his marriage become like so many others where the husband “had formed a wife so completely to his own convenience that, in the most conspicuous moments of his frequent love-affairs with other men’s wives, she went about in smiling unconsciousness…”

Newland reasoned that the things he loved about May–her frankness, her grace and loyalty were an artificial construct.

He felt himself oppressed by this creation of factitious purity, so cunningly manufactured by a conspiracy of mothers and aunts and grandmothers and long dead ancestresses, because it was supposed to be what he wanted, what he had a right to, in order that he might exercise his lordly pleasure in smashing it like an image made of snow.

Wharton pulls no punches here.

Ellen, through her life experiences, possesses the sexual and intellectual freedom that Newland desires in a woman, a wife. And yet she is not free. Even if Newland wanted to leave May, the lack of a divorce would stand in the way of their marriage. Ellen sees the futility of living in limbo and announces she is going back to Paris, presumably to her husband. And what Newland and men like him don’t understand, is that women like May see through the bars of their gilded cage; they understand what marriage really is and only pretend to ‘smile in unconsciousness.’ Sick at Ellen’s departure, Newland tells May he wants to take a trip. Without missing a beat she tells him she is pregnant and that she told Ellen so a few weeks ago.

“You know I told you we had a long talk one afternoon—and how dear she was to me.”

“But that was a fortnight ago, wasn’t it? I thought you said you weren’t sure till today.”

“No; I wasn’t sure then—but I told her I was. And you see I was right! she exclaimed, her blue eyes wet with victory.

In the final chapter decades have passed. May has born three children and after 26 years of marriage has died. Newland thinks of his life with her as deep and real. Ellen, though, lives only in the past. And at the very end of the novel when circumstances take the turn that both had wished for long ago, Newland makes a remarkable decision.

It would be easy to dislike a character like Newland Archer, but Wharton makes it impossible. He is honestly trying to assess the promise of his life against the social conventions of his time; exposing the hypocrisy of  the status quo and the values they hold dear.

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My Edition
Title: The Age of Innocence
Author: Edith Wharton
Publisher: Barnes and Noble Classics
Device: Paperback
Year: 1920
Pages: 307
Full plot summary

Challenges: Classics Club

 

The Witches of New York, Ami McKay (2017)

Respectable Lady Seeks Dependable Shopgirl.
Must be well versed in sums, etiquette, tea making, and the language of flowers.
Room and board provided.
Those averse to magic need not apply.

 

witchesny.jpeg
It is 1880 and New York City tea shop owners Eleanor St. Clair and Adelaide Thom are doing a brisk business at their shop, Tea and Sympathy. Eleanor, a hereditary witch with a sympathetic ear makes potions, curative teas and spells that give comfort and insight to the women who come to her for advice. Adelaide, whose past includes sideshow huckster, develops a genuine gift for fortune telling after a devastating acid attack scars her face and causes the loss of her right eye.

 

A shepherdess sees to the care and feeding of her flock, a seamstress sees to the cut of a lady’s dress. Witches see to things best sorted by magic: sorrows of the heart, troubles of the mind, regrets of the flesh. This is what we do. That is who you are. Madame Delphine St. Clair

Though she won’t admit it, Eleanor is feeling the stress of their success with overwork and sleepless nights. Adelaide is concerned, but when she brings up the matter Eleanor cuts her off. So without asking, Adelaide puts an ad in the paper hoping a suitable assistant will appear whom Eleanor won’t refuse. In her small town north of the city, Beatrice Dunn sees the ad and hopes this will be her ticket to a new life. From the moment she enters the city her latent magical abilities emerge. And to Adelaide’s relief, Eleanor takes her ‘gift’ under her wing and Beatrice’s talents blossom. Overseeing the young women is the magnificent raven, Perdu, who sits on his perch high above the actions of the shop. An old, literally talkative soul who belonged to Eleanor’s mother, he sees all and protects the women as best he can.

