Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover

Thoughts Whilst Reading The Age Of Innocence

Book cover

I’m still reading the book and still enjoying it, but there’s something I’m in two minds about: Newland’s musings and inner upset – to be polite about it – over May’s personality. Expect free-writing going forward…

May Welland, Newland’s fiancée and later wife, is very much a device for Wharton to look into the way New York society women behave; by using a young woman she is also able to explain how it comes to be, the ‘creation’ of a society woman if you will.

At the beginning of the novel it’s particularly good – it’s fresh, it’s a vibrant narrative, and there is something both strange and poignant in the fact that Wharton spreads her ideas via Newland. Using a man as the person she speaks through makes for an interesting contrast to other narratives – he wants a partner with more agency and independence of thought and bearing – whilst at the same time that it is a man brings irony to the situation as Newland is obviously far freer than May would ever be.

But as the novel continues and Newland continues to think of May’s character, Wharton’s commentary starts to lose its effect. Newland’s freedom has something to do with it, but more than anything else I’m finding the fact that he is effectively complaining but doing nothing about it difficult. Of course one shouldn’t expect Newland to be actively trying to change May – that would be wrong – but in all his goings on about how she just repeats what those who brought her up taught her to say, he never really does much in the way of trying to give May space to become more independent. He has a few thoughts – particularly when he realises May may expect him to become like her hypochondriac father – but there’s never any action. To Newland, May is who she is – a dull, robotic (not that he uses that word), same-as-any-other society woman and that’s that.

Of course that Newland loves her cousin, the very different Ellen Olenska, understandably affects his lack of action in that he should really have not married May and left her when she gave him the chance. (I found that scene very interesting, the way we see that May is obviously a lot ‘more’ than Newland thinks – I wouldn’t have minded a companion book wherein May finds someone who likes her.) But it is difficult to listen to him going on about May’s limitations. And in a modern context, thinking of the way he’s treating her that likely wouldn’t be an ‘issue’ in Wharton’s time, it’s even more difficult.

I’m hoping to watch the 1993 adaptation after I finish the book and the way Wharton/Newland speaks of May I’m kind of expecting Winona Ryder’s May to be a literal robot.

I do think there’s something to be said in that Wharton keeps the theme of May’s sameness carrying on throughout; whilst the author herself likely got bored of all the limitations placed on women, nay, people full stop, in her society, at the same time that she herself was different… surely she must have thought that many women would have felt restricted, and the addition of Ellen to the cast suggests this.

I’m pinning my hopes on Wharton going for some sort of big reveal at the end wherein we see that May’s not at all boring. Particularly considering the irony of the title.

Away from that, I’ve just been surprised by Newland’s sudden wish to kill off May – sudden surprising violence that made me picture him in a dusty room in black and white a la Mrs Danvers – and I’m rooting for Ellen finding some socially appropriate way to tell her family to mind their own business.

More names would have been useful; for a while I thought Catherine the Great was indeed the Russian empress and there are lots of Mingotts to remember. The whole product is a great commentary of New York society from someone who lived it – I do wonder if that’s why Wharton decided to travel so much, to get away from it all.

Thoughts Whilst Reading Anna Karenina (Parts I – IV)

Book cover

Once again I’ve put down the Tolstoy; this time it’s not long-term, it’s more a slowing down. The same reason, more or less, as last time – Levin – but as this is the third time I’ve paused in these two years of reading it I’ve worked out exactly what the problem is.

It is the agriculture and Levin’s thoughts, it’s Levin taking time away from Anna’s story that continues to make me wonder why this book is named for the one character when it’s about so much more than her. (Affairs And Agriculture would definitely fit well beside two-subject-plus-‘and’ War And Peace.) But my pausing has to do with the amount of thinking. You know me, I love books about social issues, but the number of characters going on about various philosophies makes for a dull lesson and my thoughts stray whenever Anna’s not in the scene… I’m a bit like Vronsky in that respect.

Anyway, despite these problems I’ve concentrated on some of it and have thoughts in mind, namely that I like, in a literary way, the results of Levin’s similarity to Tolstoy. It helps to know the reason there’s so much agriculture is that it fits Tolstoy’s philosophy. The book is the author’s brainstorm, so to speak – in many ways he’s using his novel to explore and further his opinions. At the same time he allows the other side full rein, showing the chaos of an undecided mind.

Levin reminds me of Marie Antoinette – his dreams of peasanthood are a written version of the French queen’s dressing up as a shepherdess. It’s all so simple… but Kitty’s a princess, he loves her, he’s well-off himself, so can’t really be a peasant. Levin’s actions strike me as minor appropriation, a grass is always greener attitude. He helps the workers on their level, yes, but they know what he’s about and no one’s really thinking he’ll continue. At the same time, however, Levin is in effect bridging the gap between nobility and peasantry whilst the rest of his family stay snug at home.

