A lesser known novella by Edith Wharton, included in her book Xingu and Other Stories published in 1916. Two sisters operate a millinery shop, the eponymous Bunner Sisters, designing ladies hat in a run-down district of New York City.
A ladies hat shop in a shabby neighbourhood sounds incompatible and that’s the reality the Bunner sisters are dealing with, business barely sustaining their living with only a little left for a surprise birthday gift. Ann Eliza uses her savings to buy a new clock for younger sister Evelina’s birthday. Thus begins the turn in their lives.
Ann Eliza and Evelina remind me of Elinor and Marianne in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. The older is almost resigned to her fate but the younger constantly suppresses a bubbling, fleeing spirit yearning for fancier and more adventurous experiences. And that’s Ann Eliza’s wish for her sister as well. As the older sibling, she’s willing to give up her own bliss for Evelina’s happiness.
Well, that’s until lately, when Ann Eliza notices Mr. Herman Ramy, the clock maker who owns a dustier shop than theirs in the neighbourhood. Here’s how Wharton describe Ann Eliza’s change:
All the small daily happenings which had once sufficed to fill the hours now appeared to her in their deadly insignificance; and for the first time in her long years of drudgery she rebelled at the dullness of her life. With Evelina such fits of discontent were habitual and openly proclaimed, and Ann Eliza still excused them as one of the prerogatives of youth.
Anne Eliza finds opportunities to go to the clock shop to meet Mr. Ramy or in other places such as the market, but often comes to disappointments. There’s humour in these circumstances, her best laid plans often go awry, crashed by Evelina unknowingly. Ann Eliza always being the patient and self-sacrificing one, sees her chances slip away. As days go by, fate does seem to smile upon Evelina and leaves Ann Eliza behind.
Any more hints I’ll be spilling out spoilers, and that will crash your enjoyment. There are twists and turns. Looks like Wharton is influenced more by Henry James than Austen in leading her readers into the stark reality of being a woman at that time, and her astute revealing of her characters’ psychological states.
I’m always interested in why a filmmaker thinks a certain literary work is good movie material. Bunner Sisters is now a TV movie in development. Edith Wharton’s most well known, both book and adaptation, is probably The Age of Innocence. Bunner Sisters will be a much smaller project for sure, but still piques my curiosity. The Custom of the Country is also on the drawing board. Hope it will take off soon.
Here’s a piece of fond memory from my road trip to New England a few years ago when I visited Edith Wharton’s home The Mount. Relating to #NovNov event, I’m sharing a photo I took, Wharton’s home library:
Love in all its forms: steadfast, unrequited, hidden, or blind… These classic novels aren’t just about romance, but deal with their subject matters in the context of their social milieu, gender relations, class disparity, individual aspirations and angsts, as the authors explore that elusive entity called love.
What better time than now to watch these movie adaptations again, or for the first time, since many of us can’t go anywhere under pandemic restrictions. So, here they are, the Ripple list of stay-at-home viewing for Valentine’s 2021. Links are to my Ripple reviews.
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton – With this novel, Wharton became the first woman to win the Pulitzer in 1921, which makes this year the 100th anniversary of her Prize honour. Wharton’s depiction of the Gilded Age and Newland Archer’s inner torments are aptly captured by Martin Scorsese (1993), and of course, Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer.
A Room with A View by E. M. Forster – Merchant Ivory’s 1985 production remains the definitive classic. Lucy opening the window of her (exchanged) room in the Pensione Bertolini to see the view of Florence, enwrapped by the voice of Kiri Te Kanawa singing “O mio babbino caro”. And what a cast: Helena Bonham Carter, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Daniel Day-Lewis.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy – Here’s a story of an unhappy family; true enough, epic in its unhappiness, as the ending shows. The Joe Wright directed, Tom Stoppard scripted adaptation (2012) is worth a look for its highly stylized rendition. How many other versions? At least three dozen.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote – George Peppard and Audrey Hepburn make ideal screen lovers, but life isn’t ideal. Holly Golightly singing “Moon River” by the fire escape of her NY apartment is heart-tugging. Yes, that’s her own voice. But major flaw I try to ignore is Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi. Have to forgive and forget that dated, racially stereotyped portrayal.