They meet Dr. Quinn Brody through one of their clients, Judith Dashley, who with her husband, own a well-known hotel. Dr. Brody is an alienist, but has become interested in the after life and communication with the dead. He is anxious to test a device left to him by his father, which he simply called a spiritoscope and though his father’s only experience with the machine was in exposing frauds, Quinn hopes to find a true spiritual medium. When Beatrice admits she can see the dead son of Judith Dashley, Adelaide believes she is the perfect subject for Dr. Brody’s machine and Beatrice agrees. After preliminary tests it is clear the machine through Beatrice is picking up something. They arrange a public demonstration of Beatrice’s abilities at a hall in the Dashley’s hotel, but just before she is scheduled to appear, she goes outside looking for Eleanor, who she can’t find in the audience. A hand closes over her mouth and she is whisked away.

Beatrice is not the only woman disappearing from the streets. A push back against anyone deemed progressive, different, antireligious is in full force. Independent women, especially have been targets of accusations of immorality and witchcraft. Reverend Townsend, a preacher whose demented mind has twisted scripture to construct a one-man army of God against suspected witches in particular has taken it upon himself to bring these women to repentance. He walks the streets in search of prey and tortures the women into admitting their “wrongs.” If they die, it is better that they are off the streets.

His fiery sermons against the immorality of the times has affected one of his flock who is certain evil is going on at Tea and Sympathy and writes to a Mr. Comstock, whose Society for the Suppression of Vice is aimed at cleaning up what goes through the mail as well as what goes on in the streets. People like Sister Piddock write in about their neighbors, shop owners, or anyone they believe are “engaged in questionable activities.”  When agents of the Commission investigate the shop nothing untoward is found, but the women are still on the Piddock radar.

It is Townsend who has taken Beatrice and for days she is suffering his torture in his basement cell. Eleanor and Adelaide are frantic to find her and enlist the authorities as well as people from the neighborhood to help find her. By magic and the visitation of the ghost of one of Townsend’s previous victims, she is able to escape.

Ami McKay has created a very suspenseful story in the way she uses historical details as a foundation for many of the events that effect the characters. In the late 19th century, contact with the dead through private séances and public demonstrations interested many who were grieving over friends and family members. The Comstock Laws of 1873 initially attacked material sent through the mail that had to do with preventing conception, but went on to attack any material or behavior that was considered lewd or lascivious.

Women who needed to prevent pregnancy or end it, could not do so openly. Eleanor and women like her had the recipes, the tinctures, the experience to help in these situations, but their discovery to authorities could prove tragic. It wasn’t uncommon for people to take these laws into their own hands to attack neighbors or others on the streets. McKay populates the book with a range of character types that give the novel a depth of atmosphere. Some are so vulnerable and exposed due to circumstance you fear for their safety against those who want to clean up the streets. Yet, some are so bold that they protect the weak against the hypocrisy of the so-called do-gooders.

cleos.jpeg
Cleopatra’s Needle encased in a massive box crossing train tracks into Manhattan, 1880

When Beatrice boards the train to New York City to apply for the job at Tea and Sympathy, it stops suddenly to make way for a massive box that has stopped on the rails. She is told it contains a great obelisk called, Cleopatra’s Needle and it is making its way from Egypt to Central Park. She has her first mystical experience when she gets off the train to inspect it.

The obelisk is real and its journey to the city in 1880 elicited great excitement. Erected in Egypt in 1450 BC it was sold to the US with specific instructions that it would go to New York City. New Yorkers were enraptured by Egyptomania as merchants and entrepreneurs created specialty foods, costumes and accessories with an Egyptian theme.

Finally, one of the greatest strengths of this novel for me is the friendship between Eleanor, Adelaide and Beatrice. Their support and encouragement of each other’s gifts and purpose even when they have differences in approach is what makes their friendship successful. When Tea and Sympathy is targeted and Beatrice goes missing, it is the good will that the three women have created between themselves and among their friends, the community and even the street people who ultimately come to their defense.

