Saturday, May 10

My Grandmother and Edith Wharton

Posted by PicasaTaking pictures of pictures isn't the greatest way to show them, but it sure is fun. This one is from a thin black album over a century old. Some of the photos are dated 1912, before my mother was born. The pictures of my grandmother, Evelyn Langley Manchester, and her sisters and friends remind me of the world of Henry James and Edith Wharton, a world I return to time and again in my reading. Edith Wharton was a summer visitor to Newport and might have passed my grandmother on the street or on Bellevue Avenue or Ocean Drive. I think my grandmother is more beautiful than Mrs. Wharton, born Edith Newbold Jones.

In The Age of Innocence, Newland Archer is in Newport at the same time as his forbidden love, Ellen Olenska. He goes out to a farm in Middletown to see some race horses, and sees Ellen down on the shore. My grandfather, David Coggeshall Simmons, was part of a Middletown family whose large farm on the East Main Road is now a land trust and while it no longer has dairy cattle is run by the youngest generation as a demonstration organic farm. You can still stop at the farm stand in the summer and buy fresh produce. It can't be too far from the farm that Archer visited. This man and horse are in my family album, not Newland Archer's.

Literature stands by itself as a deep source of pleasure, but that enjoyment is even greater when the place evoked is known to the reader. Last summer as I drove with my mother along Ocean Drive and some of the side roads, I looked for Wharton's summer cottage. I found one that looked promising, but I need to do a little more research. And I need to find out who the man is. Later: more 1912 photos.

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