The Living Force
I have been thinking about the culture in these novels, those 'values and rules' you mentioned. In comparison to the world I grew up in, its highly regulated. The examples are legion. Unwed girls may not walk with a man alone. There is a specific Season of balls and garden parties which is in part designed to 'bring out' eligible young men and women for the purpose of finding mates. And of course, there are rules of esteem and honour that many times force a marriage to prevent some sort of scandal. And on and on.
There is a social standard that everyone in these books has to contend with - whether they like it or not. And whether they're a man or woman, old or young, these customs give their lives sense and meaning, something to push against or been drawn towards, to navigate, to discuss, ponder - something to live for. Although incredibly heartbreaking and difficult, as the authors in this thread display, it is these customs that form a sort of ground that the characters walk on in their lives.
I agree. Better to have moral standards by which one's own behaviour is measured, than nothing at all (what we have today), even if people lied and pretended and hypocrisy reigned supreme. At least when they 'deviated' from those standards, they knew it was wrong.
The other side of the coin is that individuals and personal aspirations were crushed within such a system where preserving appearances at all costs (which implied hypocrisy, lies and intolerance towards those who "rebelled") is what mattered, and too bad if lives were destroyed in the process. As pointed out by Laura, the heroes/heroines of those novels are rebels who don't quite follow the rules of the time, where marrying was just about forging alliances between great families, for the sake of breeding heirs and keeping the class system intact. True love had no place within such a system.
I'm reminded of an article I read about Scorsese's excellent movie The Age of Innocence (based on Edit Wharton's novel), which is the antithetis of the romance novels we're reading (and is more realistic), and where the male protagonist (the real innocent of the story, along with the female protagonist), instead of finding it in him to follow his true self's desire, eventually gives in to the "mob rule" - the diktats of high society - and ends up destroying or at least damaging his soul. Though the movie doesn't have any overt violence, Scorsese describes it as one the most brutal movie he's ever made:
Even in 1993, it seemed surprising that Martin Scorsese should direct an adaptation of The Age of Innocence. Why was the director of bloody and furious classics such as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull taking on this story of decorum and reserve in New York high society? When the film came out, critic Roger Ebert wrote that the pairing had “struck many people as astonishing – as surprising, say, as if Abel Ferrara had announced a film by Henry James”.
But Edith Wharton’s great novel has more in common with Scorsese’s work, especially Mean Streets and Goodfellas, than might be supposed. Most obviously, it’s about gangs: their unspoken rules, their codes of honour, and their structures of power. Wharton’s society, with the formidable Van der Luydens “above all of them”, is as tough as they come. Transgressors against its strict honour code are punished without mercy. Scorsese told Ebert:
Wharton is explicit about this in the novel. When the Countess Ellen Olenska is made to endure the final cruelty of a “farewell tribute” dinner held ostensibly in her honour before she is cast out of New York society, the sorrowful protagonist Newland Archer reflects: “It was the old New York way of taking life ‘without effusion of blood’: the way of people who dreaded scandal more than disease, who placed decency above courage, and who considered that nothing was more ill-bred than ‘scenes’, except the behaviour of those who gave rise to them.”What has always stuck in my head is the brutality under the manners. People hide what they mean under the surface of language in the subculture I was around when I grew up in Little Italy, when somebody was killed, there was a finality to it. It was usually done by the hands of a friend. And in a funny way, it was almost like ritualistic slaughter, a sacrifice. But New York society in the 1870s didn’t have that. It was so cold-blooded. I don’t know which is preferable.
At the same point in the film, Joanna Woodward’s spoken narration, which borrows heavily from Wharton’s original text, states that Archer “guessed himself to have been, for months, the centre of countless silently observing eyes and patiently listening ears. He understood that, somehow, the separation between himself and the partner of his guilt had been achieved. And he knew that now the whole tribe had rallied around his wife. He was a prisoner in the centre of an armed camp.”
Such moments made Scorsese describe the film as one of “the most violent”he’s ever made. Even if, as he has also explained, the violence is expressed “through very elaborate etiquette and ritual”.
It’s fascinating to watch – not least because Scorsese has such an eye for the details of these tribal customs. The camera lingers long over signifiers of power and correct “form”. Scorsese commissioned copies of more than 200 paintings to ensure authenticity in the houses of the film’s power brokers. The costumes are elaborately beautiful. There are fantastic scenes in which knives and forks are displayed and examined, like guns in gangster movies.
But there’s more to the film than just frock consciousness. The use of narrative voiceover can sometimes seem hokey, but at least here it’s still Edith Wharton, with beautiful lines such as: “The past had come again into the present, as in those newly discovered caverns in Tuscany where children had lit bunches of straw and seen old images staring from the wall.”
Lines from the book also provide devastating dialogue, especially when delivered by actors as good as Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer:
And then there’s the “spirit” of the book, what Scorsese described to Ebert as “exquisite romantic pain. The idea that the mere touching of a woman’s hand would suffice. The idea that seeing her across the room would keep him alive for another year.”“All this blind obeying of tradition, somebody else’s tradition, is thoroughly needless. It seems stupid to have discovered America only to make it a copy of another country.”
“Does no one here want to know the truth, Mr Archer? The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who ask you only to pretend.”
The Age of Innocence may be about reserve and decorum, but it’s still intensely erotically charged and full of hard choices. Ebert says: “Immediately under the surface … beats the red pulse of passion. And it is the very same passion that has inspired Scorsese in almost all of his films: The passion of a man forced to choose between what he wants, and what he knows [add: or rather, believes] is right.” Put like that, it seems inevitable that Scorsese should have made the film. And it’s no surprise at all that it was such an artistic success."