Recent Reading: Wharton, Dickens, Pym, Heyer

I have a backlog of books I’d hoped to write detailed posts on, but the time I lost to that evil computer virus–and then to reinstalling and reorganizing everything so that I could get back to work–makes that an unrealistic goal. Still, all of them deserve at least some discussion, so here’s a run-down of what I found most interesting, provocative, delightful, or uninspiring about each of them.

Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence. There’s no denying the elegance and acuity of Wharton’s prose, the fine touch with which she fills in the details of her social drama. My appreciation of this book was undermined, though, by my skepticism about Newland Archer and my uncertainty about how far we were being encouraged to find his thwarted romance with Ellen Olenska poignant rather than pathetic. He’s such a passive wannabe, reading his Swinburne and Pater and fancying himself so different from those around him even as, in all affairs except his own, he is utterly conventional and priggish. His passion for Ellen (and her professed passion for him) seemed based on nothing more than fantasy. It seems that he, too, is the subject (if unwittingly) of Wharton’s satire, but the final chapter suffuses his earlier experiences in a glow that replaces criticism with wistfulness. Is the irony enhanced here (because even at this point he does not recognize the shallow folly of his grand amour?), or are we brought into fellowship with him as he mourns the loss of the man he (thinks he) might have been? The world of the novel also felt very small to me, and while I realize that is consistent with the way Wharton depicts it, as a closed society resistent to change and outsiders, I missed the overt presence in the novel of a wider perspective. To me, it was claustrophobic reading the way Henry James is; I like the “cool draught” that James complained came in through the open door of philosophy in George Eliot’s fiction.

Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend. This is a wonderfully dark, funny novel. Reading it, I was struck by Dickens’s mastery of his own form and by the readerly confidence that I felt, knowing he knew what he was doing. The novel is splendidly diffuse and prolix, but it is bound together by Dickens’s brilliant, all-encompassing metaphorical imagination, the unifying motifs appearing and recurring with symphonic assurance. In the end, though, I was dissatisfied with the novel’s morality, which struck me as false in a highly problematic way. Central to the novel is its critique of the corrupting power of wealth, the insinuating bad effects of greed and vanity and social climbing and conspicuous consumption. And central to this critique is the exemplary story of Bella Wilfer’s reeducation from a shallow, selfish, materialistic girl into a “boofer” lady who learns the value of love, honor, and fidelity. But Bella is rewarded for her transformation precisely by being rescued from any threat of poverty and rewarded with wealth and status. There’s all kinds of thematic fitness to this, and of course all the elaborate machinations of the plot are required to bring about this triumphant conclusion, but it’s hard not to find it a dangerous moral that if you abjure riches, riches will be your reward–or, thinking of the other characters, that if you dedicate yourself to the self-interested pursuit of wealth, you will meet your come-uppance. But nobody can make me laugh or cry while I read the way Dickens can, and no other author that I have read gives off from his pages the same sense of ebullient, irrepressible joy in language. Dickens goes on and on, even when there’s no formal or thematic necessity to his elaborations, not because he is “paid by the word” or doesn’t understand novelistic form, but because he is loving it–how can we resist? Why would we want to?

Barbara Pym, Jane and Prudence. Jane and Prudence is a charming read, to be sure, but it doesn’t deserve the effusive comparisons to Jane Austen that litter its blurbs. In its wry social comedy, its limited range of characters and setting, and its precise prose, it resembles Austen’s novels, but I thought this stylistic resemblance was not matched by a similarly rich undercurrent of ideas.

Georgette Heyer, Sylvester. I believe that this is the first Georgette Heyer novel I’ve read, which surprises me a little. But the Regency was never “my” period (the historical fiction I devoured in adolescence was overwhelmingly Tudor, with a sideline in the early Plantagenets, and then of course there was Richard III). I enjoyed Sylvester OK, though I found the writing fairly stilted and the plot predictable–which was fine for most of the book, really, as another way to say “predictable” is that it is true to the conventions of its genre. Towards the end, though, I thought it went off the rails: though it had to happen, the “discovery” that Phoebe and Sylvester are in love was handled clumsily, with Sylvester’s first proposal really coming out of nowhere, and Phoebe’s outraged response seemed forced. I didn’t like Phoebe herself much, actually: she had a good feisty side to her, but I was really disappointed by the way she limped around the novel being embarrassed and apologetic for putting Sylvester in as the villain of her novel. (The heroine of the otherwise ridiculous Lord of Scoundrels, which I read over the summer, was at least more consistent and sure of herself.) I did appreciate this little metafictional moment:

‘But, Phoebe, you don’t suppose he will read your book, do you?’ said Tom.

Phoebe could support with equanimity disparagement of her person, but this slight cast on her first novel made her exclaim indignantly, ‘Pray, why should he not read it? It is going to be published!’

‘Yes, I know, but you can’t suppose that people like Salford will buy it.’

‘Then who will?’ demanded Phoebe, rather flushed.

‘Oh, I don’t know! Girls, I daresay, who like that sort of thing.’


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.