Classic Corner: Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905)

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Photo Credit: Book cover for the Dover Thrift Edition of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, 2002, uploaded 6 July 2008 by Wolf Gang: Wolf Gang/Flickr/CC BY SA 2.0

~~~Classic Corner is a new blog post series where I talk about classic literature that I’ve read.~~~

I’m happy to announce I have a new blog series. Every now and then, I’ll be posting about a classic book I’ve read. I read a lot of classic fiction and, unlike contemporary fiction, it takes a different mindset to enjoy classic books (which will be the subject of a future blog post). I try to bring out a little of why I enjoy classic literature so much in these blog posts, and I hope readers who might be a little wary of those “old books” will see we can enjoy these books as much as readers did at the time they were published.

When I thought about how I wanted to start this series, there was no question in my mind — I had to begin with Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. Wharton is one of my favorite authors, both because I love Gilded Age and Progressive Era literature, and because she is one of the godmothers of psychological fiction. Not only that, Wharton had a reputation for having been sympathetic to women’s plight and the limitations women endured in these eras, making her an early feminist writer.

The first time I read the book, I adored it. I loved the protagonist Lily Bart and saw her as a feminist character in the way she wouldn’t settle for any man, defying the Victorian ideal of the separate spheres. I also loved the descriptions of the elegant world Wharton knew, the New York elite at the turn of the century. Wharton’s novel was one of the first classic stories I read after I rejected potboiler romances in my teen years. I credit the book for beginning my love affair with classic literature.

The second time I read this book was years later while in graduate school. While my passion for the book hadn’t cooled (I still find it a page-turner), my affection for Lily Bart was a different story. By that time, I had studied quite a lot of women’s fiction and women’s history. I recognized Lily Bart as not the feminist heroine I had envisioned her the first time. I saw her as rather vain and selfish, the Victorian version of the entitlement generation. I had little patience for the ease with which she criticizes others and the snobbish airs she takes of the well-to-do New York society in which she circulates but, in terms of money and position, doesn’t really belong (the old saying, “beggars can’t be choosers” comes to mind). I was especially affected by the way she constantly puts down the one real friend she has, a working class reformer named Gerty Farish. In Lily’s eyes, Gerty is shabby, poor, and sanctimonious because she doesn’t live on Fifth Avenue, doesn’t attend afternoon teas, and works hard to help young women worse off than herself.

Photo Credit: Illustration from The House of Mirth, 1905 by A. B. Wenzell. From a scene where Lily Bart is leaving Lawrence Selden’s apartment house and passes by a woman cleaning the stairs. Note Bart’s haughty pose, as if to say “How dare this lowlife get in my way of passing on the stairs?”: Sherurcij/Wikimedia Commons/PD 1923 

My third reading of the book happened a few years ago. By then, I was a published author and working on my own Gilded Age novels depicting the upper class (though mine takes place in the West Coast rather than the East Coast). I can’t say I’ve changed my views much about what kind of character Lily Bart is. I still see her, for the most part, as self-centered and shallow, though not without other redeeming qualities (like her feminine charm and self-awareness). However, since experiencing my own characters caught up in the power of wealth and social status that identified the Gilded Age in America, I realized I had been making what is probably the biggest mistake readers make when approaching classic literature: I was reading the book from the point of view of my own time and not from the perspective of the time in which it was written. Armed with some background on the era, I now understand why she behaves the way she does, what motivates her socially and psychologically. 

Wharton was anxious to show the waste “old moneyed” New York put upon young women like Bart in order to be accepted into that society. Bart is a product not just of her time but of her social and psychological circumstances. She does what young women who wanted to belong to the exclusive circle of New York high society had to do. Beautiful, young women in Gilded Age New York were taught that their only asset was their looks and their willingness to comply and they had better make the most of these qualities while they could by snagging a rich husband. So Bart’s obsession with finding a rich husband may seem artificial by contemporary standards, but she was taught nothing else by her mother and the society in which she aspired to belong.

My interest in The House of Mirth isn’t just as a reader but also as a writer. In my upcoming book, Pathfinding Women, which is Book 3 of my Waxwood Series, the subject of marriage is very much on the minds of both Vivian Alderdice, the unofficial protagonist of the series, and her mother, Larissa. Vivian doesn’t have the problem that Lily Bart has (no money). Her problem is more one of age. In this book, Vivian is twenty-six, and in Gilded Age high society, any young woman who wasn’t married by the age of twenty had a problem. There are also other, more personal reasons why both Vivian and Larissa are anxious to see her married.

