“What can you expect of a girl who was allowed to wear black satin at her coming-out ball?”

What, indeed.  I have to say, Edith Wharton still impresses me, having travelled a little further into this story.  The above remark is expressed by Mrs. Archer in a conversation with Mr. Jackson (the “discreet” old man of my first post on this book) regarding the Countess Ellen Olenska, the New York woman who married a European but has now abandoned her husband to return to a society that is not about to make room for her.  Ellen’s attitudes and behavior carry the scent of scandal, which Mrs. Archer cannot stand, mostly because her son Newland is about to marry May Welland, Ellen’s cousin, allying himself with a family that seems to have lost its sense of propriety.

What I’m enjoying most is the balance between restraint and cruelty—this is, after all, an “age of innocence” in which Mr. Jackson is too delicate to bring up a lady’s past (even though everyone in the room, even those professing to be shocked at the suggestion of impropriety, is well aware of what stories have been told, and about whom) and where conversations are very carefully framed so that the politest of exchanges takes on a much sharper meaning in context.  Wharton’s only playing around in the shallows right now—nothing really intense has yet occurred—but she clearly has all the talent she needs to go there.  I realize that life allegedly (and, I suspect, actually) used to be much more like this: Austen’s work would be just one another example of a world in which the surface is very restrained, even though cruel insults and affronts are intended and understood.  Is it better to live in the good ol’ crass USA?  Or do we have our own ways of hiding these jabs at people within our social circle?

I wonder, though, why I’m so much more comfortable here than with Georgie?  Perhaps it’s that this entire society is the rich, and they’re on relatively equal footing—if Mrs. Archer bad-mouths Ellen Olenska behind her back, it isn’t a power play in the same way as when Georgie humiliated Fred Kinney (or is it?).  Or perhaps it’s that Wharton is simply better at sarcasm and parlor-room conversation than Tarkington is.  Regardless, this is still a very enjoyable book, and one I continue to recommend (if you have a little time) picking  up and reading yourself.

And I can’t possibly end this post without noting that I have now met Mrs. Manson Mingott, the woman whose morbid obesity shocked and interested me at the very beginning of the book, and Mrs. Mingott has not disappointed in the slightest.  She is clearly at the center of society life (despite being virtually unable to participate in it), and so far avoids caricature as far as her personality goes.  Her weight was described so beautifully by Wharton than I’m simply going to give you the three sentences of physical description—I hope you find the writing as delightful as I did:

“The immense accretion of flesh which had descended on her in middle life like the flood of lava on a doomed city had changed her from a plump active little woman with a neatly-turned foot and ankle into something as vast and august as a natural phenomenon.  She had accepted this submergence as philosophically as all her other trials, and now, in extreme old age, was rewarded by presenting to her mirror an almost unwrinkled expanse of firm pink and white flesh, in the centre of which the traces of a small face survived as if awaiting excavation.  A flight of smooth double chins led down to the dizzy depths of a still-snowy bosom veiled in snowy muslins that were held in place by a miniature portrait of the late Mr. Mingott; and around and below, wave after wave of black silk surged away over the edges of a capacious armchair, with two tiny white hands poised like gulls on the surface of the billows.”

4 comments on ““What can you expect of a girl who was allowed to wear black satin at her coming-out ball?”

  1. Daniel Castro says:

    I almost peed my pants with delight when I read the last paragraph.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      I’m glad to provide reliable amusement, Daniel, though I should point out that Mrs. Mingott is not (as she may appear from my brief descriptions) a simple punchline of a character–a sort of “Fat Bastard” of 1870s New York. She’s an interesting, and honestly generally likable, character, and one I’d like to see more dialogues with. I hope you give this book a read: if not now, then someday soon.

  2. Olga V says:

    “like a flood of larva on a doomed city”… what an excellent visual.

    Mr. Rosenzweig, I am pleased to have discovered your blog after Daniel Castro failed so consistently to send me the link to it.

    I am enjoying reading the quotes to this book very much, and in general your carefully worded explanations of these Pulitzer Prize Winners. Your mention of the similarity between Wharton and Austen caught my eye- in that both create this ” world in which the surface is very restrained.” When reading Austen, it is definitely this quality that made me chuckle to myself as I moved from page to page. The delicately articulated jabs that break the calm surface make descriptions unforgettable.

    I follow you in your odyssey of reading, beginning today!

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Olga! I’m pleased you have found your way here, and am glad your reading of Austen matches mine. And I have to say, your typo of “larva” for “lava” creates an absolutely splendid and horrifying image…a city being submerged under a massive tide of squirming larvae. Makes my skin crawl!

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