Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Book Review by Heidi Kerr-Schlaefer

Dust off those classics ~ they deserve another chance
By Heidi Kerr-Schlaefer

In this fast paced world of cell phones, ipods and virus videos it is easy to forget about classics. You know, the classics; those books collecting dust on your bookshelf, behind the best-sellers you bought because Oprah liked it or because you liked the attractively decorated cover.

I want to share two of my favorite books, they both happen to be classics. These books and other so-called classics contain the writing that is used as the stick with which to measure great writing, and in this world increasingly full of one-liners and text messaging it's all too easy to forget what good writing looks like.

Both books are packed with innuendoes, intrigue and sexual tension, and both authors have first-person experience with the attitudes and time periods of which they write. There are other classics that some people would rate higher on a literary scale of greatness, but no one will argue their position among the great literary books of all-time.

The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton

This is my all-time favorite book. The story incorporates social commentary with brilliantly written social and sexual tension. It follows the life of a 19th Century New York gentleman, Newland Archer, and his intense feelings for Countess Olenska, who has fallen from societal graces by leaving her husband. The story grips the reader and pulls her into the world of New York high society and the strict conventions that come with it.

Wharton writes in great detail, never leaving a teacup unmentioned and this intense attention to scene setting draws an exceedingly accurate and vivid picture of the society’s obsession with opulence and the outward appearance of perfection. The following paragraph describes the Beaufort house:

Then the house had been boldly planned with a ball-room, so that, instead of squeezing through a narrow passage to get to it (as at the Chiverses') one marched solemnly down a vista of enfiladed drawing-rooms (the sea-green, the crimson and the bouton d'or), seeing from afar the many-candled lustres reflected in the polished parquetry, and beyond that the depths of a conservatory where camellias and tree-ferns arched their costly foliage over seats of black and gold bamboo. ~The Age of Innocence, Chapter III.

Archer’s problem is not only that he is in love with a woman who has left her husband, but that he is engaged to May Welland, a proper young woman whom he admires, but is not in love with. In the following paragraph Archer contemplates a photograph of his fiancĂ©:

As he dropped into his armchair near the fire his eyes rested on a large photograph of May Welland, which the young girl had given him in the first days of their romance, and which had now displaced all the other portraits on the table. With a new sense of awe he looked at the frank forehead, serious eyes and gay innocent mouth of the young creature whose soul's custodian he was to be. That terrifying product of the social system he belonged to and believed in, the young girl who knew nothing and expected everything, looked back at him like a stranger through May Welland's familiar features; and once more it was borne in on him that marriage was not the safe anchorage he had been taught to think, but a voyage on uncharted seas. ~ The Age of Innocence, Chapter VI.

Countess Olenska is everything May is not; worldly, daring and seemingly indifferent. But is she really so uncaring? Is her air of confidence a ruse? Archer aches to find the true Countess Olsenska, but how can he when he is soon to be wed to Miss May Wellen?

The Age of Innocence explores the relationship between people and the societal constrains under which they must live. It is a character study as well as a study of 19th Century society in upper class New York.

Countess Olenska is character Wharton very well may have fashioned after herself. Edith Wharton was born in 1862 to a wealthy New York family (whose last name of Jones has been associated with the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses”). She was a divorcĂ© who spent much of her time abroad in France and was said to have had a three year affair with journalist Morton Fullerton. She was also very close with author Henry James.

Wharton was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature (1921) for The Age of Innocence.

A Room with a View, E. M. Forster

A Room with a View is another story written by an author who enjoys writing fiction that comments on societal conventions and the absurdity of many of these conventions. This book is the story of a young English woman named Lucy Honeychurch who takes a holiday in Florence, Italy that changes her life forever. The first part of the book is based in Italy where the reader meets some odd and highly comical characters that reappear throughout the book.

Based in the 19th Century, the book is full of societal mores of the day. Including the necessity of a chaperone to accompanying a young woman traveling abroad; an unaccompanied young woman would be scandalous. Miss Honeychurch’s chaperone is her spinster cousin, Miss Charlotte Bartlett. The two cousins stay at a pension with many amusing guests, including a young man named George Emerson, who is traveling with his father. George is not only from a different social class than Miss Honeychurch, but he is also a philosophical fellow who is profoundly affected by the world around him, in other words, despite his handsome face, he is quite odd.

While loitering in a Florentine plaza, Miss Honeychurch witnesses a brutal murder and faints into George’s arms and thus begins the rocky relationship between the two. However, back in England, Cecil Vyse, a rather dull, yet highly suitable young man with all the right bloodlines is waiting for Miss Honeychurch.

The second half of the book is set in Surrey, England where Miss Honeychurch reintegrates herself into her proper upper class English family. Just as things are getting back to normal, George and his father move into a house down the road and Miss Honeychurch is torn between society’s wishes for her to marry the rich boring Cecil or her own wishes to marry the man whom she loves.

The highlight of this book is the entertaining character development. Forster has crafted a humorous story chockablock with colorful characters too rich to work and so very bored with their own pampered lives that they spend a great quantity of time meddling in other peoples.

E.M. Forster knew first hand the cost of not conforming to social conventions. Born into a middle-class London family in 1870, he became good friends with controversial writers D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf. He was also a homosexual. He wrote one book with a homosexual theme (Maurice) which he circulated privately; it was only published after his death in 1970.