Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Much Ado about Somethings

I'm going to keep this brief because it is late and I am sleepy and the working world is surprisingly unforgiving of my desire to sleep 14 hours a night... Weird that. Despite all these things I feel a real craving to blog though which is nice.

1) The Sunday Book: The House of Mirth - Edith Wharton

This book is wonderful and it deserves a post of its own but life is busy and complicated so it will have to make do with this. I had read a couple of Edith Wharton's short stories before but I had been meaning to buckle down to one of her novels for a long time. Partly because she is an important woman writer and I want to support the cause, partly because people whose excellent taste I trust have said how wonderful she is and partly because she was buddies with Henry James. Over the course of an English degree I have gone from loathing Henry James to really quite liking him. If you are a fan of the quiet beauty of his prose, his eye for subtle social nuances and his deft portraits of Americans at home and abroad then I would definitely recommend Wharton to you. I will be keeping my eye out for a copy of their letters because their correspondence is jumping to (near the) top of my Non-Fiction To Read list after The House of Mirth (nb. link to a particularly nice Penguin (Red) edition). I can't imagine how wonderful the letters must have been, there is such quiet humour in both of them.

The House of Mirth tells the story of Lily Bart, a 29 year old American society beauty. She has been raised to act and to view herself as an aesthetic object and is beginning to realise the consequences of that. Having turned down offers of marriage in her youth she finds herself nearly thirty and still unwed and faced with the imminent risk of losing her looks. Her beauty and her charm being her only capital she is in a very difficult position - the book beautifully highlights the crazy standards, expectations and possibilities for women. Money  and a malleable husband are the prerequisites to even the most limited of freedoms. It is interesting to see how much Wharton clearly resents the society that she lived in.

Lily is torn between her practical needs, her aesthetic expectations and her fledgling moral conscience. This conscience is partially sparked by Lawrence Seldon, the 'hero' of the novel. I use the term loosely, he is probably the main male figure (lots and lots of female characters btw, very different from my male-dominated Literature course) but, to be honest with you, I hated him. I could also make a strong argument for him being the worst character in the novel. In my opinion he is weak and cruel and he cloaks these attributes in moral superiority and self-righteousness that is less forgivable than the transparent immorality of other characters. Lily might be flawed but at least she tries, she strains. Seldon never tries and I loathe him for it. Read it, I want your opinions! Also, the ending - it is perfect, yes? I think so. It is exactly what the book needs, not the final chapter so much as the climax. Not that it is a happy, fairy tale ending but that it is so perfectly appropriate, so exactly what suits the story and the style of the novel.

Verdict - gorgeous, thought-provoking, moving turn of the century novel. Try it if you like James, quiet but beautiful writing, women, New York.

2) Much Ado About Nothing

I saw the David Tennant/Catherine Tate production directed by Josie Rourke this evening.

There were lots of things I liked about it - the play itself, it is one of my absolute favourite Shakespeare's and I would enjoy any production to a greater or lesser degree; David Tennant, a very attractive, charismatic and funny man who really is a brilliant Shakespearean actor; both of the princes were good; the comic sparring and slapstick of Beatrice and Benedick in the first half; the set was very well designed and worked brilliantly.

There were things I didn't like - Catherine Tate, I'm just not keen and I don't think she is a very good actress, the comic bits were too conscious and overdone and the act-y bits felt like she was proclaiming in a school play; some of the direction choices, they played too much of it for gags for my taste, Beatrice and Benedick's interactions in the aftermath of Claudio's betrayal are not supposed to be funny haha; the audience, there were clearly a lot of people who were there simply to see David Tennant and who laughed indiscriminately every time he came on stage even during the truly tragic bits; Hero's return to Claudio, can't do anything about that though.

There were also elements of the production that I just didn't get - why is it set in 1980s Gibraltar?? What is the point of that? I guess that ra-ra skirts and Diana style wedding dresses are kind of funny and the men looked natty, in a homoerotic way, in their flying whites but seriously, huh? Just seemed an unnecessary distraction to me. I'm all for setting Shakes in modern scenarios but I don't see what was gained out of this one.

Verdict: despite my complaints I enjoyed myself, it is funny, David Tennant is delightful and you can't go far wrong with Much Ado. Go for it if you can get tickets.

3) Thank you for your sweet comments, it means a lot.

Chuck x


  1. Oh The House of Mirth is wonderful, isn't it? I think The Age of Innocence might be even better though. You MUST read it. I've never been able to get far with Henry James but I want to try him again. I've always found him boring but I think I just didn't have the patience with his prose before.

    Sorry Much Ado was a disappointment...when I read that Catherine Tate was in it I was instantly sceptical!

    Oh and yes, starting work for the first time is totally exhausting. You'll get used to it soon enough. I survive on 6 hours sleep now. It's surprising how you can adapt!

  2. Edith Wharton is the best. I wrote a paper on her use of naturalism last term. It was enjoyable.
    She was an interesting person, too, the kind you'd totally want to take out to coffee and just have her tell you stories.
    You have fabulous taste in literature :)