Want to know more about this upcoming book? You can read about Pathfinding Women, which will be out in August 2020, here. If you’d like more information about the series, take a look at this page.

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Feminist Consciousness-Raising in the 1960s and 1970s

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Photo Credit: Image of civil rights activist Yuri Kochiyama with quote “Remember that consciousness is power”, uploaded 18 October 2016 by dignidadrebelde: dignidadrebelde/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

When we think of the 1960s and 1970s, some of the images that come to mind might be tie-dye t-shirts, LSD, civil rights, and The Brady Bunch. Second-wave feminism is also high on the list (like the one of feminists burning their bras which, incidentally, never happened). And additional cliche associated with this movement is the feminist consciousness-raising group.

Consciousness raising (or C-R) is closely linked to the argument “the personal is political”. It was a way for women to connect to one another and to the issues they were facing in the mid-20th century. These groups created a safe space for women to discuss problems that were personal to them, many of them for the very first time. Bear in mind that in the previous era, the Occupation “Housewife” era of the 1950s, women were supposed to have been happy just being housewife and mothers, living in the suburbs, having enough money for luxuries, and focus on serving those around them — they were not supposed to be gathering to talk about what frustrated, angered, and annoyed them. They were not supposed to talk about taboo subjects like sexual satisfaction, abortion, rape, and infertility. But a decade and two decades later, the women’s movement was encouraging them to do just that, and in doing so, pointed toward a bigger picture of oppression for women on a political, social and psychological scale that was much greater than they realized (and, in the 1980s and 1990s, the third-wave feminist movement would realize even greater issues by going global). 

As British feminist Jalna Hamner points out in a short interview here, the C-R groups were really the crux of the women’s movement. In fact, if a woman wanted to be involved in the movement, it was imperative that she be a part of one of these groups. In addition, many groups required that all women speak for a reason. Many women felt isolated and confused about how they felt and what was troubling them, and it was only hearing other women speak of the same problems that they realized their issues were valid and, in fact, stemmed from a much larger framework of oppression. Once women were aware, they could then work toward solutions to these problems.

There was backlash against these groups as well. Hamner mentions the idea of exposing her personal problems to a group of women did not appeal to her, and this was true for some women who preferred their private world remain private. Others pointed out that talking about personal problems was not going to make any political headway. One way of thinking about it is by using the analogy of psychology. I remember when I was in a master’s program at an alternative school in California where the approach to therapy was psychoanalysis (think: Freud), or, “talk therapy”. At the time (the early 2000s), CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) was huge and many CBT psychologists jeered at psychoanalysis because of the same reason people criticized the C-R groups: It was talking, not taking action. A great illustration of this is a scene from the 1975 dark comedy The Stepford Wives. Joanna (Katharine Ross) is anxious to get a C-R group started among the suburban housewives of her new community. But when she arranges for a meeting, the results are hardly what she expects because these women are so embedded in the feminine mystique that their “consciousness raising” turns out the exact opposite of what second-wave feminists would have wished!

The protagonists of the stories in my book Lessons From My Mother’s Life are sort of in between the Stepford wives and the consciousness-raised feminists. They are on the apex of discovering the lives that were supposed to be perfect and fulfilling for them aren’t and are looking toward the future when the women’s movement and C-R groups could free them from the loneliness of having to deal with their issues by themselves. The stories begin with women caught in the net of the feminine mystique and end with their own revelations about where they want to go with their lives and who they want to be. While the stories take place before second-wave feminism got off the ground, they are already looking toward a brighter horizon and a way to consolidate their “something isn’t quite right” feelings.       

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The Personal is Political

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Photo Credit: Feminist symbol (Venus symbol with clenched fist, first used in the 1960s), created 8 August 2006, author unknown: Hill~common-swiki/Wikimedia Commons/PD Ineligible

In one of my recent blog posts, I brought up one of the slogans associated with the second-wave feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s: “The personal is political.” But what does this slogan really mean and why was it so important to the movement at that time?

These words weren’t just a catchy phrase but a political argument. If we recall, the goal of 19th and early 20th centuries suffragism, women were specifically fighting for their right to vote. They had a very specific agenda. By the time the 1960s rolled around, the issues surrounding women’s rights were much more complex and needed to expand. Women weren’t fighting for just their political right to influence laws and policies. These things were often very closely related to their lives and the lives of everyone around them. They touched upon very personal issues, such as reproductive rights, rape, domestic violence, and abortion. Feminists argued these issues should not be kept out of the public sphere, as they affected not only the women personally involved, but other women and future generations. In other words, these weren’t just the problems belonging to one individual woman or group of women. They were problems relating to a world that sanctioned sexual oppression and discrimination. To solve them took fixing the whole system, one woman at a time.

