Happy Belated Birthday, Edith! And Top Ten and Teaser Tuesday
Edith Wharton is 150
#154) Hermione Lee’s biography of Edith Wharton arrived in the mail with a big 850 page thud today – yes! It was Edith’s 150th birthday recently and in honor of her (I’m NOT going to try to spell that one) centennial and a half I decided to get going on my Wharton reading:
#176) The Mother’s Recompense is, I believe, my first Wharton. My edition was published in 1925 but lists the book as first published in 1924 (Wikipedia says 1925 and that’ll teach you to believe Wikipedia unreservedly). So, my copy of the book is 87 years old. Which gives me pause. It has those fluffly, thick pre-late 1930’s pages and an inscription in the front – “Merry Xmas to Mame from Hugh, 1926” with a Christmas seal (Mame – do some people call their grandmas that…). Sweet, don’t you think? I like that cover, simple, but elegant. This book was written in the last third of her novels (does that make sense, do you know what I mean?).
Ok, so you might want to check out this New York Times piece “For Edith Wharton’s Birthday, Hail Social Climbers.” It has a slideshow of Wharton-related sites (and sights) around New York City. The title and theme is inspired by Downton Abbey mania and the fact that the mother played by Elizabeth McGovern in the series is a wealthy American who married into British royalty. This was a theme in some of Wharton’s work and a fairly common fin de siecle phenomena.
According to the Online Literature Network, Wharton was born into wealth and lived from 1862-1937. The Mother’s Recompense takes place around the time it was written (the early twenties). The narrator, Kate Clephane, married a wealthy, domineering New York City businessman who suffocated her. With her daughter, Anne, still a toddler, she ran away to Europe with a lover. The Clephanes refused to have anything to do with her after this and she was not allowed contact with her daughter even after her husband died. At the beginning of the book, Anne is 20 and her grandmother (who had been her guardian and the force that refused Kate readmittance) has just died – Kate gets a telegram about her death and then, immediately after, a telegram from Anne saying “Dearest mother: I want you to come home at once. I want you to come and live with me. Your Daughter Anne.”
Source: Online literature.com
Kate, still reeling from the loss of her most recent lover Chris (even though the loss was a few years? in the past) is thrilled, begins to treat her 18 years or so in Europe as a temporary interlude and hastens to her daughter’s side. Of course, we know that there will have to be a fly in the ointment – we can’t imagine such a situation moving forward easily – but the first months together are bliss. Anne is enraptured with her mother, Kate is in heaven, all is well. Until Kate’s past comes back to haunt her. We are taken through twists and turns – nothing is obvious and the ending is, in my opinion, original. Kate makes selfish bad choices and unselfish good choices – as we all do.
I loved this book – during those first chapters and months when Kate and Anne were getting to know each other, I was wishing for the book to just go on in that vein without the inevitable fall from grace. But that wouldn’t be much of a novel, would it?
One thing startled me – as I was reading I came upon this: “‘It’s odd,’ she thought, ‘I always knew it would be some one from a distance.'” (p. 85). That’s an unusual turn of phrase, isn’t it? And it reminded me of Dorothy Whipple’s Someone at a Distance. Then I started to think about the two stories – in the Whipple book the father betrays his family and goes off with another woman (spoiler alert!!!!!) by the end it is beginning to look like things might someday come around. In this book, the mother has betrayed her family and now is back and we see how things play out. I wonder if Whipple wasn’t inspired by this Wharton book (published just a few years before Someone at a Distance) and decided to use a variation of this phrase as her title…
Wharton writes beautifully, her perspectives are easy to relate to, her story lines interesting. So many times we think of classics as something we dread reading because they will be difficult, but again and again (James Joyce aside) I don’t find that to be true. I keep being reminded that Wharton (and Trollope, Eliot, Dickens, Whipple, Hull) HAD to be engaging writers or they wouldn’t have been as broadly popular as they were. This was a great Wharton to start with – now I’m excited to move into the Hermione Lee bio and continue reading Wharton’s novels. And, by the way, recompense means “payment.” If you read the book, you’ll understand the title. 🙂
Teaser Tuesday is sponsored by Should Be Reading. The idea is you take a current read, open to a page at random and pick two sentences that you post on your blog (avoiding spoilers) – then you leave a link to your post and a comment on her blog and travel around to the other book bloggers who posted theirs.
