Tuesday, April 24, 2012

"Drawing Rooms Are Always Tidy"

When Edith Wharton was a little girl, she used to entertain herself with a game she called “making up.” Long before she had learned to read, little Edith Newbold Jones would hold an open book and walk around the house pretending to read aloud, at the top of her voice, a stream of invented stories about her relatives and other people. According to Wharton’s memoir, A Backward Glance, all this obsessive pacing and shouting had a nearly erotic aspect, which made her parents anxious. Apparently her mother attempted a few times to write down her shouted stories, but they went by too quickly. The family's concern grew larger when Edith asked her mother to provide entertainment for children who had been invited over to the Jones household to play, because she was too preoccupied with her "making up" to stop and spend time with them.

By the time she was ten, Edith was spending hours of each day writing -- not only stories but also poems and dramas in blank verse. Her first novel was begun at age eleven. The opening sentences were: "Oh, how do you do, Mrs. Brown," said Mrs. Tompkins. "If only I had known you were going to call, I would have tidied up the drawing room."

In A Backward Glance, Wharton described “timorously” showing the start of her novel to her mother. How did Mrs. Jones respond to her talented child's efforts? “Never shall I forget the sudden drop of my creative frenzy when she returned it with the icy comment, ‘Drawing rooms are always tidy.’”

Edith Wharton lived in Paris for the latter part of her life, while continuing to "make up" one brilliant novel after another about the denizens of New York and their drawing rooms, tidy and untidy. For many years she lived on the Rue de Varenne, in a building I often pass by when I am in Paris, just off the Rue du Bac, and it is always a thrill to imagine her walking these same streets, buying a baguette at the nearby bakery, or lingering over coffee at the cafe on the corner.  A plaque on the outside of the building describes her as “the first writer of the United States to settle in France out of love of the country and its literature.”  Perhaps this was one of her reasons for leaving New York.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Cruel Hoax, Someone's Idea of a Performance Piece, or Simply Spam?

In my email today there was an "invitation" about which there have been warnings issued in recent weeks. The peculiarly-worded email reads as follows:


"Respected Katharine Weber,

I am Prof. Mark Kennedy from King’s College Campus Here in London UK.
We want you to be our guest Speaker at this Year King’s college Seminar which will take place here in UK. We are writing to invite and confirm your booking to be our guest Speaker at this year’s event.

King’s College Campus.

The Venue as follows:
VENUE: King’s College campus in Strand
London, United Kingdom
Expected audience: 850 people
Duration of speech per speaker: 1 Hour
Name of Organization: King’s College Campus.
Topic: ”Mystery of Life and Death”
Date:30th May 2012

We came across your profile on http://www.pw.org// and we say it’s up to standard and we will be very glad to have such an outstanding personality in our midst for these overwhelming gathering. Arrangements to welcome you here will be discussed as soon as you honor our invitation. If you have any more publicity material, please do not hesitate to contact us.

A formal Letter of invitation and Contract agreement would be sent to you as soon as you honor our Invitation. We are taking care of your travel and Hotel Accommodation expenses including your Speaking Fee. If you will be available for our event, include your speaking fees in your email so it can be included in your CONTRACT AGREEMENT.

Stay Blessed
Prof. Mark Kennedy
King’s College Campus.

Tel: + 44 702 408 2535"

I am puzzled about the intention of the author of this email. Is it designed as a cruel hoax to smack authors for their egos? Is there some point when one's credit card details would be required? Is it someone's Joe Orton-esque idea of a literary performance piece?

When I was writing True Confections, in an early draft I included a Nigerian hoax email as a plot element. My wise editor, John Glusman, persuaded me to take it out, and I am glad I did. It's all far too "familiar" at this point.