This book affected me in all the right areas: I love its attention to, as well as, bending the historical record; personally, I am on the lookout for a 21st century Tea and Sympathy; and, culturally, I am encouraged by its depiction of community support when any of its members are in trouble.

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Read more about:

Cleopatra’s Needle, its history and journey to New York City

The Comstock Laws

How, in the aftermath of the Civil War, Spiritualism rose to its apex in the late 19th century:
The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud and Photography, and the man who Captured Lincoln’s Ghost, by Peter Manseau.

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My Edition
Title: The Witches of New York
Author: Ami McKay
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Device: Paperback
Year: 2017
Pages: 527
Full plot summary

Challenges: Historical Fiction

Agnes Grey, Anne Bronte (1847) Classics Club Spin #16

I was the only person in the house, who steadily professed good principles, habitually spoke the truth, and generally endeavoured to make inclination bow to duty; and this I say, not of course in commendation of myself, but to show the unfortunate state of the family to which my services were, for the present devoted….she [Rosalie] had never been perfectly taught the distinction between right from wrong; she had, like her brothers and sisters, been suffered from infancy, to tyrannize over nurses, governesses, and servants; she had not been taught to moderate her desires, to control her temper or bridle her will, or to sacrifice her own pleasure for the good of others…

 

agnesgrey

On the one hand, Agnes Grey is a simple story about a daughter wanting to help her family when her father’s finances go wrong. Taking a position as a governess, Agnes reasons, will allow her to send money home. On the other hand, I found the book to be a complex account of the clashing of classes, in what constitutes love and marriage and the raising of children, and what makes a moral person.

When 18-year old Agnes leaves home to become a governess, she is leaving a loving, safe environment. She is naïve of the world outside her small village and is full of idealized fantasies that her new life will bring which will be full of good little children and her power to mold them.

But the reality is a shock to her system. The young Bloomfields run wild and have no use for her. To complicate matters, Mrs. Bloomfield has given her strict instructions that she must not discipline them in any way either through strong words or physical punishment. Agnes must do the best she can with the children without parental interest in their instruction or in her as someone they must respect. When the father does take an interest in his children it is through harsh punishment which makes Tom, the oldest boy, fear his father, which he takes this out on his sisters and to Agnes’s horror, small animals. She has no authority to chastise him and when she realizes his father condones this sadistic behavior it is a lost cause. In the classroom, Agnes spends more time chasing the children into their chairs, trying to interest them in anything remotely having to do with studies and generally throwing her hands up as they run out the schoolroom door.

It comes as no surprise to Agnes that she is finally dismissed because ‘she is not giving the children what they need,’ as though parental neglect and a refusal to see their children as they truly are had nothing to do with Agnes’s difficulty with them.

Agnes next finds employment at the wealthier Murray estate. Soon after her arrival the sons are sent to boarding school, so her main charges are 14-year old Matilda, the tomboy, who would rather be helping out at the stables or hunting with the dogs and 16-year old Rosalie who is almost ‘finished.’ Agnes’s instructions with the girls are similar to the ones she was given at the Bloomfields regarding punishment, with the added,

“only to render them as superficially attractive, and showlily accomplished, as they could possibly be made without present trouble or discomfort to themselves; and I was to act accordingly—to study and strive to amuse and oblige, instruct, refine, and polish with the least possible exertion on their part, and no exercise of authority on mine….And make them as happy as you can….”

One of the striking aspects of this book seems to me is a commentary on the upper classes and their frivolity and selfishness, their lack of discipline and moral standards in contrast to the upholding of the working classes as the real bedrock of Christian morality and virtue. Agnes grew up a clergyman’s daughter and her mother modeled for her and her sister all the important values missing in the homes of the upper classes at which she works.

