Wednesday, June 13, 2012

"The complex music of my strange inner world": Edith Wharton's A Backward Glance

Edith Wharton, age 8 (1870) by Edward Harrison May
After reading Ben Franklin's Autobiography to N., Tim began reading him Edith Wharton's autobiography A Backward Glance (1933).  Tim chose this book because he loves it and he thought N. might like her account of life in Gilded Age New York.  I was skeptical because although I hadn't read A Backward Glance I had read a biography of Wharton called No Gifts From Chance and her life is not exactly inspiring, though it is fascinating.  Tim assured me he'd stop before getting too deeply into her unhappy marriage.  In fact, they've read the first 130 pages but as they've more or less suspended their formal daily "school" time for the summer, I'm not sure how much more they'll read.  Anyway, N. has really enjoyed Wharton's account of her childhood with its travels in Europe, old New York social scene, immersion in her father's library, and progress toward authorship.  They ordered a copy of Wharton's handbook of interior design, The Decoration of Houses (1897) and N. has begun poring over it.

Wharton was educated solely by governesses and her own voracious reading.  Having suffered childhood illnesses, she was restricted from taxing study: her parents "forbade my being taught anything that required a mental effort."  As an adult, Wharton resents not having been taught more, but it is hard not to imagine that this relaxed approach to education gave her the freedom to build the foundations of her art in extensive reading.
The sentimental theory that
children must not be made to study anything that does not interest them
was already in the air, and reinforced by the fear of "fatiguing" my
brain, it made my parents turn my work into play. Being deprived of the
irreplaceable grounding of Greek and Latin, I never learned to
concentrate except on subjects naturally interesting to me, and
developed a restless curiosity which prevented my fixing my thoughts for
long even on these. Of benefits I see only one. To most of my
contemporaries the enforced committing to memory of famous poems must
have forever robbed some of the loveliest of their bloom; but this being
forbidden me, great poetry--English, French, German and Italian--came to
me fresh as the morning, with the dew on it, and has never lost that
early glow.
I particularly like Wharton's description of her early compulsion to fiction-making, as well as her account of becoming a reader:    
... I cannot remember the time when I did not want
to "make up" stories. But it was in Paris that I found the necessary
formula. Oddly enough, I had no desire to write my stories down (even
had I known how to write, and I couldn't yet form a letter); but from
the first I had to have a book in my hand to "make up" with, and from
the first it had to be a certain sort of book. The page had to be
closely printed, with rather heavy black type, and not much margin.
Certain densely printed novels in the early Tauchnitz editions, Harrison
Ainsworth's for instance, would have been my richest sources of
inspiration had I not hit one day on something even better: Washington
Irving's "Alhambra." These shaggy volumes, printed in close black
characters on rough-edged yellowish pages, and bound in coarse dark-blue
covers (probably a production of the old Gaglignani Press in Paris) must
have been a relic of our Spanish adventure. Washington Irving was an old
friend of my family's, and his collected works, in comely type and
handsome binding, adorned our library shelves at home. But these would
not have been of much use to me as a source of inspiration. The rude
companion of our travels was the book I needed; I had only to open it
for the Pierian fount to flow. There was richness and mystery in the
thick black type, a hint of bursting overflowing material in the serried
lines and scant margin. To this day I am bored by the sight of widely
spaced type, and a little islet of text in a sailless sea of white

Well--the "Alhambra" once in hand, making up was ecstasy. At any moment
the impulse might seize me; and then, if the book was in reach, I had
only to walk the floor, turning the pages as I walked, to be swept off
full sail on the sea of dreams. The fact that I could not read added to
the completeness of the illusion, for from those mysterious blank pages
I could evoke whatever my fancy chose. Parents and nurses, peeping at me
through the cracks of doors (I always had to be alone to "make up"),
noticed that I often held the book upside down, but that I never failed
to turn the pages, and that I turned them at about the right pace for a
person reading aloud as passionately and precipitately as was my habit.

There was something almost ritualistic in the performance. The call came
regularly and imperiously; and though, when it caught me at inconvenient
moments, I would struggle against it conscientiously--for I was
beginning to be a very conscientious little girl--the struggle was
always a losing one. I had to obey the furious Muse; and there are
deplorable tales of my abandoning the "nice" playmates who had been
invited to "spend the day," and rushing to my mother with the desperate
cry: "Mamma, you must go and entertain that little girl for me. I'VE GOT

My parents, distressed by my solitude (my two brothers being by this
time grown up and away) were always trying to establish relations for me
with "nice" children, and I was willing enough to play in the Champs
Elysees with such specimens as were produced or (more reluctantly) to
meet them at little parties or dancing classes; but I did not want them
to intrude on my privacy, and there was not one I would not have
renounced forever rather than have my "making up" interfered with. What
I really preferred was to be alone with Washington Irving and my dream.

The peculiar purpose for which books served me probably made me
indifferent to what was in them. At any rate, I can remember feeling no
curiosity about it. But my father, by dint of patience, managed to drum
the alphabet into me; and one day I was found sitting under a table,
absorbed in a volume which I did not appear to be using for
improvisation. My immobility attracted attention, and when asked what I
was doing, I replied: "Reading." This was received with incredulity; but
on being called upon to read a few lines aloud I appear to have
responded to the challenge, and it was then discovered that the work
over which I was poring was a play by Ludovic Halevy, called "Fanny
Lear," which was having a succes de scandale in Paris owing to the fact
that the heroine was what ladies of my mother's day called "one of those
women." Thereafter the books I used for "making up" were carefully
inspected before being entrusted to me; and an arduous business it must
have been, for no book ever came my way without being instantly pounced
on, and now that I could read I divided my time between my own
improvisations and the printed inventions of others.
 Much later, after publishing her first fiction collection, The Greater Inclination, Wharton writes of achieving a sense of belonging yearned for ever since those first bouts of "making up:" "The Land of Letters was henceforth to be my country, and I gloried in my new citizenship."


Adrienne Pilon ("A") said...

Just pulled it out of my closet--a gift from my husband long ago. You've inspired me to read it!

Fanny Harville said...

She's such an incredibly interesting person! But her novels are almost too painful to read...