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.

_____________

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

 

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Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier (1938)

Unconsciously I shivered, as though someone had opened the door behind me, and let a draught into the room. I was sitting in Rebecca’s chair, I was leaning against Rebecca’s cushion, and the dog had come to me and laid his head upon my knee because that had been his custom, and he remembered, in the past, she had given sugar to him there.

 

RebeccaWhen I put Rebecca on my Classics Club list, I didn’t know anything about it. I put it on my list with the same intention I put many classics on it: I want to read well-known or important classics, and knew this was one of them.

When I started book blogging, I discovered how many readers include Rebecca on their top 10 favorites list. That in itself was intriguing, yet there were so many other classics I knew about that I wanted to read first.

Now I am initiated. Now I understand.

(Caveat: For those not initiated, you will see often in this post ‘the second Mrs. de Winter,’ this is because her name is never mentioned).

There is so much tension built into this book, which begins in the first pages where an unnamed narrator is recounting a dream. It is a beautiful descriptive dream of a house, its grounds and its secrets and an ominous statement that it is no more.

The house was a sepulchre, our fear and suffering lay buried in the ruins. There would be no resurrection.

When the young second Mrs. de Winter comes to Manderley, her background has not prepared her to take up the responsibilities of caring for a show place like Manderley. Her shyness and reticence in the presence of the household staff and housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, does not instill confidence and she is constantly questioning herself and her marriage to Maxim. In her mind she concocts rich fantasies about what the staff really thinks of her, although reality is never as bad as her thoughts. But there is another facet of this experience she has no control over. She is living with the ghost of the first Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca and her secrets, that permeate every aspect of the second Mrs. de Winter’s life.

No one will talk about Rebecca, which only adds to the second Mrs. de Winter’s rich fantasy life. Though many characters are introduced including Beatrice, Maxim’s sister and kind-hearted Frank Crawley, Maxim’s business associate, who genuinely like and accept her their refusal to talk about Rebecca and her death hangs over Mrs. de Winter’s ability to feel comfortable in the house.

That is until Mrs. Danvers, who it turns out was not just the housekeeper, but Rebecca’s confidante confronts Mrs. de Winter when she catches her in Rebecca’s suite and is only too happy to talk. Danvers is the classic dead mistress-obsessed housekeeper who refuses to let go of the past. She cleans and dusts this suite every day. She lays out Rebecca’s clothes as if she is only gone for the day. du Maurier writes this scene so well. It is easy to share de Winter’s panic as Danvers speaks.

It’s not only this room it’s in many rooms in the house…I feel her everywhere. You do too, don’t you?”…Sometimes, when I walk along the corridor here, I fancy I hear her just behind me. That quick light footstep. I could not mistake it anywhere. And in the minstrels’ gallery above the hall. I’ve seen her leaning there, in the evenings in the old days, looking down at the hall below and calling to the dogs. I can fancy her there now from time to time. It’s almost as though I catch the sound of her dress sweeping the stairs as she comes down to dinner.” She pauses. She went on looking at me, watching my eyes. “Do you think she can see us, talking to one another now? Do you think the dead come back and watch the living?”

I swallowed. I dug my nails into my hands.

Sometimes I wonder,” she whispered. “Sometimes I wonder if she comes back here to Manderley and watches you and Mr. de Winter together.”

When a ship capsizes in the bay and Rebecca’s small boat is discovered with her dead body still inside Maxim has no choice but to reveal the truth about how she died. It is a shocking revelation, but in my opinion, less shocking than the reasons he did it. As she listens to the truth about their marriage, as she hears the details about who Rebecca really was and as the investigation and inquest unfold, she is transformed. She is determined to support her husband, will hear all he is accused of, will stay by his side. In this regard she grows up and is changed overnight. Even Maxim acknowledges her transformation, dismayed that it is his fault.

But you. I can’t forget what it has done to you. I was looking at you, thinking of nothing else all through lunch. It’s gone forever, that funny, young, lost look that I loved. It won’t come back again. I killed that too, when I told you about Rebecca. It’s gone, in twenty-four hours. You are so much older…

And then he says her name. He doesn’t, of course, but in my head it would have made so much sense for him to say it here.

