In the summer of 2014, I read the novel Ethan Frome (published in 1911) aloud to my husband, and discovered the total badassery that is Edith Wharton.
Yeah, I still love looking at this picture of her. SO MUCH.
(And if you want to read my thoughts about Ethan Frome, you can find that blog here.)
Over the past three days, I read The Age of Innocence (1920), which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1921, and have compulsively enjoyed, once again, the exquisite beauty that is Ms. Wharton’s prose.
I freaking love this woman. *massive crush*
(Plus — her necklace in this picture is coolness!! And she is totally rocking that lace-and-velvet gown all the way. Her husband’s multiple nervous breakdowns were no doubt caused by the fact that his wife was insanely brilliant AND gorgeous, and he went into overwhelm mode and could not. That’s my professional medical opinion. Because suffering from a cannot is a thing. Obviously.)
I have a crush on Edith Wharton the way I crush on Mary Wollstonecraft, and her amazing daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. (Side note: this always makes me think of my crushes on Barbara Kingsolver and Barbara Ehrenreich [who are both still very much alive], because writers with matching first names make me smile.)
There are so many people in history who make me so swoony — and Edith Wharton was tough and compassionate and awesome. During WWI, (quoting the ever-thorough Cliffs Notes here) — she “demonstrated her deep love of France by lending her efforts and influence to numerous efforts to care for the wounded, for refugees, and for war orphans. In Fighting France, from Dunkerque to Belforte (1915) she praised the French war effort and told of her visits to the troops on the various battlefronts. For her contributions to France during the war she was awarded the Legion of Honor.”
(Granted, to all the people who hate France and renamed French fries “freedom fries” after 9/11, then Ms. Wharton’s efforts during WWI might actually be called treasonous — she helped France! what an ingrate! she’s un-American! — but I was never on board with any of that freedom fries stuff, and I think France is awesome. So there.)
Edith Wharton was born in New York in 1862 into “a distinguished and wealthy family” — and little girls born into wealthy society families in 1862 were certainly not encouraged to become writers.
Because writers are a bunch of immoral reprobates — or, in the parlance of Edith Wharton’s day, “dissipated bohemians.”
If you are wondering what a “dissipated bohemian” is, it is useful to note that “dissipated” means “overindulging in sensual pleasures” and a bohemian (lowercase) is “a person, as an artist or writer, who lives and acts free of regard for conventional rules and practices.”
(Different from a Bohemian [capitalized] which is a resident of Bohemia, which is a region in the West Czech Republic. Bohemian can also be synonymous with Gypsy. I’d say Europeans had little to no respect for Bohemians, or their title wouldn’t have become such a slur. Because when 1870s New Yorkers were calling people “dissipated bohemians” it was not meant as a term of endearment, as there was NO admiration for people who broke with convention. You followed the rules or you were voted off the island to live in your perpetual Den of Iniquity and Absolute Shame.)
I seriously need to build myself a Den of Iniquity and Absolute Shame. It would look something like this —
And this topless cowboy would live there and serve me espresso in bed on a small silver tray —
Actually I just picked that photo randomly because the idea of a half-naked cowboy living in a billionaire’s mansion is so absurdly incongruous I have to smirk.
Plus I can’t even imagine paying the property tax on a billionaire mansion — because if I had money like that, it would go to causes and charities — so I would totally fail with my Den of Iniquity. But if I did have to pick a servant to serve me espresso, I would pick this guy —
Because he is very pretty and he has nice bangs. I look at him and think dang, can this guy hair, or what? That is some seriously nice hair. He could be my iniquitous barista any day.
You know who would *not* be my barista?
Newland Archer, the main character in The Age of Innocence.
(Side note: Daniel Day-Lewis plays Newland Archer in Martin Scorsese’s 1993 film based on the book.)
(Side note #2: I would stop to say I love Daniel Day-Lewis here, but who doesn’t love Daniel Day-Lewis? Seriously. Like, him and The Hunger Games have no haters. Not even in YouTube comment threads.)
(Side note #3: No, I have not seen this movie yet, but I did buy a copy on DVD for $3.59 on Amazon. The movie received a great review from The New York Times, which you can read here.)
But back to the point.
About why Newland Archer could *not* be my barista in my Den of Iniquity.
Simply, this: because Newland Archer is a spineless douche.
I love him. I do.
