Friday, July 11, 2008

The next Slaves of Golconda book: Ruth Hall

Well, it was hard to add up the numbers, as people have various ways of voting and it was extremely close, but it seems to me that Ruth Hall wins out, although only sort of. Three of the books got three votes each, which would mean a three-way tie, except that a couple people mentioned that Ruth Hall was a close second, so I'm going to count those and make Ruth Hall the selection. I hope you enjoy it!

As for the reading date, I didn't get a whole lot of feedback on that question, but the feedback I got indicates that a later date will work, so let's make the posts due on September 30th. This will give us 2 1/2 months to do the reading.

Anyone is free to join the discussion, so don't be shy! I'll be back here in September.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Help choose our next book!

Stefanie has asked me to choose the next Slaves of Golconda book, so I'm here with some choices. All of these are by 18C or 19C American writers, a category I don't read in very often but wish that I did, and so am seizing this chance to make up for my lack. I hope there is something here that appeals to you. Everyone is welcome to participate, whether you have a blog or not, so don't be shy!

Vote for your choice in the comments, and I'll add up all the votes on Friday morning. Also let me know if you would rather read the book by August 31st, which would be our usual time, or by September 30th, which would give us an extra month. I ask this because people might prefer to wait until the summer is fully over before our next discussion begins. Either way is fine with me.

So, here they are:

1. Fanny Fern's Ruth Hall. Hobgoblin recently recommended this to me. Here's a description: "The first novel by Fanny Fern, otherwise known as Sarah Payson Willis, is a semi-autobiographical tale of a talented writer who loses her husband and is forced to support herself and two young children in the mid 1800s. Fern writes with biting social commentary on the subject of traditional assumptions of the woman's place in society."

2. Elizabeth Stuart Phelps's The Story of Avis. Litlove mentioned this one recently, and it looks interesting. It's relatively expensive if you buy it new, but there are plenty of cheap used copies available. A description: "Avis is the story of a larger-than-life heroine, a promising artist, who against her better judgment is persuaded by her lover Philip Ostrander -- a "new man" -- to marry ... Phelps depicts the turmoil of her characters inner lives with great sensitivity and a skill that is striking."

3. Susanna Rowson's Charlotte Temple. (Another one recommended by Hobgoblin.) A description: "A story of seduction, betrayal, and retribution. It is a sentimental, moralistic novel of the eighteenth century that leaves the protagonist, Charlotte, in the midst of a cunning and unforgiving world." It was the biggest bestseller until Uncle Tom's Cabin appeared.

4. Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables. This book is on my mind as I saw the house itself just a month or so ago. A description: "Hawthorne's tale about the brooding hold of the past over the present is a complex one, twisting and turning its way back through many generations of a venerable New England family, one of whose members was accused of witchcraft in 17th century Salem."

Let me know what you think!

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Rebecca West review of The Glimpses of the Moon: "As Dust in the Mouth"

I thoroughly enjoyed Edith Wharton's The Glimpses of the Moon but there have been too many real life distractions this week for me to work up a decent post for the discussion. I'm providing instead (in lieu of in addition to) a review Rebecca West wrote about the book back in 1922 in hopes that the rest of you haven't moved on and still feel like discussing it.

The West review is harsh as were most of the reviews at the time of publication. According to James W. Tuttleton in The Dictionary of Literary Biography, "[w]ritten for the Pictorial Review, a slick periodical aimed at American housewives, The Glimpses of the Moon marked a steep decline in Mrs. Wharton's powers. While some reviewers gave the obligatory nod to Wharton's stylistic powers, Ruth Hale memorably defined the critical view that would seal the book's fate: 'Edith Wharton has no business to be writing such trash.' "

The book sold more than one hundred thousand copies in six months.

Notes on Novels: The Glimpses of the Moon

Every now and then some writer--either critic or novelist--announces that the novel is an art-form that is played out. The statement is, of course, not true.... But one can understand the mood of despair that makes people declare that all is up with the novel when one reads Mrs. Wharton's The Glimpses of the Moon.