Du Maurier’s writing style is quite amazing in this book. How many passages are worth quoting her way with words? How detailed she gives to the narrative whether in describing a person, Manderley and its grounds, or an event, but the narrative never feels bogged down in the details.

Yet, it is the details that infuse, propel and wrap up the story. I spent the last quarter of the book on a roller coaster as one revelation proves Maxim’s guilt while another one covers it up, while still another could go either way. I have never been very good at guessing outcomes in books, so I was not prepared for the very end. While it explains the dream of the first few pages and why the narrator is estranged from her home, I was still shocked. With eyes as big as saucers I closed the book…“What???”

I have heard people say and I have said it too about books that really touched me; I wish I could forget I read this book so I can read it again for the first time.

*********

My Edition
Title: Rebecca
Author: Daphne du Maurier
Publisher: Avon
Device: Paperback
Year: 1938
Pages: 380
Full plot summary

Challenges: Roofbeam Reader TBR, Classics Club

My Life in Books (2017)

 

 

Adam, at RoofBeamReader.com, just posted a fun end of the year round-up. Called, ‘My Life in Books,’ you answer a set of questions using one of the titles you’ve read this year.

I hope you’ll join in. I’d love to see what you come up with! Here’s mine:

 

1. In high school I was: (one of the) Radio Girls, Sarah-Jane Stratford

2. People might be surprised: (that) Peace Breaks Out, John Knowles

3. I will never be: Dracula, Bram Stoker

4. My fantasy job is: Being a Dog, Alexandra Horowitz

5. At the end of a long day I need: A Walk with Jane Austen, Lori Smith

6. I hate it when: (there is) Fever 1793, Laurie Halse Anderson

7. Wish I had: The Bronze Bow, Elizabeth George Speare

8. My family reunions are: The Wonder, Emma Donoghue

9. At a party you’d find me with: Heroines of Mercy Street: The Real Nurses of the Civil War, Pamela D. Toler

10. I’ve never been to: Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen

11. A happy day includes: The Nature Principal, Richard Louv

12. Motto I live by: Where Angels Fear to Tread, E. M. Forster

13. On my bucket list is: The Moonstone Castle Mystery, Carolyn Keene

14. In my next life, I want to have: Penguins and Golden Calves, Madeleine L’Engle

 

 

 

Fever 1793, Laurie Halse Anderson (2000)

fever

 

I didn’t run from the redcoats, and I won’t run from a dockside miasma. What is wrong with people…We suffered all kinds of disease in our youth, but folks were sensible. They didn’t squall like children and hide in the woods. Captain William Farnsworth Cook, Pennsylvania Fifth Regiment.

Fever 1793, is a compelling historical novel based on the yellow fever epidemic that ravaged Philadelphia during the stifling hot summer of 1793. The story centers on 13-year old Mattie Cook, who watches helplessly as her beloved city grapples with the fear and devastation the epidemic wreaks.

Mattie’s parents own Cook’s Coffeehouse, a hub for politicians and merchants located two blocks from President Washington’s house. Philadelphia is the nation’s first capital city and Mattie is proud to live here. Since her father died, she helps her mother run the business along with Polly, the serving girl and her childhood friend, and Eliza, a free black who has been cooking up the special fare Cook’s is known for since it opened. As the city has prospered, so has Cook’s.

But August has brought fever—just a few cases to start, but enough to worry Mattie’s mother, Lucille, who forbids her daughter from doing any errands or getting provisions down at the docks. Some people are certain the refugees from Barbados have brought the illness and want them quarantined. Though others remind them there is always a sickness during the height of summer heat. Still, there are more cases as August progresses and there have been deaths. Lucille puts more restrictions on Mattie, who is frustrated at being so confined. When Polly does not come to work one day and it is learned she died of the fever, Lucille is adamant that Mattie be sent out of the city to friends out of town.

When it is declared the illness is in fact yellow fever, Philadelphia quickly empties as the wealthy leave for their homes in the country and others write to friends and family outside the city hoping they will take them in. Ships stop docking making food and other supplies scarce forcing businesses to close. Many who can’t get out hoard as much food as they can and close up their homes hunkering down inside for the duration. Amidst protest, Mattie is sent away with her grandfather.

