Maggie Robinson

Apr 7
The Custom of the Country

Long before hunky Liam Neeson became Ethan Frome, I was forced to read Edith Wharton’s novella in high school. At the time, it seemed waaaay longer than a novella. I can’t say I enjoyed it the first time around.

But Wharton became a very much savored taste by the time I was in college. I devoured almost everything she wrote. There is something so deliciously bleak and thwarted in all of Wharton’s work. I don’t know what it says about me that I like her so much.

The Wharton world of old New York appeals to me. My grandmother and her six sisters (known collectively as ‘the beautiful Miller sisters,’ although I can’t really see why) could have been Wharton heroines—they were all spinsters, divorcees, or those who married late and remained childless— Brooklyn Blue Book society girls who fudged their birthdates in the family Bible in elegant copperplate handwriting and summered in the country. The photos I have of them and their friends in their Victorian/Edwardian finery in front of grand old houses practically scream for Edith.

You may have seen Wharton’s work which was made into popular splashy costume-drama films, The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth. I was surprised to find out that movies and plays were made of her stories in her lifetime, but you can’t find many happy endings.

I’ve been on a non-fiction reading kick, finishing Hermione Lee’s 869 page biography, Edith Wharton. Here’s Edith’s take on writing:

What is writing a novel like?

1. The beginning: a ride through the spring wood

2. The middle: the Gobi desert

3. The end: a night with a lover

What “old school” author do you admire? Any good biographies to recommend? What did you hate to read in high school? What gets you through the Gobi desert when you write? I think that’s enough questions.

If only we’d stop trying to be happy, we could have a pretty good time. ~ Edith Wharton

I think my grandmother, the baby of her family, is second from the left. A cautionary tale: always label your pictures. One hundred years later, nobody knows who’s who.

20 comments to “The Custom of the Country”

  1. Kelly Krysten
     · April 7th, 2008 at 8:02 am · Link

    I admire Charlotte Bronte greatly and,even, above her own sisters. I used to want to write a movie all about her life. I own every biography written about her and a book of every correspondence she ever wrote. The book of her correspondence is: Charlotte Bronte: A Life In Letters. The others I can’t recall off hand.
    When I’m going through the middle portion of my writing or the Gobi desert(I almost wrote Not exactly the same) I keep myself writing out of sheer perseverance. I have no will at that point ,but truck on because I tell myself I have no choice-and I don’t if I want to ever

  2. J.K. Coi
     · April 7th, 2008 at 8:33 am · Link

    Maggie, this is a great blog. You’re right about the photographs. My grandmother went crazy all last year writing on the backs of her photos because she got it into her head that she was dying soon and no one else would remember. (She’s healthy as a horse, so I’m hoping she’ll be around to show me the pictures for many years still, but it’s good to have them labeled.)

    I love Emily Wharton too and Bronte, and Mark Twain, and I loved Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty as a little girl (her only book). OMG, I could keep going…Moliere, Dante, Voltaire, and my most favourite of all Shakespeare and Marlow (playwrights I know, but I can’t get enough).

  3. Belinda (Worderella)
     · April 7th, 2008 at 11:31 am · Link

    I loved Elizabeth Gaskell’s North & South. It replaced Pride & Prejudice as my favorite, which is huge. My mom is still reeling from the shock.

    I’ve never read Wharton, but I’m interested in trying her out. What would you suggest a first-time-Wharton reader should pick up?

    In terms of biographies, I loved The Friendly Jane Austen.

    When I’m in the Gobi desert, I read everything except the genre I’m writing. The ideas present in science fiction, fantasy, etc, are so different from historical romance that it sparks my imagination.

  4. Gillian Layne
     · April 7th, 2008 at 12:55 pm · Link

    Yes, label those pictures!

    I have a small envelope of baby pictures tucked away of my three girls…and I do NOT KNOW which one is which. It’s only six pictures, but still–this qualifies me for whatever “Bad Mom of the Year” award is floating around.

    I hated being told to read Jack London and Grapes of Wrath. God, I despised them. I demanded HEA’s most of my reading life. 🙂

  5. Stephanie
     · April 7th, 2008 at 2:04 pm · Link

    Eek…labeling pics! I know I’d be bad about this if I had any printed pics but as all of mine are on my computer… I just get obsessed with knowing the year and time of my life (Junior Year College, 2006).

    I’m interested in your Wharton recs, too! Oddly enough, I can’t stand the Brontes. I feel like I should be in literary hell for saying that…

    Gaskell is on my list for authors to read. I have quite a few classics I need to read but I didn’t branch out into any of those auhors very much when I was younger. I intended to… just didn’t get around to it.

