Saturday, January 7, 2012

A Classics Challenge: Ingrid encounters Edith Wharton

Edith herself.
Oh, hey! Remember when Connie and I signed up for A Classics Challenge for 2012? Well ... it's 2012 now and the challenge has begun. Katherine at November's Autumn has posted the prompt here. And now I shall answer it.

The book I chose to read this month, which also happened to appear in the number one spot on my list, was The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. Technically I started reading this book right after Christmas, but I DID finish it in January of 2012 on the beaches of Hawaii where I vacationed just last week. So I'm pretty sure it counts for this challenge.

Technically I think I'm just supposed to answer the questions from Level 4, since I finished the book, but I don't want to miss out on all the fun from the first three levels. So I'm just going to answer random questions from each level that I like.

Who is the author? Oh - well that would be Edith Wharton, of course. I didn't know much about her before I read this book, besides that she was awesome, was friends with Henry James, and had visitors come talk to her while she laid in bed.

What does she look like? Furs, fancy dress (which I imagine has a bustle,) and hair that reminds me of the name "Cordelia."

Edith Wharton's handwriting. (via)
Where was she born? In January of 1862, Edith Wharton was born as Edith Newbold Jones in New York City, where she lived most of her early life.

What does her handwriting look like? I like this question. See photo to the left. 

What other novels has she written? Edith Wharton wrote more than 20 novels, many short stories, and even some non-fiction. Her most well-known works are The House of Mirth (1905), Ethan Frome (1911), Summer (1917), and The Age of Innocence (1920).

What is an interesting and random fact from her life? Apparently, the phrase "Keeping up with the Joneses" was said to refer to her father's family.

What do you think of her writing style? I like it, I can appreciate it. My favorite writing style is something between Virgina Woolf and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But if Edith Wharton wrote like them, she wouldn't have been so distinctly her. Her style is clear and articulate, but not too sparse and not too wordy. In The Age of Innocence, her descriptions move between objects in the room to social protocol to inner thoughts of the main character, Newland Archer.  Since much of this novel is social commentary, she often slips in gentle yet somewhat snide descriptions of situations that I thought were both amusing and sad, such as in this quote:

They went up to the library for coffee, and Archer lit a cigar and took down a volume of Michelet. He had taken to history in the evenings since May had shown a tendency to ask him to read a lound whenever she wasy him with a volume of poetry: not that he disliked the sound of his own voice, but because he could always foresee her comments on what he read. In the days of their engagement she had simply (as he now perceived) echoes what he had told her; but since he had ceased to provide her with opinions she had begun to hazard her own, with results destructive to his enjoyments of the works commented on.

Hehe. I like that. I find it interesting that Wharton is able to be critical of upper-class society while at the same time very compassionate to her characters.

Why do you think she wrote this novel? How did her contemporaries view it? That is an interesting question. My copy of The Age of Innocence had an awesome introduction that claimed the novel was greatly influenced by Wharton's experiences during World War I. As we all learned in history class, this war caused a great shift in cultures around the world, but especially in American culture. We most often associate authors like Fitzgerald and Hemingway (i.e. The Lost Generation) with this grand disillusionment after the war, but Wharton was there too - she had experienced life as an adult in society before and after the war. She understand both the old ways and the new ways, which, as my introduction claims, led to "a more complex understanding of the human condition and a more fully developed sense of compassion."

I'm not sure, but I think her contemporaries responded positively to her work, judging by the fact that The Age of Innocence won the Pulitzer prize in 1921.

That was fun! My next classic I'll be reading for this challenge will be Moby Dick (for which we are hosting a readalong this month. An intro post goes up on Monday.) Can't wait for next month's prompt!