Exactly where the phrase “the personal is political” came from is difficult to pinpoint. Some identify its origin in an article written in 1969 by activist and writer Carol Hanisch for a book of feminist writings published a year later. But Hanisch herself denies the phrase came from her and, instead, credits the editors of the book, Shulamit Firestone and Anne Koedt for coming up with the slogan. But these women also denied that the phrase originated from them. They insisted it really belonged to the thousands of women in consciousness-raising groups who used the term to describe their own revelations regarding their personal and collective oppression.

As I was writing (or, rather, rewriting) the stories of my latest book, Lessons From My Mother’s Life, which touch upon themes of Betty Friedan’s the feminine mystique and the crumbling of the happy and fulfilled American housewife ideal in the late 1950s and early 1960s, it struck me how the slogan “the personal is political” is almost a slap in the face to the separate spheres of the 19th century. A new generation of women were insisting that, rather than two separate arenas in life, the private (for women) and the public (for men), one was enmeshed in the other, and the problems of the private were the problems of the public and vice versa. The walls that had kept 19th century women pent up in their own world without a voice were crumbling and continue to crumble even today.

If you would like to know more about the stories in Lessons From My Mother’s Life, you can find out about them and order your copy of the book here.      

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Art in Lessons From My Mother’s Life

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Photo Credit: Vintage art flea market, created 2 March 2014, uploaded 24 October 2016: teliatan/Pixabay/Pixabay license

If you’ve read some of my books, you’ve probably figured out by now that I love to make associations. I’m drawn to different works of art that often times relate to my characters and help bring out their psychological reality. For example, in False Fathers, the myth of Actaeon and Diana plays a heavy role symbolically in Jake’s story (something you can read more about here and here). 

I usually don’t plan these things ahead of time. During the outline or first draft phases of my writing, certain associations will come to me, and I’ll research a myth, book, artwork, musical piece, etc., and realize the symbolic and/or thematic significance of it and then weave it into the story. Sometimes it becomes something major (like the myth of Actaeon and Diana), and sometimes it gets only a mention. 

Although literature is my usual comfort zone, I also find certain works of art fascinating, and two of these found their way symbolically and thematically in two of the stories in Lessons From My Mother’s Life.

Photo Credit: The Nightmare, Henri Fuseli, 1781, oil on canvas, Detroit Institute of Arts: Hohum/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD old)   

A painting I found a while back while looking for images for my old blog site that absolutely intrigued me was Henri Fuseli’s The Nightmare. I actually did use it for a time until I got my logo and put that on the site. The painting, as you can see above, has very gothic, dark undertones reminiscent of popular late 18th century gothic novels (and the painting was indeed created during that time period). As described in this article, the painting was shocking in its immoral and sexual undertones when it was displayed at the Royal Academy in 1781. The painting appears in my story “Soul Destinations” where Gary, an aging musician haunted by ghosts from his father’s past, tries to explain to Joan, the woman he meets on a train, about a hallucinatory demon named Lucas that exists in his father’s mind:

“Have you ever seen Henry Fuseli’s painting The Nightmare?” Joan nodded. “That woolly demon sitting on the sleeping woman in white,” said Gary. “That’s Lucas. Always crouched over someone with those hollow, evil eyes and that twisted mouth.”

Lucas becomes a symbol for Gary of many things: his failing musical career, his father’s unstable mental health, and the tragedy of a man he never met caught up in the horrors of the Holocaust.

Photo Credit: The Disquieting Muses, Giorgio de Chirico, 1916-1918, The Hidden Art Treasure: 150 Italian Masterpieces, Exhibition in Naples, March, 2017: Carlo Raso/Flickr/Public Domain

The other painting that makes an appearance in Lessons is Giorgio de Chirico’s The Disquieting Muses, which appears in my story “Two Sides of Life.” The painting depicts two of the nine mythical Muses of Greek mythology: Melpomene, the Muse of Tragedy (representing by the sitting muse with the red mask lying near her feet) and Thalia, the Muse of Comedy (who stands beside what looks like a straight candy cane, which represents her staff). The picture, even with its brilliant reds, oranges, yellows, and greens, is disturbing in its abstractions of the faceless, bald muses. 

However, the protagonist of the story, an empty-nester named Leanne, sees the muses differently in a sculpture inspired by de Chirico’s painting shown to her by her husband’s lab assistant, an art enthusiast:

“I’m not familiar with the Muses,” she admitted.