But still. He’s spineless. And he’s a douche.
He blames his choices on other people. He is weak.
He’s so full of himself that his stuffing overflows when he sashays down the street. This is a result of being born 1.) white, 2.) rich, and 3.) male. Newland Archer is a product of his times, which is 1870s New York.
The beauty of Newland Archer is that he is also — in his way — very noble. He has a good heart. He loves, and loves deeply. And he suffers. A lot.
The premise of the story, as Paul Montazzoli wrote in his Introduction to the novel in 1996, is this: “Will Newland Archer desert the virtuous but vapid May Welland — his fiancée and later his wife — for the dashing but scandalous — and already married — Countess Ellen Olenska?”
Mr. Montazzoli goes on to say, “Edith Wharton keeps this question open until the penultimate chapter of her episodic romance, The Age of Innocence.”
What is so enthralling about The Age of Innocence is not merely its soap-opera-esque plot. (Though it always helps to have high stakes and a strong plot in a book, of course.) The Age of Innocence is gripping because Edith Wharton is gripping — she employs a high form of irony at every turn of the page, and Newland Archer is himself a victim of “the patriarchy” as much as the “vapid May Welland” and “the dashing Ellen Olenska” both are. I love that. *LOVE*
Because in real life, the lines are all blurred, and people who benefit most from “the patriarchy” are often also victims of the privilege and power structures that outwardly help them — and I like stories that deal with this duality.
(And by “victims of privilege” I mean the psychological and emotional price of power and privilege — not so much a physical toll, such as lacking food, housing, safe drinking water, etc. “The price of privilege” is too big a subject for one blog post, however, so if anyone is like, “how can you even say that privilege would be hard on anyone?” then maybe just google it and see what you get, because yeah, I think there’s a big area full of shades of grey in most aspects of life. Very, very little is ever black and white.)
(However, people who believe in things like the Devil as an operating force of evil in the world, for instance, would *not* agree with me AT ALL on this hardly-any-black-and-white thing, to which I can only say, I don’t subscribe to any religous doctrine that supports a belief in an external source of evil operating in the world — I’m a writer and a dissipated bohemian, obviously — so if you need to read a blog proclaiming “the Devil is real, evil is out there, and it’s coming to get you” — well, there are other blogs for that.)
The only Devil in my Thought Candy blog is the little voice in my head that says things like, “mmmm… sea salt caramel gelato is so yummy, and I’d really like a cup of coffee even though it is ten o’clock at night, because I love bitter coffee” — and if that is the Devil, then I’ll just go be Satan’s Helper and live in my Den of Iniquity sipping espresso prepared by a barista with really great hair while I’m reading The Age of Innocence and crushing on Edith Wharton.
I would also like to say that I read The Age of Innocence in order to distract myself from having to finish Code Name Verity. I reached p.254 (of 332 total pages) and just needed a break from the tedium and non-enjoyment that is still my fate with this book.
I would also like to say that I helped convince my book club to read The Age of Innocence for our January read because Orphan Train was such a total fail in December. My friend Mary said (at our last meeting), “I can’t read another Orphan Train!! We need to pick something with GOOD WRITING. I need to read something GOOD. NO MORE ORPHAN TRAINS.”
(If you’d like to read my review of Orphan Train, to help explain Mary’s high emotions on this, you can find that here.)
(I would also like to say that Mary is a big fan of Love and Student Loans and Other Big Problems, and that makes me feel awesome. She thought my first book was enjoyable, but she really loved my second one. So: go me. Someone who yearns for GOOD WRITING enjoyed my work, and that is a total WIN.)
Mary was *all for* reading The Age of Innocence this month. She championed this pick! So I hope she enjoys it as much as I did, because I found the story enchanting and timeless, one of those tales that is true in any era. The final chapter is so incredibly brilliant — those are the words that transform Newland Archer’s story from the tale of one man into the tale of any generation, and make this novel the Pulitzer Prize-winning tour de force that it is. *LOVE*
And I still want to read The House of Mirth. And a biography of Edith Wharton. Because this much badassery deserves more obsession.
Okay, dearest Thought Candy reader — have you read any books by Edith Wharton? Any thoughts to share on The Age of Innocence? (Either the book or the film?) Or would you rather get to the real point of this blog post, and share what would go in *your* Den of Iniquity?
Yeah, I thought so.