OPINION

Should be required reading for Forest Hill types

BARBARA AMIEL April 30 2007
OPINION

Should be required reading for Forest Hill types

BARBARA AMIEL April 30 2007

Should be required reading for Forest Hill types

UVUVIUIV

BARBARA AMIEL

É William According newspapers, has to Britain’s broken last weekend’s up Prince with his pretty girlfriend Kate Middleton. Reasons given are purely speculative. Royal correspondent James Whitathe Daily Mirror felt it was the faux pas of Kate’s ex-flight-attendant mother, who on being introduced to the Queen said “Nice to meet you” rather than “How do you do” and asked for the “toilet” not the “lavatory.” For the British this is as down-market as saying “pardon me?” rather than “what?” Whether or not this language lapse was the reason, the mention of it is an example of the enduring value of Bernard Shaw’s line that it is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.

News of the young royal’s romantic tiff would have passed me by except that I was especially sensitive to class and caste, having just written a book review of Edith Wharton, Hermione Lee’s new 762-page biography of the brilliant American writer whose life from 1862 to 1937 spanned some of the greatest social upheavals of modern times. No American writer has so keen an eye for social nuances as Wharton: a contretemps between the heir to the throne and his girlfriend, the daughter of self-made, wealthy parents, would have been right up her alley. Wharton herself belonged to the cream of late-19th-century American society and suffered the public humiliation of having her first engagement terminated on grounds that were never quite established, although it was rumoured in Town Topics (the society tabloid of the day) that her prospective mother-in-law found her to have a “preponderance of intellectuality...”

Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, which received the Pulitzer Prize in 1921, is musthave chick reading along with Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. For me, Wharton’s finest novel is The Custom of the Country with its marauding heroine Undine Spragg from Apex City. Undine has language problems of her own in impressing New York society. She replies to all questions with a combative “Is that so?” or “I couldn’t really say,” which appears to be the equivalent of today’s vague interjections and conjunctions of “y’know” or “whatever.” Nevertheless, her startling good looks boost her up the social ladder with remarkable success, snaring a Park Avenue blueblood as her second husband, next a French marquis, and finally remarrying her first husband—the boy from Apex City—who has now become a financier of immense wealth. But to naught. She stands bejewelled in her Paris ballroom only to realize in the novel’s very last line that as a divorcee, “there was something she could never get, something that neither beauty, nor influence nor millions could ever buy for her. She could never be an Ambassador’s wife; and... she said to herself it was the one part she was really made for.”

The test of a great writer is the universality and modernity of her insights, and Wharton comes up trumps. Whether it is her first bestseller The House of Mirth (1905) or her 1934 autobiography A Backward Glance, the ironic perceptions ring true today. We may have new approaches to marriage and relationships; we certainly seek to banish the snobbery and hierarchy of class from our society, but human nature remains curiously oblivious to such good intentions. The descendants of Undine Spragg and social queen bee Judy Trenor from The House of Mirth pursue identical agendas even now whether on New York’s Upper East Side or in Toronto’s Forest Hill. Today’s sad people whose self-worth depends upon acceptance by local “old families” could improve their standing—and their minds—by reading almost any one of Wharton’s 40 books.

Twelve men plus very large dog swarmed into Gorgeous Stepdaughter’s hotel room

A Chicago postscript: My Gorgeous Stepdaughter gets up early to be with her father in court. At night, she sometimes finds sleep difficult. Last Friday, the sandman didn’t arrive till nearly 6 a.m. and was rudely interrupted around 10:30 a.m. by the telephone. Assuming it was the usual call from Housekeeping to find out when she planned to remove the Do Not Disturb sign from her door, she put a pillow over her head. Shortly after came a knock on the door—also ignored.

About 10 minutes later, a man opened the door and said “Hotel Security.” Gorgeous Stepdaughter groggily suggested he come back later. “I can’t,” he replied, “but I just need a few minutes.” GS rolled out of bed. “Okay,” she said to the lone employee, whereupon 12 or 13 men in black suits and trench coats, all over six feet tall, plus one very large dog, swarmed into her room.

Their Leader, a man about six-foot-five, took charge of GS. (I mention height to give readers a notion of space available for 14 large people in a hotel room. ) The remaining dozen dropped to their knees with flashlights, searching under the furniture and behind curtains— the dog checked out the wardrobe. My stepdaughter assumed (a) it was a raid by the Department of Justice engineered by her father’s accusers, planning to arrest her for harbouring a (planted) illegal alien or illegal substance or (b) it was a dream. In either case bed seemed the best option and she returned to it until Leader asked her to disembark so they could lift up the mattress. GS, a genuine animal lover, tried to pat the dog. Large man with dog said, “No, he’s working.”

meets Buster Keaton was over 10 minutes. Alone in her room, GS returned once more to bed to get as much shut-eye as possible before transfer to a penitentiary in Marion, 111. Half an hour later, phone rings to wake her up for fervent apology from hotel manager. Vice-President Dick Cheney was going to be in the room next to her for a few hours. For the Secret Service, hitting on a gorgeous five-foot-ll-inch 24year-old in her short shorts and tank top PJs has to be what getting lucky means in their line of work. M