I have been rereading Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence once again. This is one of my favourite novels of all time, and every time I pick it up, I find myself buying yellow roses and listening to Gounod’s Faust. I love Wharton’s language; one of my favourite passages has always been the description of Louise van der Luyden sitting beneath her own portrait:
Mrs. van der Luyden’s portrait by Huntington (in black velvet and Venetian point) faced that of her lovely ancestress. It was generally considered “as fine as a Cabanel,” and, though twenty years had elapsed since its execution, was still “a perfect likeness.” Indeed the Mrs. van der Luyden who sat beneath it listening to Mrs. Archer might have been the twin-sister of the fair and still youngish woman drooping against a gilt armchair before a green rep curtain. Mrs. van der Luyden still wore black velvet and Venetian point* when she went into society—or rather (since she never dined out) when she threw open her own doors to receive it. Her fair hair, which had faded without turning grey, was still parted in flat overlapping points on her forehead, and the straight nose that divided her pale blue eyes was only a little more pinched about the nostrils than when the portrait had been painted. She always, indeed, struck Newland Archer as having been rather gruesomely preserved in the airless atmosphere of a perfectly irreproachable existence, as bodies caught in glaciers keep for years a rosy life-in-death.
(* Venetian point is a type of lace. I looked it up. No, seriously.)
I also love the symbolism of the flowers – the whole work is shrouded in similar symbols, Wharton explaining that the whole world in which the novel is set is operates in hieroglyphs and signs, with the real thing never as much as whispered aloud. The lilies-of-the-valley – white, waxy, virginal, with a heavy scent – are perfect for May, while the yellow roses – not exotic, but fiery, sunny, elegant – Newland Archer sends to the Countess Olenska, before he is even consciously aware that he’s falling in love with her.
As he wrote a word on his card and waited for an envelope he glanced about the embowered shop, and his eye lit on a cluster of yellow roses. He had never seen any as sun-golden before, and his first impulse was to send them to May instead of the lilies. But they did not look like her—there was something too rich, too strong, in their fiery beauty. In a sudden revulsion of mood, and almost without knowing what he did, he signed to the florist to lay the roses in another long box, and slipped his card into a second envelope, on which he wrote the name of the Countess Olenska; then, just as he was turning away, he drew the card out again, and left the empty envelope on the box.
“They’ll go at once?” he enquired, pointing to the roses.
The florist assured him that they would.
Yellow roses also were, less poetically, my maternal grandmother’s favourite flowers; I have a picture of her holding a bouquet of 80 stems, given to her in her birthday in 1987 – bright, golden yellow, the stems long and the blooms smaller, looking old-fashioned now.
One day I was in the neighbourhood of my college, and the urge to go in was too much to resist – I got in the library and breathed lungful of what is the best smell in the world, and had coffee in the Senior Common Room with with the librarian. For a small moment it was like stepping into another world. Quite nice, really.
I love stationery shops, and may have overdone it a bit lately (the expensive smoky blue writing paper and envelopes I had bought couple days earlier are not in the picture) – notebooks, cards, correspondence cards, watercolour pens, lino for printing my own cards, shrinkies. I loved Shrinky Dinks as a kid, and was overjoyed to discover that they are still made. The most memorable playthings I had as a kid were all like this – shrinkies, paper dolls drawn by mother, plasticine. One of my most favourite books had a girl who made luxury paper doll’s clothes with beads and doilies and small scraps of fabric, pressed flowers between old books and woke up on her birthday to find colouring pencils and a bowl of biscuits on a chair by her bed. Craftmania is, well, a mania.
I went to a whole lot of Oxford Lieder Festival concerts this year, and they were all great. Loved Roddy Williams’ and Sarah Connolly’s performance of Schubert’s Lady of the Lake. Will never forget Sir Thomas Allen’s Winterreise. The closing concert was pretty cool too – Sarah Walker sang, and during the interval, this happened:
I had to go to London mid-week to renew my passport and while there, I had to go and see the poppies. They were mighty impressive, the sheer number of them, but the experience was slightly dampened not just by the hundred thousand other people there, but also by the fact that ten seconds after I took this snap, I got a message delivering some bad news. But, I’m glad I saw them, and also that the artist stuck to his guns and they are being taken down now. There is beauty in transience.
I walked to Godstow on Sunday. The path has two famous pubs along the way, so on a nice day it’s packed with both locals and with tourists in their improbable shoes (it didn’t cross your mind that after three days of rain a tow path along the river might be a bit muddy when you put on those 5inch heels?), but the place still has its magic. Mistress of King Henry II, Rosamund Clifford, lived her final years in the nunnery and is buried there, her graved unmarked since the Dissolution of the monasteries.