“I wouldn’t expect you to be.” He smiled, sitting on a box in the corner that was too low for his long legs. He looked like a grasshopper resting on a tree stump. “The one with the sword is Melpomene, the Muse of Tragedy. Her sister, Thalia, is the Muse of Comedy.”

“I see,” Leanne murmured. “The two sides of life. Sadness and joy.”

Leanne later relates this idea of two sides of life in her connection with Arlene, a woman who is a generation younger than she is and has only disdain for the women of the Occupation: Housewife era.

I first heard of de Chirico’s painting through reading Sylvia Plath’s poem “The Disquieting Muses”. The painting is striking, through not really my style (I prefer more classical paintings like The Nightmare). Plath’s poem, like my story, appropriates the painting in a different way. You can listen to Plath reading the poem herself here.

If you want to read these stories, feel free to pick up a copy of Lessons From My Mother’s Life. Buy links can be found here.       

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Defending June Cleaver

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Photo Credit: Photo of Barbara Billingsley (June Cleaver) with Tony Dow (Wally Cleaver) and Jerry Mathers (Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver) from the television series Leave It to Beaver, 9 July 1959, ABC Television: We hope/Wikimedis Commons/PD US no notice

In light of my book, Lessons From My Mother’s Life, that came out last week, I wanted to revisit one of the most iconic TV characters of the 1950s.

It recently came to my attention that, while the name June Cleaver conjures up very specific images in the minds of many Americans (of an older generation, especially), not everyone knows who June is. June was the mom on the family television show that aired between 1957 and 1963 called Leave It to Beaver. The show was about a typical American suburban family of the 1950s and encompassed all of the stereotypes we associate with the post-war nuclear family: a father who has a good job and is the undisputed “head of the family,” a mother who epitomizes the feminine mystique, and two smart, good-natured kids (in this case, two boys, the younger of which is nicknamed Beaver and forms the central character of the series). The show was a huge hit in the Occupation: Housewife era because it offered Americans who were recovering from the horrors of World War II exactly the kind of life they wanted — stable, family-oriented, and prosperous.

June Cleaver was exactly the kind of woman Betty Friedan would have considered the poster child for the feminine mystique (interestingly, Friedan never mentions June, though that may be because the show was still running at the time of the book’s publication). Her role in life is that of a housewife and mother and she has no desire do be anything beyond that. Her life revolves around her husband, two sons and her house, which is always immaculate and polished. She even presents the kind of 1950s housewife in the advertisements, complete with high heels and pearls, which she wears even when she’s doing housework.

But, just as with many television and film characters, there is more to June than meets the eye. One of the most interesting scenes of Beaver finds June arguing against the rather myopic opinions of her young son, Beaver, about women and intelligence. The scene is fascinating because Beaver, probably about eleven or twelve here, brings forth some of the views in the 1950s that Friedan outlines in her book, The Feminine Mystique: that intelligence for women wasn’t an issue because they only had to get married and have families, and if they did work, they had “jobs” (and highly feminized ones at that) and not “careers.” June counters this by reminding Beaver that, nowadays, women can have careers and their intelligence is as good as any man’s. It’s significant that the episode aired in 1960, when women were beginning to wake up to the fact that the post-war image of the feminine mystique might not be serving them well as individuals.

Photo Credit: Photo of Barbara Billingsley and Hugh Beaumont as June and Ward Cleaver from the television series Leave it to Beaver, 15 September 1958, ABC Television: Crakkerjakk/Wikimedia Commons/PD US no notice  

June also was a match for her husband, Ward. If June was the poster child for the 1950s woman, Ward epitomized a lot of what American men were expected to be after World War II: ambitious, strong-willed, and forceful. He’s in no way a bully but let’s just say, we know where The Beaver got his opinion of women in the previously mentioned episode, as this clip tells us. Although June defers to Ward in most important decisions in the show, she doesn’t do so meekly. She has her own opinions and voices them.

And just a word about June’s pearls and high heels. These things were part of what made June Cleaver an icon and also won the character a lot of criticism from the second wave feminist movement, because, they reasoned, women were not dolls to be on display all the time. But, as Barbara Billingsly, the actress who played June, points out here, there were actually very practical reasons for both the pearls and heels. She wore the necklace to hide a hollow in her neck that was causing an unseemly shadow on film, and the high heels were because, throughout the six years Beaver aired, both actor Jerry Mathers (who played The Beaver) and Tony Dow (who played older brother Wally) grew, as boys do, and both became quite tall. So she had to wear the heels to keep up with their growth spurts!

You can check out more about how women lived in post-World War II America in my new book, Lessons From My Mother’s Life, here.       

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