It’s not just Levin, though. You have Karenin’s thoughts on racial minorities, that is to say the Russian minorities. Karenin stays noble whilst thinking about the problems, enabling lengthy conversations between him, Oblonsky, Levin and Levin’s brother. Their conversation includes this line (Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translation):

It’s a vicious circle. Women are deprived of rights because of their lack of education, and their lack of education comes from having no rights.

This part is interesting, characters suggesting that if they, men, can’t be wet nurses, women can’t expect to be high in the world. It’s compelling in the way that it sums up the argument well, shows the lack of thought given to the fact there were far more things a man could do compared to a woman, also that there were so many both could do or could have done with the same ability and result.

Moving on to something completely different, I’ve been intrigued by the way Tolstoy presents Vronsky post-reveal, how it’s all so great and he’s in love right up until the moment he sees he’s not going to get his duel with Karenin. Without the need to fight for them, to show he’s more powerful than Karenin and knowing that Karenin doesn’t care for a duel, Vronsky’s feelings for Anna nose dive. Does he still love her? At this moment quite possibly not. The fun and naughtiness of it has gone, he’s not going to get what he was expecting. (We don’t see him expecting it but as Tolstoy provides the point of view of various characters some things were going to be left out and he illustrates through anecdote the basic concept of duelling.) What fascinates me is that suddenly and without saying anything, Tolstoy throws the whole affair into speculation. Did Vronsky ever love Anna? Could we say it is and was infatuation?

What’s missing here is the baby – I’m waiting for Vronsky’s next light bulb moment wherein he realises he’s going to be a father. I wouldn’t expect him to have any particular feelings given the situation but an acknowledgement would be nice. Perhaps Tolstoy’s onto that (hindsight moment: he kind of is).

It might’ve been better if I’d had my own economic philosophy to bore you with because the concept surrounding what Tolstoy’s written is good, there’s just too much of it. I’m going to concentrate on the fact there’s lots I have focused on and appreciated. Perhaps the thing to do would be to re-read the philosophy at a later time. It strikes me as a fair companion, study-wise, to the David Cannadine I have on my shelf, or perhaps it could be the push I need to read Adam Smith.

I’d love to hear from you: what did you make of all the philosophy and what did you think of Vronsky’s literal change of heart?

Thoughts Whilst Reading Nicholas Nickleby (Chapters XXXI – LV)

Book cover

Universally acknowledged it is, or at least may be, that once someone has reached the second half of a book, finishing it is that much easier.

I’m at page 740 of this soap opera of a book (credit to Maryom for that comparison) with 71 to go. I’m looking forward to finishing it and moving on, even if I decide to move on to Tolstoy and his agricultural ramblings, though I will say that overall it’s better than it was. Maybe that’s because I can sense some sort of proper ending for Squeers.

I’m still finding Nicholas to be awful, in fact I really don’t like him at all. He lets his anger get the better of him too much.

Mrs Nickleby is more over the top than ever but considering Dickens meant her to go on as long as eternity I’ve been letting myself just enjoy it. I loved the way she handled the neighbour, that quiet bit of happiness at being admired at loggerheads with propriety. I’m not sure whether I should be believing the line that he’s mentally ill or not, but he’s one person I think it’d be interesting to hear from again. That plot line needs a proper ribbon tied around it.

Yes, Mr Crummles, go to America and go away. Dickens tied that plot line up well enough the first time. And whilst I don’t want Mantalini to kick the bucket, it’d be nice if he went away, too. I’m still confused abut the sudden turnaround in Dickens’ thoughts for Verisopht when he decided to kill him off.

I’m glad Madeline Bray’s made an appearance (finally!), and hope she makes Nicholas wait for her hand. I’m not sure I quite believe the insta-love thing he has for her and almost wonder if Frank, who I assume has known her for longer, wouldn’t be the better choice. I get the feeling Nicholas would become too domineering in the years to come.

Still liking Kate. If she ends up with Frank, all well and good, though I do hope there’s a brand new character out there for her.

I’m seeing Smike’s end and wishing he had a better one. I read somewhere that there’s the thought that he loves Kate because Dickens couldn’t have him loving Nicholas, and I like that. He feels so much for Nicholas that the written love for Kate doesn’t ring true.

To sum, I’m enjoying it more but so, so happy, to be at the end. This has to be the last time I pick up a lengthy tome just because I like the alliteration of the title and because the film looks fun.

Which book were you recently happy to have finished?

Thoughts Whilst Reading Nicholas Nickleby (Chapters XIII – XXX)

Book Cover

My thought for this… thought… was to comment up to chapter 26, but as it’s taking me a while to get through the book and I don’t fancy commenting more than ‘necessary’ I thought I’d read on until I couldn’t stand it any more.

This is somewhat the case. Now, at a nice 400 pages in, I’m finding the book incredibly tedious, as I said on Twitter. I loved Great Expectations and A Christmas Carol but this story is too long. As much as it can be called a story when it’s more a series of events slotted together with just a bare purpose running throughout.

