Wharton and McKay’s Witches in New York

I love my Scary Reads series so much that I read and posted most of the month of October before September was over.  And what a lucky thing that I did.

I got my son’s cough a week before my half marathon, and all the money and time spent training for this event was not going to be wasted on a cough, so I ran it anyway.  I was good for about week until it bloomed into what I am pretty sure was sinusitis, which is bad enough in that it is gunky, but I lost my appetite and my energy plummeted to the point where I did nothing but the bare minimum at home and at work.  I had one more race to run that I didn’t run.  I have a list of house stuff and personal projects I am trying to get through and I have late paperwork at work I have to spend time working on today.  It’s time to make serious holiday plans and prep.  I can’t believe how much energy I normally run on and it’s even harder to believe how fast it disappeared.  I went from putting down 13 mile runs to my chest hurting standing up too long. I might have fallen behind on posting if I had not already been ahead.

But I am on the other side.  I still feel like exercising won’t leave me enough energy to do my day, but I can post on what little reading has gotten done.  I didn’t even have the mental energy to focus on reading.  I binged on Netflix.  I never binge on Netflix.  No offense to people who do so to relax, but I feel it is a waste of time.

I decided to combine these two books that I read for very different reasons into the same post.  As I reflected on them, they were actually about the same thing. They both deal with women grabbing up what power they can inside and outside the confines of their lives and conventions and interestingly have two very different takes on New York City in the late 1800s.  They are both witches in their own right, if we are defining a witch as a woman who influences her world rather than being controlled by it.

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The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton

This was for BookRiot’s book you read for school but hated/never finished.  I finished this one and begrudgingly wrote a feminist critique on it for my senior project in high school. It was begrudging for many reasons:  one, I have never found a Wharton novel uplifting (I’m still not sure how I have read three of them) and two, all the seniors not in the advanced class could do their senior project on whatever they wanted.  Anything.  Any senior even in the advanced class had traditionally done whatever they wanted in other years.  My sister did hers on old time movie stars.  My class was given a list of literature to choose from and then we had to do a literary critique on it.  I don’t still have a copy of it.  I don’t remember feeling it to be, even at the time, my magnum opus.

I was still interested to revisit it twenty years later, to see what my new eyes would show me.  And to fully explain my thoughts I have to spoil the end, so if you are thinking of reading it and you don’t want to know, read it and then come back to this post.

I believe in the paper I said that May Welland/Archer was not the innocent that she would like to project, that her moves were also calculated, despite it looking on the outside that she was the innocent victim, nearly getting the short end of the stick by playing by all the rules, the lovely, quintessential affluent female, the crown jewel of NYC’s gilded age high society.

In my second run through, one almost feels badly for May, playing by all the old rules when clearly the context is changing and women are getting more freedoms, and it looks like she could be bested by a woman who personifies the new world and way of thinking.  Newland proposes to an old school version of the desirable bride, but then realizes he wants a woman who isn’t so sheltered who can be more his equal than marriages that he sees in his contemporaries.  May is the old world and Ellen is the new, and the old world, like it does, finds a way to win out.  May makes all the rules work for her when for Ellen, the old rules very much don’t.  May is powerful in her own right.  May keeps her man and Ellen decides to save her pride by returning to Europe but still living on her own terms.  She almost steals Newland in the process, but she doesn’t.  I can’t say that Ellen ends up unhappy, at least she doesn’t go back to her husband, but if the goal is to keep your man and your status, which is clearly what May wants, May wins the day.   Like she meant to all  along.  Even when she offered to release Newland from the engagement before they are married, even if she thinks it is because of feelings toward an ex.  I didn’t know at what point she figures his relationship with Ellen.  Maybe she tries to release him because of Ellen all along.  But it is a beautifully calculating and self sacrificing move.  How could Newland give that up? Guess what.  He never does.  And through her life, she clings to the conventions that worked out for her in her youth.

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The Witches of New York, Ami McKay

I read this one just because I wanted to.  I didn’t intend on a witches post because I did so many last year, but this was too compelling.  It was my dessert. And it was everything I have ever wanted in a magical novel: ghosts, magic, fortune telling, romance, some madness, NYC in the 1880s.  A young woman striking out on her own to discover a magic in herself that she never knew she had.

May Welland Archer lived in the other part of town, playing by all the rules in the center of society, while these women inhabited the fringe.  Growing up half parentless and unconventional themselves, these women are more obviously witches who perform magic and see ghosts and fortunes and help women to take control over their lives in the guise of a tea shop.  They pretend to live in the lines with a respectable business and are patronized by women of means, but they are independent and enjoy being so.

I was intrigued by the world of the very rich when I first read Wharton but I am now more intrigued by the fringes of the world than I am with the circumscribed security of the rich.  I liked the talking bird and the description of how life was lived on Blackwell’s Island, the ghosts who only allude some characters. The darkest of antagonists and more life threatening situations than challenging of the old way of doing things and the possibility of one’s husband absconding to Europe with your scandalous cousin.

We never get a peek into May Welland’s mind but I am assuming that she believed herself to be powerful by being the opposite of these women who also believe themselves to have as much control over their world as possible.  May plays and wins the game from the inside, these witches play from the outside, and even though they have different outcomes, they all are victorious in the way they want to be.   Same time, same place, different witches.  Different definitions of victory and happiness.  I wish I had been able to compare these both feminist texts when I was in high school.

I’m two books away from completing the BookRiot challenge with 8 weeks in the year to go.  The rest of the year is going to sweep right along anyway, with preparing Christmas for a small child.  And then planning my projects in a new year.

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