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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Women Progressives in the Late 19th Century

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Photo Credit: Children gathered in Hull House for kindergarten, 1902, Allen B. Pond, James Addams Hull House Museum: JethroBT/Wikimedia Commons/PD US

Last year, I wrote this blog post about the Progressive Era. But progressive reforms didn’t just begin the 20th century. The Gilded Age laid the groundwork in the last quarter of the 19th century, and especially its last decade when its dazzle of its excessiveness, idleness, and glitter were beginning to wear off, and Americans were becoming more aware of the political wrongs in the country that needed to be made right.

Women, mainly from the upper class social stratum (that is, wealthy and middle-class women) put themselves front and center as reformers during this time for several reasons. They took up issues they felt were of particular concern to, and in the domain of, women, such as sanitation, health and safety, and child labor. They saw reform as more about social problems than political problems (so they were not necessary suffragists, though the suffragists were certainly concerned about these issues as well). These women were social reformers who preferred to work within the woman’s sphere — that is, unlike the suffragists, who could rub the public the wrong way with their demand for a voice in public arenas such as politics, business, and law, women progressives preferred to work in areas that were more private. 

A myriad of social changes were happening in America during the last decade of the 19th century. One of them was the economic criss brought on by the Panic of 1893. In the wake of this panic, slums in big cities like New York and Chicago grew, as well as the population of the poor elsewhere in America. Added to this, immigration increased during this time (with the opening of Ellis Island), and conflicts between laborers and employers signaled a growing concern for the rights and conditions of working women and children.

Much of this social reform took place in the settlement houses largely run by middle-class women that offered a host of services for poor and working class people in urban communities. Probably the most famous of these was Hull House in Chicago, run by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr. But there were others all over the country.

Photo Credit: Telegraph Hill from Sacramento and Powell Streets, 1858-1900, Thomas Houseworth & Co., Publishers: New York Public Library/Public Domain

Since I deal with San Francisco and the Bay Area in my books, I went seeking information about settlement houses in the city in the late 19th century and found that the first one that operated was very similar to Hull House. Located on San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill (one of the most picturesque areas of the city), the Telegraph Hill Neighborhood Center opened its doors in 1890 in response to the area’s growing immigrant population and its neighborhood children being pulled out of school and play for work, Elizabeth Ashe and Alice Griffith, like Addams and Gates, were educated New Women who responded to the growing needs of the neighborhood after they got to know some of its children through their teaching of Sunday school. Like Hull House, their objective was to offer residents a myriad of social improvements, from education to physical activity. The center offered classes for children and adults and also a library, as well as a playground and gymnasium, encouraging nurture of the mind and body, as well as the soul.

In Book 3 of the Waxwood Series, women progressives make an appearance in two ways. First, there is a group called the Bay Area Women’s Social and Political Rights League made up primarily of wealthy women to which Vivian Alderdice, the main character of the series, was introduced in Book 2 by one of the Washington Street blue bloods, Marvina Moore. Vivian also meets some New Women in the book through Annette Grace, a Waxwood native who owns a pharmacy/drug store in town. Though from different classes, both these groups are concerned with women laborers and their situation in the late 19th century, and both are looking to implement social changes as the nation moves into a new century.

Book 3 of the series, Pathfinding Women, will be out this summer, and you can find out more about it here. And to find out more about the series, go here.      

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Jake and Vivian Alderdice: Isolated Siblings

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Photo Credit: Siblings,  Carl Froschl, 1913, oil on canvas: Mutter Erde/Wikimedia Commons/PD old 80 expired

May 2 is National Brothers and Sisters Day. Since I’ve been working on Book 3 of the Waxwood Series, I thought this would be a perfect time to revisit the characters of Vivian and Jake Alderedice, the sister and brother of the Alderdice family. I say “revisit” because I’ve written about both characters in the past (about Vivian here and about Jake here). But Book 3 finds them both older, wiser, and, in some ways, very changed.

I talked here about how a novel I wrote in 2004 evolved into this series and some of the changes from novel to series. One thing that didn’t change was the relationship between this sister and brother. I envisioned Vivian and Jake as rather isolated as children which, in that contemporary version, was due to the dysfunctional family dynamics of the Alderdices. That disfunction became more complex when I decided to put the series in a historical context because so much in the Victorian era was hidden and “not talked about”. Often times, my fiction works off of metaphors, images, and symbols and the playroom became the metaphor for Vivian and Jake’s isolated world. On the top floor of the massive Alderdice Hall, Vivian and Jake spent many hours there, left to themselves because of the Victorian era idea that “children should be seen and not heard.” In The Specter, the first book of the series, Vivian describes the playroom in this way:

The playroom looked just as she and Jake had left it the last time they had played there as children. Maids still kept the dust out, and the sailboat window was locked so as to keep out intruding creatures. She turned on the gaslight, and the yellow glare immediately illuminated the small cabinet with the transparent door where the glass circus still stood in mid-action, ready for its audience of delighted children. She approached the cabinet and feeling for the panel at the bottom of it, pressed the flap back. 