When the Murray daughters visit the cottagers on their estate they do so with irresponsible condescension and the mocking of the sick and poor to their faces. When they break their promises to return to read or visit with them, Agnes takes on this role. The girls did not learn from their parents what their status obliges them to do toward the poor and how to show sincere kindness to others. It is left to Agnes to be the example for them, though it seems to have no effect over the superficialities that take precedence over their lives.

This superficiality is never more striking than in the way Rosalie approaches marriage. She will, of course, marry for wealth and position as her parents see fit. Love is not a factor, nor is Rosalie’s own choice. Agnes watches with grave concern as Rosalie, in acts of rebellion, flirts mercilessly and leads men on, even toward a marriage proposal. It is almost as if she must prove to herself that though the choice of a husband is made for her, she herself could attract any man she wanted. She is mean with her selected prey, almost torturous and not concerned about the devastating hurt she is causing even after Agnes’s warnings.

This book, by the youngest Bronte sister, is often panned or looked upon as a more juvenile effort than her sisters’ books. But there is a wealth of commentary to be gleaned from Agnes’s thoughts and experiences about the intimate life of the upper classes. It is an eye-opening look at the snobbery, the self-importance and dysfunction of that class of family life. Children are left to their own devices by parents who give them over to governesses and nurses who have no power to truly educate or form them. For these twice on Sunday church goers, it is all for show.

Through Agnes’s selfless actions and comforting words with the cottagers and in the cottagers deeds to each other, the reader sees it is the middle and working classes who demonstrate the true teachings of the church, who come to each other’s assistance regardless of what little they have themselves. It is they who make excuses for the bad behavior of the upper class girls. It is in the morality of these classes that fidelity is shown to their husbands and wives, and children toward their parents and in the mutual aid of the cottagers toward one another.

The novel contains more plot lines than I have discussed here, including a happy romantic ending for Agnes and for her widowed mother with whom they both open a school for girls that becomes successful. But it is the issues above that captured my attention in this first reading of Agnes Grey.

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My Edition
Title: Agnes Grey
Author: Anne Bronte
Publisher: Barnes and Noble Classics
Device: Paperback
Year: 2005
Pages: 224
Full plot summary

Challenges: Classics Club Spin #16, Classics Club List, Mount TBR, Library Love

Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton (1911)

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This was a very depressing novel. Let’s just get that out of the way. Like another of Wharton’s New England novels Summer, which I read last year, she once again creates a character whose life has promise and potential, but bad choices made early on coupled with poverty and duty to family ruin any chance of freedom. Ethan Frome’s draining, joy-sucking life permeated every page.

Wharton creates a bit of mystery surrounding Ethan Frome in the opening pages. The unnamed narrator who arrives in town on business notes his somber countenance, “something bleak and unapproachable in his face, and he was so stiffened and grizzled that I took him for an old man,” yet he was only 52. The coach driver explained he has looked that way since ‘the smash-up.’ And with that, the strange, sad tale of Ethan Frome begins.

Frome is many years into a loveless marriage. He and his wife, Zeena, live in the Frome family home eking out a slim existence from soil that doesn’t yield much. He asked Zeena to marry him out of gratitude for helping him nurse his sick mother. Right after they marry her real or imagined ill health makes her unable to take care of the home, so she enlists the help of her young cousin, Mattie Silver, although it is soon clear she has no household skills.

Mattie’s youth and joy for life is Ethan’s one bright light and he begins to care for her deeply. When Zeena announces that her new doctor wants her to get a proper hired girl, because “I oughtn’t to have to do a single thing around the house,” Ethan is devastated. Mattie will have to leave because they can’t afford to pay for two girls, although she has no family to take her in. Ethan spends days frantically looking for a way to run off with Mattie, until he realizes its futility. The day he takes Mattie to the train station he stops to take her sledding. Both are distraught over their impending separation admitting they cannot live apart and make a pact to end their pain by sledding into a tree. They are severely injured, but both live. Ethan is left with a limp and a scarred forehead, but Mattie sustains a spinal injury that leaves her permanently disabled.

