2008: 10. Old New York

“Hay, verbena and mignonette scented the languid July day.  Large strawberries, crimsoning through sprigs of mint, floated in a bowl of pale yellow cup on the verandah table: an old Georgian bowl, with complex reflections on polygonal flanks, engraved with the Racie arms between lion’s heads.”

Old New York, Edith Wharton

I am going through a bit of an Edith Wharton phase, because I’m slowly reading her biography,* and the author, Hermione Lee, keeps referring to aspects of her stories that reflect her life, and it makes me want to go read the stories. Old New York is a collection of four novella’s each set in a different period of New York history.  They are False Dawn (the (18)40’s), The Old Maid (the 50’s), The Spark (the 60’s), and New Years Day (the 70’s).  The book starts off slowly, since False Dawn is by far the weakest of the four - it concerns a young man who is sent on his European tour, and his overbearing father gives him a commission to buy him a collection of old masters.  The son falls under the spell of Ruskin** and buys the masters he recommends instead of what’s popular, and his father gets so mad he disinherits him.  The son is totally ruined (in part because he believes in these pictures and tries to display to the public them despite his poverty).  And it’s not until years after his death that it turns out he bought a collection of masterpieces! It seemed silly that someone could be ruined over pictures, and even if it was meant to be a criticism of 1840’s tastes, it wasn’t over the top enough to be satire, and not credible enough to be the truth.

The other stories are much better - pointing out the hypocrisy of New York society as well as telling compelling stories at the same time.  The Old Maid deals with illegitimacy, The Spark about the Civil War, New Years Day about infidelity, but each contains characters that are psychologically real, and fascinating.  I recommend them highly - just skim False Dawn.  (And, yes, I appreciate the irony of blogging a bunch about  the story I didn’t like, and not so much about the ones I did, but those are so good that I don’t want to give away the plots! You should read them, instead.


*Slowly, because its a big old hardcover, and thus I can’t take it with me anywhere!  Plus, I keep putting the bio down to go read Wharton, which I guess is the point of reading an author’s biography, to spark your interest in their works.


** Yep, John Ruskin - this book has a lot of Zelig/Forest Gump-esque celebrities dropping in.  Edgar Allen Poe, Walt Whitman, Ruskin and so forth.


Date/Place Completed: 2/6/08, D.C.

Categories:  Fiction, Library Book

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017