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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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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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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Lessons From My Mother’s Life Release Day Blitz!

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Lessons Front Cover Photo Credit:stokkete (Luciano de polo)/Depositphotos.com      

Title: Lessons From My Mother’s Life

Author: Tam May

Genres: Historical Fiction/Women’s Fiction/Short Fiction

Release Date: March 29, 2020

It was the 1950s. The war was over and women could go back to being happy housewives. But did they really want to?

Women in the 1950s should have been contented to live a Leave it to Beaver life. They had it all: generous husbands with great jobs, comfortable suburban homes with nice yards, two cars, and communities with like-minded families. Their days were filled with raising well-behaved children, cleaning the house, baking cookies, and attending PTA meetings and church events.

They should have been fulfilled. Women’s magazines told them so. Advertisers told them so. Doctors and psychologists told them so. Some were. But some weren’t.

In the 1950s, women were sold a bill of goods about who they were and who they should be as women. Some bought it. But some didn’t.

These stories are about the women who didn’t. They didn’t buy that there wasn’t more to life than making a happy home. Except they didn’t know they weren’t buying until something forced them see the cracks in their seemingly perfect lives.

A teenage bride sees her future mirrored in Circe’s twisted face. A woman’s tragic life serves as a warning about the dangers of too much maternal devotion. And the lives of two women intersect during two birthday parties, changing both of them. These and other moving tales of strength, discovery, and hope are about our mothers and grandmothers and the lessons their lives have to teach us.

This book is the second edition of my 2017 short story collection, Gnarled Bones and Other Stories. This edition has been extensively revised, the stories changed and expanded, and the context moved from the present day to the 1950s and 1960s. This edition also includes a Preface and a bonus chapter from The Specter, the first book of my Gilded Age family drama, the Waxwood Series.

You can pick up your copy of the book at a special promotional price at the following online retailers:

Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B084Y7GDV9

Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B084Y7GDV9

B&N: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/lessons-from-my-mothers-life-tam-may/1136487332

Apple iBooks (iTunes): https://books.apple.com/us/book/lessons-from-my-mothers-life/id1499562199

Kobo: https://www.kobo.com/us/en/ebook/lessons-from-my-mother-s-life

Excerpt

She rose, slipping her hands from his and placing them in the pockets of her dress so he wouldn’t see them shaking. She looked out the window where the sea had disappeared for curvy mountains. “Isn’t it wonderful how you only have to travel on a railroad track to reach a new place, a new world, even?”

“It’s not enough,” he said in an almost brutal voice. “I’ve been on many train tracks to many new places and new worlds. It’s like the living body and the living soul. One without the other kills them both.”

She took a breath. “You mean your body can be in a different place, but if your soul is the same, you’ll always be back where you started?”

“Something like that.”

Her legs felt as fragile as matches as she left the drawing room and made her way down the aisle and into the observation car. She saw that Bea and Carla were both dozing in chairs near the center of the car. She crept past the resting heads and soft snoring people to where the observation section gathered like a cup at the edge of the car. There was one oblong little window that stared right ahead into the vast space of mountainous ranges and gray-blue skies. She watched as the train moved forward, leaving behind her dead soul.

About the Author

Tam May grew up in the United States and earned her B.A. and M.A in English. She worked as an English college instructor and EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teacher before she became a full-time writer. She started writing when she was 14, and writing became her voice. She writes fiction characters who examine their past in order to move into their future and are influenced by the time in which they live.

Her first book, a collection of contemporary short stories, was nominated for a 2017 Summer Indie Book Award. A revised and expanded second edition of this book is now published under a new title: Lessons From My Mother’s Life. She is currently working on a Gilded Age family saga. The first book, The Specter, came out in June of 2019, and the second book, False Fathers, is also now available. Book 3 (The Claustrophobic Heart) and Book 4 (Dandelion Children) will be out in 2020. She is also working on a historical mystery series featuring a turn-of-the-century New Woman sleuth. Both series take place in Northern California. 

She lives in Texas but calls San Francisco and the Bay Area “home”. When she’s not writing, she’s reading classic literature and historical fiction, watching classic films, or cooking up awesome vegetarian dishes.

Social Media Links

Website: http://tammayauthor.com/ 

Blog: https://tammayauthor.com/category/thedreambookblog

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/tammayauthor/

Facebook Readers Group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/tamsdreamersRG/ 

Facebook Blog Page: https://www.facebook.com/thedreambookblog/ 

Twitter: https://twitter.com/tammayauthor

Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/tammayauthor/

Instragram: https://www.instagram.com/tammayauthor/

Goodreads Author Page: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/16111197.Tam_May

Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/Tam-May/e/B01N7BQZ9Y/ 

BookBub Author Page: https://www.bookbub.com/authors/tam-may

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