And so begins Mattie’s harrowing journey to the family she never gets to, to the fever that almost kills her and the hospital stay where she recovers. Though weak and with Philadelphia still in the grip of the fever, her age precludes her being released with no place to go. There is no word of her mother’s fate and her aged grandfather cannot take full responsibility for her. Her only option is an orphan house for children who lost their parents and who have no other family to care for them.

But Mattie refuses. She wants to find her mother and go back home. Her determination cannot be matched, so she and her grandfather return to the coffeehouse only to find it has been plundered. After a few days of cleaning up, the coffeehouse is again broken into and her grandfather is killed. Mattie is now afraid to stay by herself.

Wives were deserted by husbands, and children by parents. The chambers of diseases were deserted, and the sick left to die of negligence. None could be found to remove the lifeless bodies. Their remains, suffered to decay by piecemeal, filled the air with deadly exhalations, and added tenfold to the devastation. Charles Brockden Brown (Memoirs of the Year 1793)

One of the very engaging aspects of the book are the historical quotes that begin each chapter adding to the reality of this frightening time. The real epidemic killed an astonishingly 5,000 people during the summer and early fall of 1793 until the first frost in October brought it to an end.

Anderson incorporates into the novel several contentious issues the epidemic sparked, including the controversial use of bloodletting to “release the poisons” from the blood; the argument between doctors who believed the fever spread through a “miasma” in the air, therefore confining patients to rooms with no access to fresh air versus those doctors who believed fresh air was healthy and part of the cure; the overwhelming number of children orphaned by the epidemic who needed to be housed; how the fever transformed some relationships between blacks and whites who worked together to help the city; and how this catastrophe brought out the best and worst in people as they fought for their lives.

There is great distress in the city for want of cash. Friendship is nearly entirely banished from our city. Dr. Benjamin Rush (1793)

Not for the The Free African Society, however. Founded in 1787 to aid widows, the infirm and out of work Africans, during the epidemic it offered to help all citizens of Philadelphia. Richard Allen and Absalom Jones co-founders of the Society put advertisements in the papers: “We set out to see where we could be useful—the black people were looked to. We then offered our services in the public papers, by advertising that we would remove the dead and procure nurses.”

And in fact, this is how Mattie found Eliza. After her grandfather was killed, Mattie knew she couldn’t stay in the coffeehouse and set out looking for news of her mother. She stumbled upon Eliza in the streets and found she was caring for and feeding the sick wherever she was needed. Eliza was able to fill Mattie in on all that had transpired since she was sent away. Mattie learned that her mother had gone to the family she was sent to, so what could she think when she found that Mattie had never arrived? But for the moment it was decided that without her grandfather and with the business too dangerous to stay in alone, Mattie would stay with Eliza’s family and would go out with her and nurse the sick.

Blessed be God for the change in the weather. The disease visibly and universally declines. Dr. Benjamin Rush (1793)

For weeks the city was caught in the grip of fever, death carts piled high as they rumbled down the streets. Finally, one blessed night a frost sets in and in a little more than a day or two the epidemic is over. Almost immediately the ships begin to dock bringing food and supplies to the beleaguered city and those who went to the country come back. George Washington makes his way back to Philadelphia and the whole city comes alive.

But Mattie has an uncertain future ahead of her. It is suggested she go into an orphan house until she reaches maturity. If she sells the coffeehouse, she can use the money for a dowry. Maturity? Hasn’t she seen and done enough in the last few months as any adult? No, she thinks. The coffeehouse is hers and it is a good respectful business. She will reopen it. But she knows she can’t do it alone and there is only one person she can trust who also has the experience to make the coffeehouse successful again. Though it is unconventional, she asks Eliza to go into partnership. She does not have to be asked twice.

A very satisfying book in which I learned about an event in American history I did not know before.

__________

My Edition
Title: Fever 1793
Author: Laurie Halse Anderson
Publisher: Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 2000
Pages: 252
Full plot summary

Classics Club Spin #16

classicsclub

 

I think this has come at a good time. My energy is flagging a bit and I feel the pressure of unfinished challenges before the year ends. Yes, this is self-inflicted pressure, but I sign up for these specific challenges because I LIKE them and the books they involve.