There were images that stuck in my mind when I was writing about the playroom in earlier versions of the story: The round windows, like you see in a ship’s cabin, toy soldiers Jake’s grandfather had bought him as a child as a sort of token of the manliness he expected from him in the future, and the display of glass circus animals in the cupboard (which, I frankly admit, was inspired by Tennessee Williams’ play The Glass Menagerie). As children, virtually ignored by their elders, Vivian and Jake created a make-believe world together, though one that was less defined than, say, the worlds of Gondol and Angria created by the Bronte sisters, but in Book 2 of the series, False Fathers, Jake asks his sister to pose for a painting in the wax woods, and the picture he creates is a sort of mythical child-like Diana in an enchanted forest.

Photo Credit: Sister and Brother (Portrait of Ernesta and Philip Drinker), Cecelia Beau, 1897, The Atheneum: BoringHistoryGuy/Wikimedia Commons/PD old 70 expired   

When I started to rethink the series in the Gilded Age era, I also realized that, while family secrets and lies play a role with this family, there was another element that contributed to the close-knit relationship of these two siblings: time. The Gilded Age saw a lot of families rise to the top and legacies form and along with that, generations of young men and women who were burdened with rigid social and conventional expectations. Vivian and Jake, I knew, were not ones to bend to social conventions and therein lay their psychological reality. Conflicts of family expectations and obligations on the one hand, and the quest for their own identity on the other, are what drive both Vivian and Jake in the series.

You can read more about Vivian and Jake in The Specter and False Fathers, the first two books of the Waxwood Series. And to find out more about the series itself, you can go to this page.    

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The Order of Actaeon

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Photo Credit: Marble bust of Actaeon with animal skin on his head, Hadrianic Period (AD 117-138), Museo delle Navi, Nemi: Following Hadrian/Flickr/CC BY SA 2.0

As many of you know, if you’ve read my blog post about the title evolution of False Fathers, the idea of Actaeon, the hunter who earned the goddess Diana’s displeasure and paid the consequences, plays a role as a metaphor for Gilded Age masculinity in the book. 

One of the ways that Actaeon (whose story you can find here) figures into False Fathers is in a male fraternity called The Order of Actaeon (or, as they refer to themselves, the “Actaeons”). I talked about the importance of male secret societies and fraternities in the 19th century here. Many men belonged to such societies in the Gilded Age, because it was a way for them to cement their identity as men in the chaotic twists and turns of the last decades of the 19th century, when the definition of masculinity was changing just like the definition of femininity. Women had the suffragists and the New Woman  to help them cope with these changes, and men had their societies and fraternities.

The Order of Actaeon (which, by the way, is entirely fictional) operates on the principle that there is, in the Gilded Age, a “disturbing inclination of modern young men toward falling into the twin traps of profit-seeking and vicious competition characteristic of civilized life and thus losing their manly strength and virtue.” It began, in fact, so that older men (known as “Patriarchs”) could guide younger men (known as “Youths”) and help them live a purer, more decent life with beliefs and virtues that were honorable and admirable. Each Youth enters the order on the recommendation of a Patriarch who then becomes his mentor throughout his life (or the duration of his involvement with the Order).

The Order’s activities evolve mainly around masculine pursuits, such as carpentry, fishing, and hunting. In fact, the hunt is an important metaphor for the Actaeons and the reason why they named their fraternity after the Greek mortal. The Order believes that hunting develops skills of “strength, aggression, instincts, pride, and self-control.” To this end, the Order organizes weekend hunts, where each youth is expected to participate and submit to guidance by his Patriarch.

Another important aspect of the order is secrecy. They don’t even allow men to know one another’s real names. Each member that enters the order choses a name for himself by which he is known in the order (Jake chooses the name “Carlton,” his beloved grandmother’s maiden name). Neither are the men allowed to know about one another’s life outside of the order. This secrecy is so important that, as one of the men explains to Jake, one of their founding members was asked to leave after he revealed some of their activities to his wife.

