The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own. -- Adam Gopnik



February 24, 2012

My Year with Edith {and my February in Venice}: The Children



It's true:  except for the Lido, and the funny horribleness of the expats on it, Venice was more a place on the map than a character, or even a setting, in this novel.  But what I wanted, and didn't find, was more than outweighed by what I did:  a funny, sweet, absorbing novel, from a novelist investing fiction that at times seemed almost light with all the signs of her skill and experience. And a craving for more of her work.

When you visit The Mount, Edith Wharton's house in Lenox {and you should, if you can ... I love going there}, you walk past a display of the original covers of all her books.  I remember being struck {know-it-all student of American literature that I am} by how many of them seemed forgotten. This one was published in 1928, her second-to-last novel, after all the better-known ones except for The Buccaneers. {I'm intrigued by the dedication, and I'm going to skip ahead in the temporarily-abandoned biography I've been reading for an explanation. More on this later...}  As I started reading it, I could almost see why it's lesser-known and probably lesser-read:  as I said, it seemed almost light, best-sellerish, maybe just jazz-agey {it's set in its time}, but even though all of this may be true in comparison to her other novels, by the end I could definitely see the accomplished writer in it.  And those same satirical view of the society she lived in, and the same surprising, or poignant, 'moments' {I can't think of better words right now) between the characters that I remember from the 'better' novels.

The plot {which runs along in the background, and doesn't have as strong of a presence as the characters do} centers on the relationship among a bachelor, a group of seven children, and the assorted adults connected to them. When the novel begins, Martin Boyne, an engineer, is on a boat, traveling from Algiers to Venice, returning from working abroad and hoping to re-connect with Rose Sellars, a lost love who has just been widowed.  Martin is a little serious and staid, and he's already lamenting the fact that nothing interesting will happen on the trip.

.... But though he was given to travel, and though he had travelled much, and his profession as a civil engineer had taken him to interesting and out-of-the-way parts of the world, and though he was always on the alert for agreeable encounters, it was never at such times that they came to him. He would have loved adventure, but adventure worthy of the name perpetually eluded him; and when it has eluded a man till he is over forty it is not likely to seek him out later.
      'I believe it's something about the shape of my nose,' he had said to himself that very morning as he shaved in his spacious cabin on the upper deck of the big Mediterranean cruising-steamer.
      The nose in question was decidedly not adventurous in shape; it did not thrust itself into other people's affairs; and the eyes alone, wide apart, deep-set, and narrowed for closer observation, were of a guarded twilight gray which gave the nose no encouragement whatever.
But when he finds his deck chair, the tag reserving the chair next to his reads 'Mrs. Cliffe Wheater,' and he recognizes the name of another lost love, married to a Harvard classmate of his who has become a blustery, wealthy businessman.  Thinking he will be seeing Joyce again after 20 years, he meets a young girl who turns out to her oldest daughter Judith.  Judith is traveling with a governess, a nursemaid, and six other children, who all turn out to be the step-brothers and sisters from the Wheaters' constantly unraveling and re-raveling marriage. Martin becomes wrapped up in their efforts to stay together, as their parents come together and apart, even as he tries to rekindle his relationship with Rose.

It would be easy to lump them all together, but one of the best things about reading The Children is the way that EW draws them all -- Judith, Terry, Bianca, Zinnie, Beechy, Bun and Chipstone -- separately and distinctly.  Their parents and step-parents, and their assorted lovers and hangers-on, are the ones sketched in almost as background, and for humor.

I saw the EW I expected to find most in the relationship between Martin and Rose.

One of Rose Sellars' jolly letters:  clever, understanding, and humorous. Why did Boyne feel a sudden flatness in it? Some just a trifle mincing, self-conscious -- prepared? Yes, if Mrs. Sellars excelled in one special art it was undoubtedly that of preparation.  She led up to things -- the simplest things -- with the skill of a clever rider putting a horse at a five-barred gate. All her her life had been a series of acquisitions, arrangements, shifting of lights, lowering of veils, pulling about of screens and curtains. No one could arrange a room half so well; and she had arranged herself and her life just as skilfully. The material she had had to deal with was poor enough; in every way unworthy of her; but, as her clever hands could twist a scarf into a divan-cover; and ruffle a bit of paper into a lamp-shade, so she had managed, out of mediocre means, a mediocre husband, an ugly New York house, and a dull New York set, to make something distinguished, personal, almost exciting -- so that, in her little world, people were accustomed to say 'Rose Sellars' as a synonym for cleverness and originality.
      Yes, she had had the art to do that, and to do it quickly, unobtrusively, by a touch here, a hint there, without ever reaching out beyond her domestic and social frame-work. Her originality, in the present day, lay in this consistency and continuity. It was what had drawn Boyne to her in the days of his big wanderings, when, returning from an arduous engineering job in Rumania or Brazil or Australia, he would find, in his ever-shifting New York, the one fixed pole of Mrs. Sellars' front door, always the same front door at the same number of the same street, with the same Whistler etchings and Sargent water-colours on the drawing-room walls, and the same quiet welcome to the same fireside.
She's a very Edith Wharton-esque heroine, in many ways. When she first appears, Rose is a very sympathetic, almost lovely character, someone to be admired, but when she doesn't fall in with Martin's sense of and plans for the children, her character and her 'rightness' come into question. What's very interesting {and from what I remember, this is very EW-esque, too} is that it's unclear whether she is less admirable because she is wrong, or just because she opposes him.

The power of this book {and the pleasure in reading it}, for me at least, comes from three places:  the humor {it's very funny in places}, the beautifully-drawn characters, and the writing itself, in the kind of phrases and small observations that I would have underlined in college.  I was happy enough to find myself enjoying The Children, but even happier to be reading such a good novel.


4 comments:

JoAnn said...

This sounds wonderful, even if Venice didn't figure into it as prominently as you'd hoped.

Lisa May said...

I've had this in the TBR piles for years. Your lovely posts have made me think it's time to move it up to the top!

Karen K. said...

I really need to read more Edith! If I wasn't stuck in the middle of Martin Chuzzlewit by Dickens I would march over to the bookcase and pick one by Wharton. Hmpf.

Peppermint Ph.D. said...

I love Wharton...can you believe I've never even heard of this one?? Another one to add to the collection :)