The action skips to the present when the narrator, who has only heard bits and pieces of this story is invited by Ethan to stay the night during a snow storm. When the front door is opened he hears more than one voice coming from the kitchen. He is shocked to walk in on both Zeena and Mattie sitting around the kitchen table.

When he goes back to his boarding house, run by a childhood friend of Ethan’s she explains that yes, after the accident, Zeena took Mattie back and nursed her as best she could and without any family to return to the three have lived together for 24 years. She tells him, “If she’d ha’ died, Ethan might ha’ lived; and the way they are now, I don’t see’s there’s much difference between the Fromes up at the farm and the Fromes down in the graveyard; ‘cept that down there they’re all quiet, and the women have got to hold their tongues.”

Though the story is terribly tragic I admire Wharton’s writing. She is not sentimental or overly emotional, but matter of fact. The event happens or the choice sets in motion tragic consequences, the character accepts his or her fate and makes new choices and with them we move on. As in real life we have to get on with whatever hand we are dealt and this is how Wharton writes.

Except that I found it hard to just let go of Ethan’s fate. Is it too much to ask to give him a little happiness after having to leave college to come back home to care for his father, then his mother, then his wife and finally both his wife and unrequited lover? Couldn’t Wharton give him a little better financial situation or let his wife die young or…something?

However, like Charity, the main character in Summer, who similarly had to pit personal fulfillment against duty, what the reader finds here is reality. Both Ethan and Charity made foolish choices the first time they fell in love, which left them with life-altering consequences they could never break away from. And maybe that is the moral or the cautionary tale here; what you do when young comes back to haunt you. The whole trajectory of your life can change in an instant, so make good choices!

Right.

Try telling that to any young person in love!
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My edition and plot summary.
Edith Wharton. Ethan Frome and Selected Stories. New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2004. Originally published in 1911.

Challenges: Classic Club List and Mount TBR

Amy’s Pickled Limes-Little Women

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Why, you see, the girls are always buying them, and unless you want to be thought mean, you must do it, too. It’s nothing but limes now, for everyone is sucking them in their desks in schooltime, and trading them off for pencils, bead rings, paper dolls, or something else….If one girl likes another, she gives her a lime; if she’s mad with her, she eats one before her face, and doesn’t offer even a suck. They treat by turns, and I’ve had ever so many but haven’t returned them, and I ought, for they are debts of honor, you know.”

I have always wanted to go back and revisit this episode, because it is intriguing to think of limes as a social metaphor for status and acceptance: Not only are you one of us, but one of my favored, because I bestow this pickled lime upon you. I assumed it was historically accurate, but wondered where and how limes came to New England in the middle of the 19th century? And most especially, how they ended up as a schoolyard status symbol.

For Amy and her classmates, it wasn’t just the giving of limes, but the importance of giving back to the girls who gave the pickled limes first. This point cannot, to these school girls, be overstated.

The next day Amy was rather late at school; but could not resist the temptation of displaying, with pardonable pride, a moist brown-paper parcel…During the next few minutes the rumor that Amy March had got twenty-four delicious limes…and was going to treat circulated through her “set”…Katy Brown invited her to her next party on the spot; Mary Kingsley insisted on lending her her watch till recess….

Unfortunately, her stash is discovered by the teacher, who has forbidden them in the classroom and Amy is forced to throw them out the window.

Linda Zeidrich in her book, The Joy of Pickling, tackles Amy’s limes in a brief history. She describes their availability and low cost at a typical neighborhood store where they were sold on the counter for a penny each. “Kids chewed, sucked, and traded amylines2pickled limes at school (and not just at recess) for decades, making the limes the perennial bane of New England schoolteachers.” Doctors thought this was an unnatural habit, but parents didn’t seem to be bothered and were content to let their children indulge. Interesting that at some point science recognized the benefits of citrus for health.