Nothing more competent than this book could possibly be imagined. Mrs. Wharton has left undone nothing which she ought to have done; and on the other count, of doing nothing that she ought not to have done, her score is even higher. It has flashes of insight, as in that scene at the end of the book where the husband and wife, after a separation that has nearly terminated in their divorce, are sitting quietly together, and the husband's mind ranges back to the partners whom they had tentatively selected for consolation and remarriage. He thinks of the girl who had been willing to marry him, who will be cruelly disappointed by his return to his wife, with compunction and tenderness; and he is shocked by his certainty that his wife has utterly banished from her mind all thoughts of her dismissed suitor, whose goodness and affection deserved respect. But he remembers the next moment that whereas he had treated the girl very nearly like a cad, his wife treated her suitor with sincerity and courage. It is the neatest possible exhibition of the essential differences between Nick and Susy Branch. Yet, for all these occasional reminders that the hand that wrote this wrote Ethan Frome, and for all its perpetual, vigilant competence, the book is a dead thing. It is as well done as it possibly could be; but it is not worth doing. There is a very great temptation to say that since here is a novel which is written with supreme accomplishment and which is as dust in the mouth, there must be something wrong with the novel as an art-form. But if one examines the case more closely the failure of The Glimpses of the Moon may be seen to proceed, not from any inadequacy of the novel, but from two circumstances attending on the development of Mrs. Wharton's talent, which act on it as adversely as if they were innate defects.

The first of these is that Mrs. Wharton was born in America at exactly the wrong time. One does not mean that it was unfortunate that Mrs. Wharton was able to win (as she did with The Age of Innocence) the thousand-dollar Pulitzer prize.... Though indeed this is unfortunate, for that there is something within Mrs. Wharton which responds to this note is demonstrated by her choice of a title, for with a certain lack of sympathy with Dr. Donne she uses the line as a metaphor for the fleeting vision of the moral good which two persons pursue through the obscurities of a murky environment. But the real misfortune of Mrs. Wharton's uprising is that it happened at a time when fastidious spirits of the kind to which she markedly belonged were obsessed by a particular literary method, and in a place where every day revealed situations which were bound to attract an eager intelligence of the kind she undoubtedly possessed but which could not be appropriately treated by that favoured method. The method was that of William Dean Howells and Henry James. The situations were those arising out of the establishment of the American plutocracy; and they were large, bold situations, blatancies in a marble setting, that could not be dealt with by the method that in Mr. Howells' hands was adjusted to the nice balancing of integrities in a little town, and in Mr. James' to the aesthetic consideration of conduct in a society where the gross is simply put out of mind. The moral problem in The Glimpses of the Moon is as coarse as one can imagine anything self-consciously concerned with morality possibly being. Nick and Susy are two penniless persons of charm who find it easy to pick up a good living by sponging on their millionaire friends. They fall in love and marry, and then their way of living suddenly fails them, for it involves them in actions which people in love cannot bear to see each other performing. They sulk over it. They separate. Each meditates divorce and a mercenary marriage. They are drawn together and toward independence by a certain fundamental worthiness in both of them. About this situation of crude primary colours Mrs. Wharton writes with an air of discussing fine shades in neutral tints. It is as disconcerting as if, say, Mrs. Gaskell had written Mary Barton in exactly the same style as Cranford.

The second circumstance of Mrs. Wharton's uprising which has been adverse to her development was the unfashionability at that moment of the truth that novelty is a test of the authenticity of art. Tradition is a necessity to the artist; he must realise that he is only a bud on the tree. The America into which Mrs. Wharton was born was almost extravagantly conscious of that necessity, destitute as it was of traditions, terrified lest ill-advised patriotism should hinder it from affiliation to European tradition. But he must also realise that no bud is exactly like another bud. Imitation has its place in life; it is of considerable service in enabling people who have beautiful things in their minds, but who are not possessed of the necessary initiative to find the shape for them.

Source: Rebecca West, Notes on Novels: 'The Glimpses of the Moon', in New Statesman (© 1922 The Statesman Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. XIX, No. 490, September 2, 1922, p. 588. Reprinted in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 9.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Their Best Selves

I’ve long been a fan of Edith Wharton, a writer whose supremely elegant voice is generally combined with a sharp-edged and cynical view of corrupt, tribal, upper class society in turn of the century America. Wharton’s interest lies in the borderline characters, those who have the capacity to be better than the people who surround them, but who have fatal weaknesses for luxury or admiration. There are rules and regulations governing the possession of both luxury and admiration in Wharton’s world, and far from being ones we might expect concerning hard work or cultivating fine qualities, the winners of her societies tend to be those who know how to fight dirty, to manipulate coldly and to selfishly search out every possible advantage. That’s why the sympathetic characters who take center stage in her novels are so often doomed from the outset; they are just too nice to survive. And Wharton does tragedy very well; the collapse of marriages, business ventures, friendships, fine prospects are portrayed with beautiful, diamond-bright prose while her ruthless secondary characters look on from the shade of the veranda, drinks in hand.

