I read Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton back in May and enjoyed it. It effectively conveyed the harshness of the frontier, and the claustrophobia of the small mountain towns cut off from the outside world through tough winters. Wharton was extremely prolific, and won a Pulitzer prize for The Age of Innocence. Sister suggested I read it, so only a short 6 months later I finally did.
Ethan Frome explored characters trapped physically by their environment and circumstances like unhappy marriage, and poverty. The Age of Innocence, published in 1921 but set in 1870’s New York, similarly focuses on people trapped by convention and their limited world view. Although, these people are quite wealthy, and also quite dull.
No one in the Mingott set could understand why Amy Sillerton had submitted so tamely to the eccentricities of a husband who filled the house with long-haired men and short-haired women…
There’s a section near the beginning where our protagonist mentally works through all the main families of society and how they all relate to one another. Of course they have all tended to marry within a fairly small social circle, and yet I still found it quite confusing and struggled to remember who everyone was and how they were related. Our protagonist is called Newland Archer, a ridiculous name but his mother was a Newland you know. His name, the cover art, and the style of writing gave me the feeling that I was reading a cheap romance novel for the first few chapters. Albeit, one without much smut. I did find I couldn’t quite figure out how seriously I should take the book, and how tongue-in-cheek it all was.
Poor Newland, he’s a gentleman lawyer which means he heads to the office for show but generally does nothing of any great importance. He’s engaged to the young and delightful May Welland (of the Wellands) who’s sweet but has no interest in expanding her horizons. And then the Countess Olenksa pops up. She’s formally Ellen Mingott, of the Mingotts, who went to Europe and married Count Olenski. With his money and artistic connections she was exposed to all sorts of wild bohemian things that shock and awe her American relations. But she has left her violent husband and returned to New York, so live like they do.
Without really doing anything, or having any reaction to anything she somehow entices Newland into the world’s most boring affair.
In the rotation of crops there was a recognised season for wild oats; but they were not to be sown more than once.
And that’s about it. It’s a slow burner, lots of thinking and overthinking, not much doing. Certainly, women were getting screwed throughout the book, which is interesting as it was written by a woman. Is she making an important point about how women were and are treated, or is it more just a passive description of what life was like?
…and once more it was borne in on him that marriage was not the safe anchorage he had been taught to think, but a voyage on uncharted seas.