These Spins always bump up my enthusiasm and even though I don’t always finish on time, I usually do finish at some point. (Case in point: the last Spin, #15, was to be posted on May 1st. The Spin Goddess chose #12 which was Dracula. That post went up October 10th)!

If you are a Classics Clubber and have never done this I encourage you to try. It’s fun and you feel like part of the community.

It’s easy and simple to participate. From the website:

 

What is the spin?

It’s easy. At your blog, before next Friday, November 17th, create a post to list your choice of any twenty books that remain “to be read” on your Classics Club list.

This is your Spin List. You have to read one of these twenty books by the end of the year (details to follow). Try to challenge yourself. For example, you could list five Classics Club books you are dreading/hesitant to read, five you can’t WAIT to read, five you are neutral about, and five free choice (favorite author, re-reads, ancients — whatever you choose.)

On Friday, November 17th, we’ll post a number from 1 through 20. The challenge is to read whatever book falls under that number on your Spin List, by December 31, 2017. We’ll check in here in January to see who made it the whole way and finished their spin book!

 

Here is my list of 20 beginning from the top of my list of books I already have on my shelves. All the classics here would be first reads. I know, I know Pride and Prejudice, Rebecca, Wuthering Heights…where have I been?!!

ETA: And the Spin chose #4, Agnes Grey!

Jane Austen
1.Pride and Prejudice (1813)
2.Persuasion (1817)

Richard Doddridge Blackmore
3.Lorna Doone (1869)

Anne Bronte
4.Agnes Grey (1847)
5.The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
(1848)

Emily Bronte
6.Wuthering Heights (1847)

Willa Cather
7.O Pioneers! (1913)

Daniel Defoe
8.Robinson Crusoe (1719)

Theodore Dreiser
9.Sister Carrie (1900)

Daphne Du Maurier
10.Rebecca (1938)

George Eliot
11.Silas Marner (1861)
12.Daniel Deronda (1876)

Elizabeth Gaskell
13.Mary Barton (1848)
14.Cranford
(1851)
15.North and South (1854)
16.Wives and Daughters
(1864)

George Gissing
17.The Odd Women (1893)

Radclyffe Hall
18.The Well of Loneliness (1928)

 Henry James
19.Portrait of a Lady (1881)
20.The Bostonians (1886)

Radio Girls, Sarah-Jane Stratford (2016)

radiogirls

 

I noticed the beautiful cover first, I admit. Reading the back, I wasn’t certain that a book on the early years of the BBC when it was radio would be of interest. What I found was a book so finely researched and a story with such exciting and surprising plot lines, I couldn’t put it down.

Radio Girls is based on the nascent BBC, when many believed radio was a passing phase. It is run by Director General Reith, who does not like to take chances and believes young women really should not be working outside the home and definitely not after they marry. His foil is Hilda Matheson, Director of The Talks Department, who believes radio is the great democratizer. For the price of a license, the radio can bring knowledge and inspiration into every household. Having been hired on with the blessing of Lady Astor, of whom she was her political secretary, Hilda’s connections in politics, the arts and sciences brings well-known speakers in to lecture, tell stories and give advice.

The story is told through Maisie Musgrave, a Canadian-born young woman, who grew up in New York City, the daughter of a neglectful and disinterested actress mother. Her father, who was never in the picture, was born in England. Her shy reticence belies the fact that, though she was just shy of her 14th birthday, she obtained a fake birth certificate so she could join in the war effort by volunteering for the nursing corps in 1916. After the war, she moved to London in search of a job. She lands a plumb assignment when Mr. Reith hires her as assistant to his secretary, Miss Shields, who becomes practically giddy when Maisie struggles with her work. But Maisie is a fast typist and knows how to prioritize, so when her time is split with ‘Talks,’ her true talents and ambition are revealed.