While it was true that some limes were grown in the United States, most came from the West Indies where they were packed in sea water or brine and shipped in barrels to ports in the Northeast, especially to Boston where they were the most popular. Zeidrich makes the ironic point that the limes of Louisa May Alcott’s schoolgirls were tied to the same slave labor in the Caribbean that sent Mr. March to fight against slavery in the United States. It always helps to know the origin of things when possible….

The cost per lime was so low because they were not classified as fresh fruit, which had a much higher tariff. Occasionally Congress tried to classify them with fresh fruit which brought protests. When Boston importer, William Brexnax, argued for separate classifications before the Ways and Means Committee of the Congress of the United States in 1909, he did so on the basis that the consumers of pickled limes were women and children from a small area of the country, the small consumption of which posed no commercial threat to fresh limes. You can read the full argument below.

GodeysDo-it-yourself pickled limes seem easy enough and while I found some period recipes this one from a 1854 issue of Godey’s Ladies Book, might have been close to what Amy and her friends ate.

“The dry and fresh-gathered fruits are put into strong, wide-mouthed glass bottles, carefully corked, and luted with a cement of lime and soft cheese, and bound down with wire. The bottles are then inclosed (sp) separately in canvas bags, and put into a kettle of water, which is gradually heated until it boils; the bottles are kept in this condition until the fruits are boiled in their own juice. The whole is then left to cool; after which the bottles are examined separately, and put away for store.”

Some recipes added salt and none I found were sweet, so it seems children ate them tart or sour.

I still don’t know why these pickled limes were traded by children whose later counterparts traded baseball cards or little key chains as we did at my school or whatever children are trading for status now. I suppose their ease of acquisition and cheap cost had something to do with it.

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(Here is William F. Brexnax’s argument before the House Ways and Means Committee defending pickled limes against a fresh fruit tariff. Formatted by me for readability).


Hearings, Volume 20

By United States. 60th Congress. 2d session., 1908-1909. House.

188 PICKLED LIMES Paragraph 559
WM F BREXNAX IMPORTER BOSTON MASS WISHES A SEPARATE CLASSIFICATION MADE FOR PICKLED LIMES 1 13 CENTRAL STREET

Boston January 26 1909 COMMITTEE ON WAYS AND MEANS Washington DC

GENTLEMEN In the revision of the tariff let me urge that the classification of pickled limes remain unchanged as this commodity has but a very limited sale and confined almost exclusively to a few New England states.

After limes are immersed in sea water for twenty four hours it causes such a physical change that they are of no commercial value whatever other than as a pickled lime because they can not be freshened out or used only for eating in their changed condition and in this form they are consumed mostly by women and children of this section of the country who have acquired the taste for them.

Under the Wilson bill they were charged as pickles at 30 per cent ad volorem and continued so under the present bill until the Board of General Appraisers decided to class them as limes at 1 cent per pound together with the water which surrounded the same which ruling was amended by the decision of the United States circuit court of appeals in my suit against the Government for refund of duties since which time they have come in under paragraph 559 and admitted free as fruits in brine not specially provided Tor

The business done in them is quite small and positively no protection is needed for the few limes grown in the United States as they never pickle them and if pickled limes should again be classified under the head of green fruit it would be putting a prohibition value upon them for they are usually sold for a cent each and when the retailers can not do this the business small as it is will be curtailed very materially.

It has been proven by the courts that there has under all tariffs been a distinction made between limes and pickled limes and I would ask that this decision remain unchanged. This merchandise is not commercially known as limes and therefore should have a distinct classification if it is to be designated in any way in the new list. No tariff that the Government ever issued has classified pickled limes so it can be seen that they have never been considered of sufficient importance to give them a place. But now that revision is under way the opportunity should be embraced to make provision for them and thereby avoid a mix up again with the general appraisers in determining the proper interpretation of the tariff and I present the subject at this time with that end in view I trust that our New Englanders may continue to eat the fruit as of old which will be the case unless the United States needs to increase the cost by a tariff for revenue only.

Yours truly WM F BRENNAN Importer TABIFIT HEARINGS 7755