Anyway. At half-way through I have a fair few thoughts, perhaps chief amongst them, at least where my posts are concerned, is the speed at which Dickens wraps things up. When I spoke of Squeers and Dotheboys last time, I had no idea that it would be over so soon, and whilst I liked that Nicholas taught Squeers a lesson, I felt somewhat tricked into having read a long filler piece of content. I’m finding that once again as Nicholas leaves Portsmouth.

In regards to Portsmouth, I didn’t like the way Nicholas handled the joke letter, even if it was more serious than the actors were making out. I found his temper a bit too much and whilst it may have made sense where Squeers was concerned (even if it was technically wrong, at least nowadays) the anger and breaking of Lenville’s stick was over-the-top. I’m assuming we’re not supposed to see it as a bad trait, if it’s to be considered a trait at all, but it has cooled me towards him.

I’m enjoying reading about Kate a lot more than her brother, and this I realised before the above event occurred. I like her overall character and whilst she could do with a bit more guts when it comes to telling fellow females her feelings on Mulberry (especially when they are all so cardboard-like and weak!) she is more understandable and I can relate to her historical reasoning, as it were, better. She is certainly more mature.

I am bored by the irrelevant detailing but on their own the characters are fun to read about. I reckon if Dickens had split this tome into what I feel would have made a good few shorter works those characters would have been excellent. I think it’s interesting that Phiz draws Nicholas and Kate differently to everyone else, showing the reader who they ought to be concentrating on, including at the expense of poor Smike who is another owner of the long wrinkly face.

I was surprised to see Dickens spend time setting up the French tutoring of the Kenwigs children and then completely forget it and have Nicholas leave for Portsmouth. Whether or not the subject is returned to later, he has effectively forgotten it as surely Nicholas should’ve made a point of informing the family.

Mrs Nickleby is oblivious I suppose to give Kate more time in the spotlight. She strikes me as a ‘worse’ version of Mrs Bennett in her desire, but she’s fun to read about. I’d like to see Creevy return, would be happy never again to hear from Mantalini or Lillyvick, and expect the arrival in London of Squeers if the little I know about the general idea of Dickens is anything to go by.

I’ve read the IMDB page for the Charlie Hunnan adaptation and so was introduced to Anne Hathaway’s character. I’m looking forward to that and was almost disappointed that it was Petowker who arrived in Portsmouth instead.

I’m going to give this second half a shot. It’s too heavy a book to read much each day (I’m afraid I’d give up due to the invisibility of the end if I read the ebook) but I’m going to keeping reading as long as I can without throwing it across the room.

Is an adaptation the best way to experience the novel? Which would you recommend?

Thoughts Whilst Reading Nicholas Nickleby (Chapters I – XII)

Book Cover

Not so strangely enough, Nicholas Nickleby is taking a while to get through. At 831 pages (yes, I counted them, it created a mini feeling of despair) sans illustrations, and without tiny text and scant margins, I envisage my slow reader self will take at least until mid December to finish it. I’m making efforts to read shorter books alongside to up my year count and so that this blog doesn’t lack reviews.

Whilst reading I thought back to the time Iris and I read Wuthering Heights together and the subsequent post it spawned; I thought I might revisit the idea this time. Here are my thoughts having finished chapter 12 of Dickens’ tome, about a quarter of the way in.

I’ve been surprised Nicholas has been so open so early on to Miss Squeers and Miss Price in regards to his hatred of Dotherby’s. I suppose it strikes me as not thought out – assuming he stays a while, or at least assuming he’s currently thinking of staying a while, it seems a silly thing to do. I’ve marvelled at his submission but then if he left straight away there wouldn’t be much of a story, at least not much of a Victorian sort of story. I hope he gets the place closed down even if I know it may be wishful modern thinking.

I’m half in a mind to wonder if he’s going to end up marrying Miss Price who, for all she must know about the cruelty, strikes me as not too different to him. Still, I know Dickens has a tendency to overdevelop characters that won’t be around for long. I did like the scenes in which Miss Squeers went to town on the idea and plan of Nicholas liking her.

Despite having experienced Dickens’ wordiness, it’s surprising me. I suppose the superfluous content was more acceptable back then and that perhaps it’s in part our shorter attention spans that have made us find it an issue. This said, I think he needed to edit his work, word count be damned.

Granted, this works best if you know the context, but I’m including it because I like Dickens’ clever humour here:

“What is the reason that men fall in love with me, whether I like it or not, and desert their chosen intendeds for my sake?”
“Because they can’t help it, miss,” replied the girl; “the reason’s plain.” (If Miss Squeers were the reason, it was very plain.)

I’ll end this post by saying that I’ve read a further two chapters now and know therefore that what I’ve said above is somewhat irrelevant, but it’s a record of thoughts nonetheless. That Dickens is a rather sneaky fellow…

Have you read Nicholas Nickleby/do you plan to?


Older Entries