The quotes I use above are from a document that appears in False Fathers, where the Order of Actaeon principles and philosophies are outlined in writing. Harland Stevens, the main father figure in Jake’s life, is the one who creates it, brought into the order as a Youth by the man who was asked to leave it and, now, one of the leading Patriarchs. Stevens’ vision of the orders’ philosophies are very clear and precise:

That emotional attachments may drain a man of his intelligence and virility, and he is to maintain some distance between himself and his loved ones beyond keeping the secrecy of the Order.

That modern man is forced to separate his pure life from his civilized life to cultivate his development and well-being.

That each man shall agree to the virtues of hunting not only as a means of athletic skill and success, but also as a way of developing his strength, aggression, cunning, and wile. He shall seek to make himself a skilled hunter and help others do the same.     

The order and especially its vow of secrecy plays a major role in Jake’s journey at the end of the novel. 

If you’d like to read an excerpt from False Fathers involving the Actaeons, you can do so by joining my readers group. For more about the book, go here. And don’t forget to check out the series page to find out more about the entire Waxwood series.

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Teddy Roosevelt in the Gilded Age

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Roosevelt was known to pose for many photos that showed of his user-masculine persona. In this one, he’s posing in his hunting clothes, complete with rifle and hunting knife (which, according to the notes on the photo, came straight from Tiffany’s!)

Photo Credit: Theodore Roosevelt as the Badlands hunter by George Grantham Baine, 1885, New York City: w:en:Beao/Wikimedia Commons/PD US

There have been a lot of caricatures and stereotypes of Theodore Roosevelt. For example, there is the impression given of a small man with a big voice in the popular 1944 film Arsenic and Old Lace, where actor John Alexander puts a screwball comedy twist on Roosevelt by portraying him as a loud, aggressive, “take charge” kind of guy as in this scene. Then there is the Bugs Bunny cartoon where Bugs appears in a fake handlebar mustache and spectacles, waving a “big stick” around.

But Roosevelt was a complex man who had many talents and passions, and his Gilded Age persona (before he became president in 1901) gives us a glimpse at the extraordinary person he was. He was the ultimate Gilded Age hero who met with adversary using strength and eloquence. He threw himself into any endeavor and that included politics, ranching, writing, and war in the last quarter of the 19th century, all before he entered the White House

Roosevelt, though, was not one of these presidents that came from humble beginnings. In fact, he was born into a family much like the Alderdices, my wealthy San Francisco family in the Waxwood Series. He was born of privilege and ease and, in fact inherited a large sum of money as a young man upon his father’s death that allowed him to live in the lap of luxury the rest of his life. But, like many Gilded Agers, he pursued several careers to prove his worth as a man. Even as a child, he never let the “big boys” bully him. The infamous story of his passion for boxing came about when he was beat up by two older boys on a camping trip. Determined never to allow such a thing to happen again, he took up the “strenuous life,” involving himself in boxing, rowing, and hunting (among other athletic activities) and advocated for boys and men to take up vigorous exercise and competitive sports as a way of developing not only the muscles but the mind as well.

Roosevent’s pre-presidential career was shadowed by political aspirations but his interests were also taken up by other (decidedly masculine) pursuits. He was passionate about naval history and published several books on the subject (including a book on the role of the navy in the war of 1812). This knowledge served him well in 1896, when he was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy, a position that helped usher him into the famous role he played in America winning the Spanish-American War. He wrote other books on hunting (one of which is referenced in False Fathers, the second of the Waxwood Series), conservation, and ranching, many of which were published before he became president. He wrote about these things from experience, as in between his years as a rising political figure in the Gilded Age, he retired to a ranch in the Dakota Territory and lived the life of a cowboy. He also spent a time as police commissioner of New York, cleaning up the rather haphazard ways of law enforcement at that time.

I find it interesting that Roosevelt sought to make a name for himself in the very spheres which the Victorians deemed appropriate for the manly man (I talk about the concept of the separate spheres for men and women in the 19th century here). From politics to ranching to sports, he went full force into the areas that, at that time, were the true test of manhood. The emerging ideal of masculinity that was abut aggression, success, control, and cunning were largely created by him, both before and during his presidency.

In False Fathers, those same masculine ideals are what drive Jake in his journey toward figuring out who he is after his grandfather dies and he is left, at twenty-one, to shoulder the burden of not only his own coming-of-age, but of his responsibilities as the new family patriarch. The main father figure who guides him in the book, Harland Stevens, is a staunch supporter of Theodore Roosevelt and his manly way of life and quotes him often in the book.

You can find out more information about False Fathers here You can also read more about the series here

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