So this Wharton novel we’ve been reading, The Glimpses of the Moon, turned out to be something of a surprise. It started out all too well, with happy couple Suzy and Nick Lansing celebrating their marriage of convenience. Both are attached to high society life without the funds to make it work, but they hit on a plan of living off their friend’s generosity for a year or so, honeymooning in borrowed houses across Europe and America. It’s intended to be a gentleman’s agreement that either of them can back out of when they find a ‘better prospect’, which is to say, a richer spouse. It’s a perfect plan, except for one detail: they turn out to have fallen in love with each other. Naturally this all falls apart within a couple of chapters and misunderstandings lead to a long period of painful separation. But this isn’t the usual kind of Wharton love affair either, where the feeling runs deep but the characters are so bounded by their own rules and conventions that they are entirely unable to help one another. What is most astounding, beyond the happy ending that Wharton guides her couple towards, is the fact that they learn and grow en route. I can’t think of a single character in any of her other books who actually does this, who develops and eventually adheres to, a kind of morality that we might recognize as beneficial and that actually does them good. The glimpses of the moon in the title translate literally into the narrative with Suzy and Nick gazing at the stars from positions of great happiness and great sorrow; it’s something between a symbol and a pathetic fallacy, but by the end I wondered whether we reader’s hadn’t also been given a glimpse of a Whartonian moon, another planet entirely where it was possible for good to prevail.

There’s a distinctly gendered dimension to the issue that separates the couple and the process they must go through before finding a way to reconcile. Suzy’s strategy for survival in the tough material world has involved a lot of compromise with morality; she’s not had the liberty of maintaining any kind of moral code if she is to keep her head above water, and often this has meant undertaking unpleasant chores in return for her friend’s hospitality, like flirting with their husbands to cover up their infidelities. Once Nick discovers her ‘managing’ their joint affairs with similar style, he suffers an attack of supercilious male pride. He’s not the first of Wharton’s men to watch a woman get her hands dirty and to respond with disgust and disdain rather than empathetic understanding. There clearly wasn’t a lot of that particular quality going around in late nineteenth century New York. And so he rushes off with congenial friends on a lengthy cruise, eyeing up the daughter as a potential new marriage partner (as much a need to save face with Suzy as the experience of any real attraction) whilst Suzy is left to battle it out alone with their crowd. It isn’t long at all before one of her close male friends finds himself in a position to offer her the riches and lifestyle she thought she longed for, but Suzy discovers that falling in love has wrought a transformation on more than just her heart. Nick’s dislike of her ‘managing’, his contempt for her infinite flexibility in the face of right and wrong, has turned out to be contagious, and in his company she has experienced a way of living that is itself more rich, more sumptuous, than the jewel-bright society to which she thought she belonged:

‘She felt as though she were on the point of losing some new-found treasure, a treasure precious only to herself, but beside which all he offered her was nothing, the triumph of her wounded pride nothing, the security of her future nothing. […] Nick had not opened her eyes to new truths but had waked in her again something which had lain unconscious under years of accumulated indifference. And that reawakened sense had never left her since, and had somehow kept her from utter loneliness because it was a secret shared with Nick, a gift she owed to Nick, and which, in leaving her, he could not take from her. It was almost, she suddenly felt, as if he had left her with a child.’

What an extraordinary passage to find in a Wharton novel. But there it is; Suzy and Nick find out that true love, real love, is the place where you are your best self, the finest version of the many people you could possibly be. That’s why Suzy still loves Nick and will never falter, despite the fact that he has behaved very badly towards her. He was the trigger for her enlightenment and in his presence she feels the lure towards further self-development. No amount of money can recompense such a loss. As for Nick, well, he has to learn that something as abstract and negligible as love can be stronger than his cold, hard principles. Men always fare better than women in Wharton’s novels, a cold, hard truth of her times and her ideology. But Nick backs down, he acts before it’s too late, he renounces his own puffed-up decisions, and that’s quite something. Lawrence Seldon wasn’t capable of doing it for poor, doomed Lily Bart, and even at the end of their lives, Newland Archer can’t get up those stairs to see the Countess Olenska. Rigidity and lack of moral flexibility dominate the men in Wharton’s world, just as supreme flexibility and endless compromise become the rule for women. Just for once, Wharton herself seems to have softened, and Suzy learns not to be so flexible, whilst Nick swallows his pride. And old romantic that she most unusually is here, Wharton tells us that this is love’s doing, that love can actually take her characters to places nicer than the Italian Riviera. Who ever would have thought it?