  6. terrio
     · April 7th, 2008 at 2:07 pm · Link

    There is so much I haven’t read and Wharton is one of many. Though I loved the movie The Age of Innocence if that counts for anything. The only historical figure I’ve read about on my own was Napoleon. But I think a biography of Twain would be very interesting.

    Also, I’d like to learn more about Dickens. Anyone know if his view of the world was as bleak as his work?

  7. Tiffany Kenzie
     · April 7th, 2008 at 4:53 pm · Link

    Wow, I can’t believe you have a picture like that! That is incredibly amazing.

    Old writers I glom? I dunno. I love Anais Nin, can’t get enough of her journals. What a complex person she was, and seriously, no wonder I don’t write in journals, hers go so deep I can’t explain them.

    And I have to say, if I could only take one author with me to that desert island… it would be DH Lawrence 🙂

    And I hated Shakespeare in HS… all that over analyizing takes the fun out of reading them. I’m loving him now, ever since I read midsummers night — which I did not read in highschool.

  8. Lindsey
     · April 7th, 2008 at 5:28 pm · Link

    Great blog and cool pic, Maggie! I love Edith Wharton. I took a class on her (and Sarah Orne Jewett, who I’m not as much a fan of) in college. And read a couple biographies about her for my final project – including the one that talks about her having an eating disorder. Not sure I buy it, but it was an interesting read.

    I love pretty much all nineteenth-century women writers. And some of the men. 😉

  9. Maggie Robinson
     · April 7th, 2008 at 6:21 pm · Link

    Belinda(worderella)–love your name! I am still a N&S hold-out—have not read it or seen much of it. I can hear the gasps now, LOL.Must remedy that this summer.

    Kelly, I find the Brontes rough going (Stephanie and I might agree on this), but I do reread them because it’s the right thing to do. *g*

    Lindsey, living in Maine now, I had to read SOJ to find out what the fuss was about, and I liked her work better than I thought I would.

    J.K., I can remember my copy of Black Beauty. It cost 49 cents. OMG, I loved that book and drew horses’ heads for years afterward.

    Gillian, I win for Bad Mom. Child #4 (otherwise known as Daughter #3) has virtually no pictures of her at all. She will not let me forget it or the fact I kept no baby book…but I didn’t do a baby book for any of them. See, told you I was Bad Mom.

    Tiff, I went through a huge D.H. Lawrence phase in high school. And Shakespeare was not much fun for me either, even tho we had a concordance edition with the anachronistic words and phrases translated.

    Stephanie and Terrio, I love The House of Mirth the most. Wharton’s short stories are good too: Roman Fever, After Holbein, False Dawn are just three that are sad and surprising. Wharton had a hideous marriage and didn’t think much of the institution in general—The Other Two is a clever statement on the result of divorce. Terri, I’ve read as little of Dickens as possible (in high school we had to read Tale of Two Cities). I think pretty much if it was assigned reading, I hated it. I was such a rebel—not.

  10. Elyssa Papa
     · April 7th, 2008 at 7:46 pm · Link

    What a great photo, Maggie! Wow, that’s amazing you have photos from back then. I love old photos.

    I have a love affair with Shakespeare myself and devoured Austen in high school/college. Loved, loved, loved John Keats—he was so melodic and heartwrenching in his poetry.

  11. Kelly Krysten
     · April 8th, 2008 at 5:11 am · Link

    Here’s the part where I admit I don’t so much like to read the brote’s books as read about their lives…
    I do love Villette and I hope to one day read Jane Eyre, but I’ve run from the others like the plague.
    Interesting fact: Charlotte Bronte hated Jane Austen’s work. I think we all know who the superior writer there was, though.(Hint: She’s why we’re all writing romance today).

  12. Maggie Robinson
     · April 8th, 2008 at 7:20 am · Link

    Kelly, Twain hated Austen even more than Bronte did. He says something about wanting to dig her up and hit her with her own shin-bone. The same woman who wrote The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen (Syrie James) (which was very true to Austen’s voice IMO and I’m not usually crazy about the Austenization of fiction) is tackling one of the Brontes next.

    Ely,I’m very fortunate in the old photo department. My grandmother was the last living sibling so she wound up with her sisters’ stuff, and then when my second-cousin died (who was the only other child produced by all those women besides my father, never married and quite a pack-rat), I got what she had, too. My great-grandparents got married during the Civil War. He was from New York and she from Virginia, and I wish I knew the story there. I suppose I could make one up. They then proceeded to have a huge batch of children, 7-8 surviving, for the next 25 years. Marrying late or not at all or not happily seemed to be the family motto (probably to avoid so many kids again!). I’ve broken the family tradition, because even my father was pretty old when I, the only child, was born, and my four kids speak for themselves.:)

  13. Janga
     · April 8th, 2008 at 12:42 pm · Link

    Maggie, what a great picture! I think old photographs are terrific story starters.