As Maisie’s responsibilities grow and she spends more time with Hilda and the Talks Department she discovers Hilda’s involvement in an undercover operation ostensibly with MI5. Maisie volunteers to attend secret meetings of British Fascists whose loyalty to the German Nazi Party extends to their scheme to take over print and radio in Britain. In the course of her investigations, Maisie makes the sad discovery that her fiancé is one of them. This story line culminates in an exciting coup for Hilda and the Talks Department when the plan for this conspiracy is exposed through a broadcast over the radio.

What makes this novel so compelling is that it is based on real people and events. As the author, Sarah-Jane Stratford says in the Author’s Note, almost all the Talk titles are real, including the series, This Week in Westminster, a lecture series on politics 101 after women win suffrage. Imagine listening to book reviews by Vita Sackville-West or talks by HG Wells, John Maynard Keynes and Virginia Woolf?!

Besides the real life characters, one of the interesting things about this novel is the attention to production detail. The always enthusiastic men of the Sound Effects Department are asked to produce all sorts of sounds to accompany broadcasts and their efforts in trying to capture them provide for some funny moments. The sound stage, where broadcasts are presented has to be extremely clean and the rustling of the script, which the presenters read by hand have to be perfectly still, as every minute sound is picked up by the microphones and amplified. This provides even more humorous moments as well-known authors and politicians have to learn to speak without moving and read without rustling.

I love the passion of Hilda Matheson, who illustrates in a very real way, how radio brings the world into homes in the most remote parts of the country; that even if a person can’t read or have access to a newspaper he or she can still be kept current on events around the world with a radio and a license. It is her mission to provide this knowledge and access to everyday people. But in the end this is a radical notion for her superiors, who are only too happy to have cause to end her career when the conspiracy is broadcast. In her real life she is let go, she believes, because she is outed as a lesbian by one of her subordinates.

Stratford gives a short biography of Hilda Matheson at the end of the book. It is interesting to note that although she fought long and hard with Reith and other forces both at the BBC and through her work with MI5, her work in broadcasting lives on. She wrote a book called Broadcasting (1933), which was long heralded as the only textbook on broadcasting until the late 1960s.

R.I.P. XII Challenge-Late, but Enthused!

rip2017

 

This challenge always trips me up a bit, because it just doesn’t feel like Fall in September around here and I forget R.I.P. starts September 1st. Though a late arrival, I am not less excited to get into reading for ‘scary October.’

This is the 12th year of the R.I.P. Challenge and I love its simplicity: from September 1st through October 31st read books and/or watch movies that scare you! More specifically, choose from these genres–

Mystery
Suspense
Thriller
Dark Fantasy
Gothic
Horror

Organized loosely (because they are optional), you can choose different ‘perils’ (categories?) to help you feel part of the Challenge.

Andi at Estella’s Revenge and Heather at My Capricious Life host this, where you can get more information and link your blog-post reviews.

I plan to participate in multiple perils as I will be reading and seeing books, novellas, short stories and films, oh my….
Books, Novellas and Short Stories
Dracula, Bram Stoker
Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula, Loren D. Estleman
“Carmilla” and “Green Tea,” short stories by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
“The Call of Cthulhu” “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” short stories, H.P. Lovecraft
The Italian, Ann Radcliffe

Films
Bram Stoker’s Dracula
The Mothman Prophecies

The ‘Emily’ Novels, L. M. Montgomery

Emily.jpeg
The Flash

It had always seemed to Emily, ever since she could remember, that she was very, very near to a world of wonderful beauty. Between it and herself hung only a thin curtain; she could never draw the curtain aside—but sometimes, just for a moment, a wind fluttered it and then it was as if she caught a glimpse of the enchanting realm beyond—only a glimpse—and heard a note of unearthly music.

The moment came rarely—went swiftly, leaving her breathless with the inexpressible delight of it. She could never recall it—never summon it—never pretend it, but the wonder of it stayed with her for days….

 

I discovered Anne of Green Gables as an adult, somehow missing this whole wonderful world as a young girl. A friend who knows me well bet me I would like the Emily of New Moon series better. I thought, sacrilege!, but she is right. I have become completely enamored with what Montgomery does with fantasy and Nature. And while it blooms in Anne, it is a starburst in Emily.