I decided to challenge myself and see if using Susan Wise Bauer’s method of reading a novel might help me get through some of those cool-looking Open Letter Press books sitting on my shelf (and help me meet The Introverted Reader’s books in translation 2012 challenge) and I started reading #120 A Thousand Peaceful Cities by Jerzy Pilch, translated from Polish by David Frick. So far, the Bauer method (and some thoughts from Jillian’s literature profs she’s written up here and there on her blog) are really helping.
So, from A Thousand Peaceful Cities: “I strained my ears, I slowly dressed, and more and more clearly I heard blows that were, admittedly, not irascible, but regular and forceful. An inky glow filled the kitchen. Someone had screwed a deep blue light bulb, left behind by the Germans, into the lamp that was hanging over the table.” (OK, I cheated and made it three sentences, because that blue light bulb caught my fancy). p. 57
This 2009 book is set in 1963 Poland as Mr. Traba plots (rather ineffectually) to assassinate a tyrant – the most affordable assassination is of the Polish first secretary (he’d like to kill Mao, but can’t afford the trip). Told from the perspective of a young boy – ostensibly the author.
Top Ten Tuesday: Ten Book Recommendations for a Book Club
Broke and Bookish hosts Top Ten Tuesdays the idea being that every week she asks you to provide ten answers to one question. This week’s question is: What books would be your top ten book club picks?
1) Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple.
Anything by Dorothy Whipple (ok, maybe not the Little Hedgehog) should work well for a book group, especially of women. She writes beautifully and thoughtfully and dissects human relationship like a surgeon. This is the first of her books that I read – it is painful, but powerful.
2) High Wages by Dorothy Whipple
I’ve just read this – while it has its share of pain, it is lighter than the other Whipples I’ve read. Plenty of love and clothes and strong women.
3) Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple
This one is longer and it took me a little while to get into it, but when I did, wow, was I caught up with this family, experiencing infidelity, WWI, illegitimate births, what amazing female characters!
4) The Priory by Dorothy Whipple
I’m only one quarter of the way through, but definitely enjoying this one -all together in a falling down mansion – a widower, his young bride, his unmarried sister, his two twentyish runamuck daughters who’ve closed themselves up in the attic, and the servants thanking god no one is asking them to work – how could you go wrong?
5) Heat Lightning by Helen R. Hull
Loved it! A family and its daughter figure out how to live in the face of every modern (and not so modern) challenges.
6) Run by Ann Patchett
Not one I talked about here, but my favorite Patchett – a family and their boys are thrown by their roots and challenged to move forward.
7) The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen
The first Bowen I read and my favorite – a bunch of folks stuck in a European hotel, trying to keep busy with their own (and everyone else’s) business – gossip, love, chocolates, flowers. Probably the funniest Bowen novel ever.
8) Anything by Alice Munro
One of my favorite authors – Munro is the short story master at illuminating all kinds of relationship.
9) Anything by Sue Miller
I love all of Sue Miller’s books, but I do have to wonder, why are all her books grounded in some sort of sexual transgression? Always a different one… always a different struggle. Her focus is on the thoughts inside women’s heads. She does it beautifully. I think any female book group would get a kick out of discussing a Miller book.
10) The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski
Ah, the only book by a male. This story of a family and the dog breed they’ve created is so powerful, I never wanted it to end (and it is long). The ending shook me – I’m not sure I agree with the author’s overall point (assuming I captured it), but his characters were unforgettable. If you love dogs, that’s just the frosting on the cupcake.
Happy reading! Ruby