    I love Edith Wharton, and I think Lee’s biography is excellent, as is Cynthia Griffin Woolf’s (whose name reminds me that Lee also wrote a splendid biography of Virginia Woolf). House of Mirth is my favorite Wharton, although the ending is utterly depressing. Summer is another favorite.

    I am not fond of Moby Dick, Dreiser depresses me, and I had little appreciation for James Joyce untl late in my grad school experience, but I loved much of the literature I read in school and out. I have been reading Emily Dickinson’s poetry for many decades, and I still discover new things in it. Other favorites are too many to list but I have a special affection for Southern writers. Chopin, Faulkner, O’Connor, and Welty head my list. Among contemporary writers of literary fiction, Marilynne Robinson is a writer whose works I cherish.

  14. irisheyes
     · April 9th, 2008 at 10:20 pm · Link

    I’m jealous of all of you that have such a full and rich reading history. I think about that a lot as I watch my own children reading voraciously. We were never taught or expected to read. I can recall having to do book reports in grade school and then in HS we studied Shakespeare but I don’t recall having the exposure you did to the variety of authors.

    The only one that I recall at all is Bronte through Jane Eyre (and I feel as if I’ve written this about 10 times over the past week! LOL).

  15. RevMelinda
     · April 9th, 2008 at 11:37 pm · Link

    Nobody’s yet mentioned EM Forster–he’s my favorite (hence the name of my blog, “Only Connect.” I don’t know which I like more, A Room with a View or Howard’s End. . .oh, and the movies of them. . .sigh. Helena Bonham Carter was MADE to be a Forster heroine.

    I pretty much specialized in early modern in college–Conrad, Lawrence, Forster, Waugh. I like Steinbeck and Faulkner, too, but in small doses. Can’t stand Joyce, though–Ulysses just feels like showing off to me.

  16. RevMelinda
     · April 9th, 2008 at 11:46 pm · Link

    I forgot to comment on the “pictures of women”! My most treasured photo is of my great-great grandmother Harriet and her 5 grown daughters daughters (one of whom was my great-grandmother Ada). They are all in shirtwaists a la the Gibson girl look. . .

  17. MistyJo
     · April 10th, 2008 at 5:59 am · Link

    Maggie, that is a really cool picture. Old pictures of family members are special to have. I haven’t seen any old pictures of my family. My grandfather’s family was too poor to have many pictures taken (genetically linked to the Youngers who road with Jessie James, a bunch of horse thieves and chicken stealers as my aunt likes to say), and my grandmother’s family were greedy and did not share anything with her because she married a bum.

    I’m beginning to believe that Ely and I could be related. (Ely, for your sake, we’ll believe the kinship happened in past lives. Being connected to my current bunch would send you running.) Some of my favorites are Shakespeare, Austen, and Keats, too. I would love to see a movie about Keats. I do want to add Robert Frost. Adore his poetry. And I must not forget Kate Chopin.

  18. MistyJo
     · April 10th, 2008 at 6:03 am · Link

    BTW…please forgive ALL grammar mistakes in my above post. My grammar SUCKS this early in the morning. Who am I kidding, my grammar sucks most of the time. haha

  19. Maggie Robinson
     · April 10th, 2008 at 7:43 am · Link

    I love hearing about everybody’s favorites. I recently re-read a Room w/ a View, then watched the movie in a mini-Forster fest, RevM.

    Misty Jo, contrary to some, I’ve hung up my English teacher’s red pen and when I look at what I type on blogs sometimes…and afterall, you’re an outlaw.*g* My husband brags all his relatives got thrown out of Scotland for sheep-stealing or some such thing.

    Irish, the English curriculum has changed a whole lot. What’s taught at the high school I work in is much more contemporary now—Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, Myer’s Monster, Card’s Ender’s Game. I haven’t read any of them.

    Janga, I know you’re a fellow Lily Bart fanatic. Wish I had taken your class!

  20. Santa
     · April 11th, 2008 at 9:59 pm · Link

    I know, I know it’s Friday and all but I’m just making my rounds!

    Edith Wharton remains one of my all time favorites. You’re right, there is a thread of despair in her writing and yet I can’t get enough of it.

    Another is Virginia Woolf. I was introduced to her in college and find her life and work fascinating.

    But I’d have to say that my favorite author of all time is Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I am eternally grateful to Signor Bibeau who introduced me to Marquez’s writing in our World Literature class. I recently read the first book of his autobiography which clearly illustrates how the world that made up his life to date is reflected in the silver-mirrored images of his books.