Anne Shirley personifies trees, forests, flowers and springs. Emily Byrd Starr does the same, but in addition, she also has The Wind Woman and the flash. These latter two are supernatural and fairy-like reminding me of the innocent childhood inventiveness that we are supposed to grow out of, but that many of us Will Not Ever.

Though I live in an urban area, coyotes roam the streets and nap on the greens, all kinds coyote1of raptors fly through the air, I watch water birds gracefully hunt their breakfast at the river and jump when raccoons and possums dart through the bushes. They remind me to whom this land really belongs. I love to imagine all sorts of things about them. I love my crepe myrtle tree in the front yard and consider it my protector and I call an incredibly large, gnarled old tree down the street, Grandfather. I don’t know if any of this is weird, normal or if I need therapy, but I think this is why I am so drawn to the spiritual fey of  L. M. Montgomery.

Just last night I was reading a favorite passage from Emily Climbs. It has all the elements of imagination, connection to nature and creative thought Montgomery does so well. Though Emily is walking home alone in the middle of the night, she is really being escorted along the way by an incredible cast of non-human characters.

As she walked along she dramatized the night. There was about it a wild, lawless charm that appealed to a certain wild, lawless strain hidden deep in Emily’s nature—a strain that wished to walk where it would with no guidance but its own—the strain of the gypsy and the poet, the genius and the fool.

The big fir trees, released from their burden of snow, were tossing their arms freely and wildly and gladly across the moonlit fields. Was ever anything so beautiful as the shadows of those grey, clean-limbed maples on the road at her feet?

And it was easy to think, too, that other things were abroad—things that were not mortal or human. She always lived on the edge of fairyland and now she stepped right over it. The Wind Woman was really whistling eerily in the reeds of the swamp—she was sure she heard the dear, diabolical chuckles of owls in the spruce copses—something frisked across her path—it might be a rabbit or it might be a Little Grey Person: the trees put on half pleasing, half terrifying shapes they never wore by day. The dead thistles of last year were goblin groups along the fences: that shaggy old yellow birch was some satyr of the woodland: the footsteps of the old gods echoed around her: those gnarled stumps on the hill field were surely Pan piping through moonlight and shadow with his troop of laughing fauns. It was delightful to believe they were.

Emily is a young writer and crosses the line between fantasy and reality on an almost daily basis, by which she is jeered at and criticized by her reality-based family. It never daunts her, though, no matter how hot the teasing. She is secure in how she sees the world, which is my lesson. She is my role model.

 

Trail walking with Jess
Trail walking with Jess in a magical gum grove.

 

______________________

Montgomery, L. M. Emily Climbs. New York: Bantam, 1993. First published in 1925 by Frederick A. Stokes Co.

 Montgomery, L.M. Emily of New Moon. New York: Harper and Row, 1993. First published in 1923 by Frederick A. Stokes Co.

 

Gertrude Elliot’s Crucible, Mrs. George Sheldon Downs (1908)

GECrucible

 

 

Prison bars are not the only barriers to man’s freedom, there is a bondage that is far more intolerable—the bondage of one’s own evil passions and self-will.

 

The Dime Novel

Gertrude Elliot’s Crucible is considered an American ‘dime novel’ for working and middle class women. Dime novels in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were usually serialized weekly in inexpensive pamphlets or printed in magazines.

In fact, I came to find out the author, Mrs. George Sheldon Downs (Sarah Elizabeth Forbush), was an extremely popular writer of serial romances for Theodore Dreiser and his Smith’s Magazine. She serialized 47 romances between 1880-1889 and Dreiser considered her one of the most popular writers in the world.

The Fall of Gertrude Elliot. And Everyone Else
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“Gertrude! How can I ever atone for what I have done?”

Gertrude Elliot has just been informed by Daniel Dexter, an old friend of her late father who is handling her estate, that all her money is gone. He used it to pay off his son’s debts and lost the rest in bad investments trying to recoup the money he stole. Her mother’s terminal illness strained the finances to the extent that Gertrude is now destitute and must sell her house to make a good show of faith to the creditors.

