Monthly Archives: October 2011

Book 14: The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton

‘In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs’

The love triangle: that endless source of artistic inspiration. For centuries this simple romantic entanglement has been a fruitful theme for literature, perhaps because it remains a common predicament for people in all walks of life. Edith Wharton, however, makes this archetype fresh and compelling in a novel that grips you firmly by the shoulders from the first page and refuses to let you go.

The Age of Innocence is, to put it simply, a great yarn. Much significance is placed on the crafting of beautiful sentences – and don’t get me wrong, Wharton is adept at that too – but there is still something to be said for great storytelling. We all love to be enveloped in a gripping narrative, picked up and placed in another world; that sense of being transported is the main reason that many people read. And Wharton is, above all, a consummate storyteller.

Her wonderful narrative centres around Newland Archer, a respectable young man from a respectable New York family, obediently following the path that has been laid out for him and abiding by all the unspoken rules of old Manhattan society. He is engaged to the pretty, seemingly perfect May Welland, but someone is about to shake things up. The arrival of May’s socially shamed and unconventional cousin Ellen Olenska turns the heads of all New York – Newland’s head in particular.

From here this could be a straightforward tale of the fickle man being seduced away from his saintly fiancée by the exotic seductress, but Wharton is much more sophisticated than that. Ellen is far from the femme fatale; fragile and essentially good, she does everything she can to resist the mutual, undeniable desire that builds between her and Newland. May, meanwhile, for all her sweetness and innocence, is not as simple as she looks when it comes to hanging on to her man. Newland, to complete the trio, is neither dastardly philanderer nor entrapped fool, though he certainly lacks conviction. In other words, none of Wharton’s characters are perfect, but any authorial judgement remains wisely suspended.

While the ‘will-they-won’t-they’ plot between Newland and Ellen is relentlessly enthralling, one of the most interesting aspects of the novel is its depiction of the pettiness and fakery of New York’s high society. It is this endless routine of social engagements and the suffocating expectation to stick to social norms (which are, ironically, far from natural behaviour) that makes Ellen’s way of looking at the world so refreshing. If the novel has any hero then it is Ellen, and the reader is as fascinated by and drawn to her as Newland is.

On the flip side, May is equally intriguing in her seemingly blind conformity. She is the physical embodiment of the society from which Newland feels the impulse to rebel, raised for the sole purpose of attracting a husband and trained to be blithely accepting and submissive. It is a worrying portrait, and one that becomes even more unsettling when May is unmasked as having more between her ears than we might have supposed. May is contentedly complicit in the existence that has been plotted out for her, doing everything in her power to trap a husband who she knows very well wants to get away from her.

All in all, The Age of Innocence achieves two of those golden rules of a great read: it is (to use a frequently abused but in this case justified cliché) impossible to put down and lingers in the mind after the last page has been turned.

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Book 13: Cranford, Elizabeth Gaskell

‘Cranford is in possession of the Amazons.’

Confession time again: I adore costume dramas. Bonnets, corsets, stiff upper lips – can’t get enough of them. Give me Downton Abbey and a nice glass of red in the evening and I’m a happy woman. Same goes for the books – the Austens and the Brontes and, of course, the Gaskells – so this was a bit of a treat for me; a not-so-guilty reading pleasure, if you will.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the above admission, I had already watched the BBC’s television version, with Dames Judi Dench and Eileen Atkins at their bonnet-clad best. The TV series was in fact an amalgamation of three different Elizabeth Gaskell novels, adding many more characters and incidents to Gaskell’s quaint and amusing tale of country life. Despite its smaller pool of characters, however, Cranford‘s pages still manage to hum with bustle and colour.

The plot – if there can be said to be a plot in what is essentially an entertaining series of loosely linked sketches – is narrated by Mary Smith, a frequent guest in Cranford, and primarily concerns the experiences of Miss Matty Jenkyns (the unfailingly excellent Dame Judi, for fans of the TV version). Daughter of the town’s late rector, Miss Matty was once a beauty but missed her chance of a happy marriage thanks to the interference of her family and has now settled into life as an old maid in Cranford, leading a modest and quietly refined existence alongside her formidable spinster sister.

Mary Smith is of that long literary line of narrators who tell us a great deal about their friends and surroundings but next to nothing about themselves. We do not even discover this wallflower narrator’s name until the novel is almost at a close, but Gaskell’s simple device cleverly gives us an intimate, unobtrusive window on the lives of the women of Cranford.

I say women, because Cranford is dominated by a set of memorable and fiercely independent female characters. When men do appear on the scene they are almost invariably bumbling fools, disappointing sweethearts or mere irritations, quickly passing away, upping sticks or fading into insignificance. The Cranford women have a rather dim view of matrimony; the only men on whom one can rely are family members, who also seem to have that unfortunate habit of dying or moving on to pastures new.

Miss Matty herself is kind, thoughtful, innocent and sweet almost to a fault – in short, the sort of old woman you’d like to have as your gran. Not a great deal happens in her quiet, sheltered country life, but the beauty of Gaskell’s writing is that it crafts perfectly formed, candy-like slices of narrative out of the mundane. In many ways, the succession of little incidents in Cranford remind me of Jane Austen’s Emma, a slow-burner that paints a vivid portrait of aristocratic rural life and was criticised by reviewers of the time for being uneventful. Now both it and Cranford are rightly recognised as delicious portions of nineteenth century life.

The various minor incidents in the lives of the Cranford residents are quite hilarious in their own right (try imagining a cow in flannel pyjamas without laughing) but it is Gaskell’s subtle and touching portrayals of women’s lives that are more fascinating. While life in Cranford may seem endlessly entertaining and in some senses idyllic, none of the female characters can be said to have entirely happy lives. They are all either widows or spinsters, struggling to live on modest means while upholding their all-important ‘gentility’. What Gaskell has achieved is a portrait of female life that manages to be beautiful without glossing over the warts; day to day life as woman in Victorian England, and particularly as a single woman, was not easy. In this sense Cranford deserves more recognition as a document of female experience in a time when women’s voices often failed to be heard.

So put on the kettle (or pour that cheeky glass of wine), settle down on the sofa and surrender to literary costume-drama indulgence with the knowledge that there is far more to this novel than bonnets and crinolines. And there’s always Downton Abbey for later.

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Too Many Books, Too Little Time

Reader, it has been too long. I realise that this is, of course, my fault. I was guilty of that classic flaw of having eyes too big for my belly and foolishly set a ridiculously ambitious timescale for my 100 book challenge. For a while it was plain sailing, but I neglected to factor in the vital consideration that full-time workers – alas! – have a lot less time on their hands than students. Who would have thunk?

Reading on the commute is all very well and worked rather nicely for a while, but as the weeks have worn on I’ve had more and more demands on my time and less precious minutes for reading. I know, excuses excuses. I can happily say, however, that so far in my challenge every single page has been worth it. I’ve enjoyed each and every one of the books I’ve read so far and can only wish that I had Bernard’s Watch to give myself more hours in the day to turn the pages. Sadly for me, Bernard isn’t giving it up any time soon.

But fear not, dear reader; I will continue to work my way through the list. It might not get finished in 100 weeks – heck, it might not even get finished in 2oo weeks! – but it will get finished. I like to think of this not as a defeat, but as a strategic withdrawal. I also clearly have a neglected calling as a politician/spin doctor/army general.

Keep an eye out soon for blogs on Beloved, The Age of Innocence and Cranford, all of which I have read (and, incidentally, loved to bits) but not had the time to write about. And until then, in the intonation of Tess and Brucie at the end of Strictly Come Dancing, keep reading!

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