The Age of Awesome

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Continuing with my research into a bound society, I've come to Edith Wharton (another suggestion from Kenyatta.) Here we find young Newland Archer visiting, and ultimately turned on, by the "ancestress" Manson Mingott:


A visit to Mrs. Manson Mingott was always an amusing episode to the young man. The house in itself was already an historic document, though not, of course, as venerable as certain other old family houses in University Place and lower Fifth Avenue. Those were of the purest 1830, with a grim harmony of cabbage-rose-garlanded carpets, rosewood consoles, round-arched fire-places with black marble mantels, and immense glazed book-cases of mahogany; whereas old Mrs. Mingott, who had built her house later, had bodily cast out the massive furniture of her prime, and mingled with the Mingott heirlooms the frivolous upholstery of the Second Empire. 

It was her habit to sit in a window of her sitting-room on the ground floor, as if watching calmly for life and fashion to flow northward to her solitary doors. She seemed in no hurry to have them come, for her patience was equalled by her confidence. She was sure that presently the hoardings, the quarries, the one-story saloons, the wooden green-houses in ragged gardens, and the rocks from which goats surveyed the scene, would vanish before the advance of residences as stately as her own--perhaps (for she was an impartial woman) even statelier; and that the cobble-stones over which the old clattering omnibuses bumped would be replaced by smooth asphalt, such as people reported having seen in Paris. Meanwhile, as every one she cared to see came to HER (and she could fill her rooms as easily as the Beauforts, and without adding a single item to the menu of her suppers), she did not suffer from her geographic isolation. 

The immense accretion of flesh which had descended on her in middle life like a flood of lava on a doomed city had changed her from a plump active little woman with a neatly-turned foot and ankle into something as vast and august as a natural phenomenon. She had accepted this submergence as philosophically as all her other trials, and now, in extreme old age, was rewarded by presenting to her mirror an almost unwrinkled expanse of firm pink and white flesh, in the centre of which the traces of a small face survived as if awaiting excavation. A flight of smooth double chins led down to the dizzy depths of a still-snowy bosom veiled in snowy muslins that were held in place by a miniature portrait of the late Mr. Mingott; and around and below, wave after wave of black silk surged away over the edges of a capacious armchair, with two tiny white hands poised like gulls on the surface of the billows. 


The burden of Mrs. Manson Mingott's flesh had long since made it impossible for her to go up and down stairs, and with characteristic independence she had made her reception rooms upstairs and established herself (in flagrant violation of all the New York proprieties) on the ground floor of her house; so that, as you sat in her sitting-room window with her, you caught (through a door that was always open, and a looped-back yellow damask portiere) the unexpected vista of a bedroom with a huge low bed upholstered like a sofa, and a toilet-table with frivolous lace flounces and a gilt-framed mirror. 

 Her visitors were startled and fascinated by the foreignness of this arrangement, which recalled scenes in French fiction, and architectural incentives to immorality such as the simple American had never dreamed of. That was how women with lovers lived in the wicked old societies, in apartments with all the rooms on one floor, and all the indecent propinquities that their novels described. It amused Newland Archer (who had secretly situated the love-scenes of "Monsieur de Camors" in Mrs. Mingott's bedroom) to picture her blameless life led in the stage-setting of adultery; but he said to himself, with considerable admiration, that if a lover had been what she wanted, the intrepid woman would have had him too.

Wharton, like Jane Austen, writes these dense, winding sentences. I find her easier then Austen to comprehend on first pass, but still, at several points I've had to re-read chapters out loud. It feels rather silly to remark on the beauty of her language. It's redundant for this blog, and it's conclusion that wiser people reached long before me. It's also redundant to note that, like Austin, Wharton is just daggering "society" and all its rules and bindings.

But there's more here here, something beyond mocking. Wharton gives us a physical description of a woman, which are supposed to find repulsive, but ends by showing us why we might actually admire, and fantasize, about her. She is sexy in the rebel or cowboy sense. There's something dangerous about her--That was how women with lovers lived in the wicked old societies--and yet by force of wit she's managed to navigate New York society and command a level of respect. 

Earlier in the novel Wharton notes that Mrs. Mingott had..

...put the crowning touch to her audacities by building a large house of pale cream-coloured stone (when brown sandstone seemed as much the only wear as a frock-coat in the afternoon) in an inaccessible wilderness near the Central Park... 

[T]he cream-coloured house (supposed to be modelled on the private hotels of the Parisian aristocracy) was there as a visible proof of her moral courage; and she throned in it, among pre-Revolutionary furniture and souvenirs of the Tuileries of Louis Napoleon (where she had shone in her middle age), as placidly as if there were nothing peculiar in living above Thirty-fourth Street, or in having French windows that opened like doors instead of sashes that pushed up.

Mingott didn't just "live" in this allegedly unfashionable home, she throned in it. Or ebonically speaking she flipped it. I don't want to take this too far, but Wharton really shows a penetrating sense of the male psyche. It's often said, and quite true, that men are sometimes intimidated by powerful women. But just as true, though less said, is that they also lust after powerful women. Indeed one is often connected to the other. 

And yeah the writing is beautiful. Just gorgeous. She's more of a detailed and physical writer than Austen, I think. Bad on me for coming to things so late.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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