Gertrude was told by her father that she would inherit a large sum of money and the family home and is mortified over what Mr. Dexter has revealed. He is humiliated at what he has done to her and tells her he is prepared to be arrested for fraud and robbery. But the shock of humiliating him further by sending to jail her father’s longtime friend is too much and she refuses to call the police. Dexter is humbled at this show of generosity and is resolved to pay her back. When his son, Robert, arrives the next day and hears what happened, he is so remorseful and realizes how much he is to  blame for Miss Elliot’s destitution he, too, makes a vow to repay his father for the money used for his debts. A few days later, Robert informs his father that a friend has asked him to assist him in his fruit business and he is leaving for California right away.

With nowhere to go, Gertrude visits an old friend on Long Island, who has been asking her for a visit. Phronie is her family’s former housekeeper. While Gertrude doesn’t tell Phronie the details, she reveals her dire financial situation and asks her for help. She reminds Phronie how she used to follow her around helping in the kitchen and with simple jobs throughout the house. “Surely, I could go out to work for a family as a head house keeper?”

Most of the action, then, takes place at the home of her new employer, Mrs. Young and her two teenage daughters. Mrs. Young has reservations with Gertrude’s age and lack of experience, because she isn’t much older than her daughters. But Mrs. Young has recently let go of an incompetent head housekeeper who left a dirty house, a chaotic schedule and a slovenly staff in her wake. She is desperate to fill the position and is swayed by Gertrude’s competence, kindness and willingness to work hard as is the skeptical cook and maids. Only the head butler has reservations and his bad attitude continues until he is let go.

Gertrude never lets her bad luck affect her moral compass. She stays positive and accepts that this is her fate. She doesn’t let petty squabbles or negative thoughts steer her down an evil path like so many of the people she is surrounded by. In fact, it is just the opposite; her compassion and genuine love for all she meets makes people see their calculating and self-centered acts, embarrassed to even to think bad thoughts!

It is as if she is put in these situations to make people better. Robert Dexter, will change his wild ways, learn the fruit trade and come back to New York on a promotion to supervise the fruit business from that end. And when he is surprised by a large inheritance from an aunt, he gives it all to Gertrude. When the butler, who has hated Gertrude from the beginning and wants her out, schemes against her to make it look like she is stealing Mrs. Young’s jewels and furs, he gets caught. Gertrude asks that he not be punished as his unsuspecting mother is coming to live in a little house he bought for the two of them. She tells him, “I cannot bear to have her come and find you in prison,” at which point he breaks down in sobs.

And finally, the oldest of the Young children, Hugh Spencer (from a previous marriage), was a college classmate of Robert Dexter and has held a revengeful rage against him all these years, which grows when he finds out Dexter and Gertrude are old family friends and maybe more.  He has found the means to ruin both Robert Dexter and his father and has been waiting to witness their fall. But Gertrude, upon hearing such fury and anger in the plan presses upon him the importance of love and justice, which challenge his devious revenge.

…every time one yields to temptation to do wrong one is weakened, morally and spiritually; and, Mr. Spencer, until you learn to substitute love for hate, honor for dishonor, justice for injustice, you will never attain the standard of true manhood. When you do this you will find that you have no enemy upon whom you desire to be revenged…It is not my theory; it is no human axiom; but it is the command of One who said—‘Thou shalt love they neighbor as thyself.’

 

Good Wins!

Gertrude Elliot’s Crucible is very much a morality tale. The high principles of love, justice and honor that Gertrude unwaveringly lives her life allows all she comes into contact with to be affected by these highest of ideals and in turn shine them on to others. Though people do bad things to each other, they lie, they steal, they hold incredibly long resentments bent on revenge that eat them up for decades, no one is unredeemable.

This was a complex novel full of intricate story lines and complicated relationships. I am inspired to read more of these novels and to research their affect on those who read them.

And in case you want to know, everyone who falls is raised up and everyone finds love in the end, including Gertrude.

I can honestly say, if I lived during this serialization I WOULD be waiting each week for the next installment!

______________

 

My Edition
Title: Gertrude Elliot’s Crucible
Author: Mrs. George Sheldon Downs
Publisher: G.W. Dillingham Co.
Device: Hardcover
Year: 1908
Pages: 308

Challenges: Classics Club

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!
____________________

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