I don’t like classics. What?! Yes, that’s right, I don’t like them. I’m peeved by period drama. I’m bothered by bonnets. I’m sick of sideburns. I…have…an…aversion…to… Austen. I know. I know. I’m a horrible human being. I’m going to be smited down by the literature goddesses. I am up to my eyeballs in debt because I call myself a literature student (Seriously, can they take degrees off you if they find out?!) yet I don’t like the classics. But there was no way that I was going to tell anyone, and at least not broadcast it on a blog as brilliant as The Readventurer, so I smiled (um…via e-mail) and agreed. Then I ran to my bookshelf and stared at it blankly, hoping inspiration came soon. My eyes skimmed across my YA shelves, passed my graphic novels and landed on my grown-up section. And, guys, it was meagre. So after a few moments of making pledges to buy and read more books that have main characters who have reached puberty, I noticed something: It seemed my grown-up shelf had been sponsored by one particular author--Edith Wharton.
I am a quick reader. I can get through a book in about a day, two at the most, but it took me almost a week to get through The Age of Innocence and this was for two reasons:
1) I had to stop every page to write down a quote and to run to my housemate and yell “I have to read this bit out to you, it’s possibly the most heart-breaking scene in the entire world” in her face.
2) It would have been a literary sin to have rushed that book.
I never actually got the chance to write my dissertation on TAoI because of reasons I won’t bother going into here, but I have to say that out of all the books I read during my degree this is the one that affected me the most and it is the one I will always, always remember. Ms Wharton was a master of telling stories. When you’re reading her books you think you know exactly what is going to happen and then she trips you up, completely and utterly. And not even in the “Oh god, I just tripped over the pavement but I managed to still walk away cool because no one noticed” kind of way. I mean truly trips you up. The “Oh god, I’m lying on the floor and people are stepping over me and an old man just had to stop and help me up” kind of way.
Normally I hate books like that because it often feels like the author is doing it just to be clever, but you know when you pick up one of her books that it is Ms Wharton who is in charge and there’s no point arguing.
When I pick up a book by her, I know instantly that I’m going to be in for a brutal yet exquisite journey. Is there anything more you want from a book?
Her characters are immaculate. Just when you think you’ve got them worked out they do or say something that makes you realise that you have got them completely wrong. They may not be the most likeable characters, they may not always do things that you agree with and they might be so blind that you just want to throttle them, but they are real. Countess Olenska is definitely one of my favourite heroines of all time and Newland Archer… well, I have lots of love for that poor, unfortunate man. (Don’t even get me started on Lily from The House of Mirth)
Wharton's wit was and still is unmatched. She could see the world and society in a way that no one else could. She depicted New York society with such fearless honesty that you almost feel like you are there with her characters, eavesdropping on their conversations and sitting next to them as they look out across the theatre and first see the person that will change their entire being.
And her writing? Well, I’ll let that speak for itself…
“In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs.” – The Age of Innocence
“Archer reddened to the temples but dared not move or speak: it was as if her words had been some rare butterfly that the least motion might drive off on startled wigs, but that might gather a flock if it were left undisturbed.”- The Age of Innocence
“She was so evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced her, that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate.” – The House of Mirth
Absolutely stunning, no?
Of course I can’t talk about The Age of Innocence without mentioning that fantastic adaptation by Martin Scorsese. (who, funnily enough, was one of the two directors I eventually did my dissertation on) And I know this is a book site but… shh. This is definitely one of my favourite book-to-film adaptations. You should definitely check it out if you ever have the chance. But read the book first!
And you’d have a point. Can an author be your favourite if you’ve only read two books of hers? I’m going to say yes. If an author can stop you in your tracks with her stellar writing, then yes. If an author can make you fall in love with her characters, then yes. If an author can shock you so much with their ending that you actually have to go and buy cheesecake to make you feel better (actually happened), then yes. If an author can reduce you to a quivering wreck at the mere mention of yellow roses, then yes.
It’s funny how much of a Wharton fan girl I have become in recent years. It seems that, when my birthday and Christmases come round, the go-to present for me is something Wharton related.
I have books. I have trinket boxes. I have jewellery.
You have not only written two of my favourite books but you have also taught me something incredibly important about myself. I take my classics modern.
“Each time you happen to me all over again.”
Other Modern Classics I Love:
Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolfe. [Goodreads | Amazon]
Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut. [Goodreads | Amazon]
A Room With a View by E.M Forster. [Goodreads | Amazon]
Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh. [Goodreads | Amazon]
The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe (This was another book I was originally planning on dissertating with… I was about 100 pages in when I found out I had to change my subject… but I didn’t stop reading. 730 pages later..) [Goodreads | Amazon]
Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys. [Goodreads | Amazon]
A huge thank you to The Readventurer for giving me a venue for my Edith Wharton love-fest. I hope that you enjoyed my post or were so bored by reading it that you ran out instantly to purchase your own copy of The Age of Innocence and/or The House of Mirth.
Either way, I win!