observations and opinion
It was hot and the summer rain fell upon us suddenly. Out in the tired and weedy “giardino segreto”, far from the doors of the decrepit mansion, the best shelter was to slide under the stone arch of the pergola (pictured above). I leaned against the cool stones and listened to the hiss of the storm. The sun never left.
The Mount, country home of Edith Wharton, was a creaky and sad place then, having been rescued in the 1980s but not yet revived to more than hints of its former glory. One wondered how glorious that former glory ever was, though: Wharton seemed a divided soul, drawn by the gravitational pull of her “tribe”, New York’s 19th century elite, yet pulled outward by the centrifugal force of her own heart and artistry. She escaped her people to this faraway keep, remote from New York and even more so from Newport; she kept herself sheltered in Berkshire country, where things could happen.
Lenox was and remains a town of splendid wealth: Vanderbilt money, Nathaniel Hawthorne notoriety (little changed today, with James Taylor and Yo Yo Ma quartered there, and Tanglewood too). Nestled in mountains which form almost a secret garden of their own, this part of the Berkshires offers an air of elixir for artists and millionaires, who want to be somewhere lovely. So it was for Edith Wharton.
Making the Mount her home, her hideaway, Wharton granted herself a liberty and license to live that she held back from one of her most pained characters, Newland Archer. Archer, protagonist of the ironically named “Age of Innocence”, also felt the force of his New York tribe, but could not disengage from the magnetic resonance of the dangerously unconventional, unavailable yet irresistable Ellen Olenska. Newland fooled himself into believing he loved Ellen (or perhaps he really did) and also fooled himself into believing his wife and friends were blind to it (they were not). Such a fool seldom escapes his fate.
He came close, though. Had it not been for a well-timed pregnancy (or the story of one) carefully confided by May into Ellen’s guilty ear, and a packet of Granny’s money made suddenly available to spirit Ellen back to Europe, Archer might not have resisted the allure of his wife’s cousin. It is an unforgettable scene in Scorsese’s 1993 film when Newland realizes, finally, that the entire tribe has conspired to keep him securely ensconsed in the townhouse he shares with their beloved May. His face is white, his eyes black, with the rage of a caged animal as his dream life dissipates like the smoke from a bad candle.
Unlike his creator however, Newland Archer had neither the originality nor the courage to break free from the role he was “born” to live. He oozed just enough contempt for his peers to leave a faint whiff of insult behind him, sufficient no doubt to induce them to ruin his chance for happiness when the opportunity presented itself. But he was all romance and no passion, this “Newland Archer” – he was playing a character in a novel that he read by the fire in his study.
More than a century later we have abandoned most vestiges of the role play which tortured souls in Edith Wharton’s world. Or so we think. We walk upon life’s milestones and with each step, follow paths which have been carved out a thousand times before us – roads worn bare by the foot traffic of all the others who graduated, applied, interviewed, were hired, toiled and were promoted, had weddings and babies, before grinding down their mortgages and booking trips to Disney. It is a commendable destiny for those lucky enough to be offered it as a choice. What is unclear is whether many other choices remain for people beginning their own hike through life. We are more coarse, less refined, less restrained and more confused than the swanning millionaires of Wharton’s New York, but we seem no more or less imaginative.
Newland Archer’s curse was to be just imaginative enough, to imagine himself a different man, but not nearly creative or brave enough, to become one. It takes Newland his entire adult life to realize that, by being trapped in his wife’s intricate plot to remain in their marriage, he had survived. More than that, by walking upon the smooth stone path laid out for him and never deviating – undistracted by the druglike hunger for beautiful, mysterious Ellen – Newland Archer became himself and fulfilled his destiny. His name itself, the final cruelty: the archer aiming for new lands, but never escaping. The arrow never released from the bow.
When the rain let up, I resumed my meandering ramble of the ruins of Wharton’s secret garden. Her house was a sad and tired wreck, its future far from sure. It had then the charm of plainness and imperfection – the kind of humanity we work so hard to scrub off all surfaces of modern life. I walked across the crunching pebbled drive, wondering if this splendid ruin – Miss Haversham’s wedding cake – would yet survive.
The air was sultry and thick with the threat of another storm. It came later.