Six Degrees of Separation is a monthly book meme first created by Annabel Smith & Emma Chapman, and now continued by Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest. The aim is create a chain of six books stemming from one designated book. That designated book is announced monthly, and the books can be linked in various ways.
This month’s chain starts with Ruth Ozeki’s most recent book The Book of Form and Emptiness, which I have not yet read, but the synopsis tells me that this is a book that features “a large public library” at some point, and this brings me to Edith Wharton’s classic novella Summer. This book is about Charity Royall, a seventeen-year old girl who was once adopted by a prominent lawyer in a small town of North Dormer. She lands a coveted role of a librarian at her local library and there meets a promising architect and potential suitor Lucius Harney. Edith Wharton won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1921, becoming the first woman to do so, and 100 years on, Louise Erdrich also did so for her novel The Night Watchman, which won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize. This rather personal-to-the-author novel is set in the 1950s and follows the lives of North Dakota’s Native American population – the Chippewa tribe. The story focuses on a US Senator’s attempt to undo the protection enjoyed by the native tribe through the so-called Termination Bill.
In this story, one intellectual reading club is led by one Mrs. Ballinger and composed of a number of ladies of distinction, i.e. “huntresses of erudition”, “who pursue Culture in bands, as though it were dangerous to meet alone”. Mrs. Ballinger is the epitome of proper behaviour, but is also described as having a “mind [like an] hotel where facts came and went like transient lodgers, without leaving their address behind, and frequently without paying for their board”. Mrs. Roby is the newest addition to this elite club who gained her entry by way of one gentleman’s recommendation. However, she does not seem to fit and does and says the wrong things. That is, until Mrs. Ballinger and the other ladies invite a respected female author Osric Dane to talk about her latest book and that “inadequate” Mrs. Roby asks Ms. Dane to comment on one supposed book titled “Xingu”. The uttering of that word “Xingu” is that Alice in Wonderland’s Unbirthday Party moment in this story which precedes changing power dynamics and the quiet, or maybe not so quiet, disintegration of the club’s supposed erudition.
Edith Wharton (The House of Mirth) could always be counted on to produce a fine satire of the upper-class. The haughtiness and self-absorption of the club, that focuses too much on what is “right” and “proper”, means that the ladies lose sight of the very culture and intellectual endeavours they are supposed to be pursing. They are necessarily restricted by the very “fine” social parameters within which they operate, and the goal to pursue culture and serious literature, which does require a level of open-mindedness, sits at odds with the club’s inflexible and discriminatory practices. Xingu must be among Wharton’s best short stories, being both caustically amusing and delightfully sarcastic.
“The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth” [Ecclesiastes 7:4].
In this book, Lily Bart, a young woman from once aristocratic but now impoverished family, has reached her twenty-ninth year without finding a husband. Her beauty and financial resources declining, she notices changes in the society’s perception of her. Miss Bart, free-spirited, fun-loving, popular and, in her own words, “horribly poor – [but] very expensive] [1905: 12], soon faces an unenviable position worsened by the fact that she still loves shopping, jewellery and luxury. To what extent can she still count on the kindness of others to survive in the world that is increasingly becoming unforgiving and even hostile, full of social traps and intrigues? Considered scandalous upon its release, but converted Wharton into a successful author virtually overnight, this satire on New York City’s high society through the in-depth portrayal of a modern and increasingly fragile woman conveys the sheer pathos of a situation whereby individual willpower and the independence of spirit find themselves at odds with societal demands and expectations.
“He was not sure that he wanted to see the Countess Olenska again; but ever since he had looked at her from the path above the bay he had wanted, irrationally and indescribably, to see the place she was living in, and to follow the movements of her imagined figure…The longing was with him day and night, an incessant undefinable craving, like the sudden whim of a sick man for food and drink once tasted and long since forgotten. He could not see beyond the craving, or picture what it might lead to…He simply felt that if he could carry away the vision of the spot of earth she walked on…the rest of the world might seem less empty” [Edith Wharton, 1920: 191].