Emma by Jane Austen – It has been 24 years since the last full-length feature of Emma was made for the big screen, time for a millennial version (2020). Rising star Anya Taylor-Joy got two 2021 Golden Globe Best Actress nominations for her roles in Emma and The Queen’s Gambit. The multi-talented Johnny Flynn (The Dig) is the updated Mr. Knightly.
The End of the Affair by Graham Greene – The 1999 movie came out three years after The English Patient, another one of Ralph Fiennes’s dead-end passion for someone he can’t have. Graham Greene’s classic is Colin Firth’s choice to record for UK Audible, a series by famous actors reading their favourite classic novel. What more can you ask?
Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy – As much as I enjoy Carey Mulligan’s works, for this one, I think the director and screenwriter had mishandled the adaptation, albeit I must say I love the lush green Dorset landscape. For nostalgic reasons, maybe it’s time to revisit John Schlesinger directing Julie Christie as Bathsheba Everdene (1967), with Alan Bates and Peter Finch.
Goodbye Mr. Chips by James Hilton – May not be on the list of early 20th C. classics, but the 1969 film is a gem. Peter O’Toole won a Best Actor Golden Globe for his role as poor old Mr. Chips, and Petula Clark is a natural. The scene where she sings out ‘Fill the World with Love’ at the school assembly is hilariously inspirational.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald – I like Robert Redford as Gatsby (1974), but Carey Mulligan as Daisy (2013), so, it’s a toss-up between the two versions. Also, I think Gatsby is great not because of his extravagance and opulence, on which Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 version focuses. He’s great because of his steadfast, and you could say, blind, love for Daisy. The only reason he strives to climb to the top is to win her back. The 1974 version is more subtle, screenplay written by Francis Ford Coppola.
Howards Endby E. M. Forster – The 1992 Merchant Ivory production is classic, the more recent adaptation derivative of it. James Ivory directing, screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (Best adapted writing Oscar), cast Vanessa Redgrave, Emma Thompson (Best Actress Oscar), Anthony Hopkins, Helena Bonham Carter. Book and film worth revisiting time and again.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë – With over twenty adaptations for the big and small screens, which one do you choose? I appreciate the newest 2011 full-length feature directed by Cary Fukunaga. The storytelling is fresh and cinematography stylish, screenplay by Moira Buffini who 10 years later scripted The Dig. As for the actors, I can’t say whole-heartedly that the Fassbender and Wasikowska duo are as good as Ciaran Hinds and Samantha Morton though.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott – Greta Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation of Little Women is a joyous celebration of family and life, and paints for us what love is all about. One of the best films I’ve watched in recent years and an updated version for today. This would make a fine 2021 Valentine’s stay-at-home viewing.
Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen – Best to be an armchair traveller during a pandemic, and let the movie transport you to a freer landscape. As for this one, lament a love unrequited. Being in Africa, Karen (Meryl Streep) should have known that she can’t chain a lion to one spot. Denys (Robert Redford) has to roam the mountains on his own. While Mozart might be able to subdue him momentarily, the wildness inside him can’t be tamed.
Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford – Ford’s tetralogy was adapted into a 5-episode BBC mini-series (2013), which didn’t get much attention this side of the Atlantic. The love between Christopher Tietjens (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Valentine (Adelaide Clemens) is latent and restrained, and does not surface in more realistic way until the last episodes. Why, there are more important issues to deal with such as a World War, women suffrage, and Sylvia Tietjens (Rebecca Hall).
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen – Here’s a dreamy scenario: time rolls back 25 years for Colin Firth to do a remake. This time, let’s have Carey Mulligan to play Elizabeth Bennet, ok, roll back 10 years for her, and never mind that she was Kitty in 2005. Failing these, I’ll settle for the 1995 BBC series again. But thanks to our dear Jane, we can always revisit her characters in our literary dreamscape,
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen – I’m sure Emma Thompson would want to roll back 25 years too, when in 1996 she won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for her adapted screenplay of this first novel by Jane Austen. She’d no doubt want to bask in the limelight again, for that night she gave her Golden Globe acceptance speech that Jane herself would have applauded.
My drive continued south from Bennington, Vermont, via RT 7 to Williamstown, Massachusetts. There I stayed for the night. I knew Williams College was located there. But while exploring the town, I came to this building and saw the huge banner. Upon further investigation, I was excited to discover the campus of Shakespeare & Company:
Later I found out that the actor Christopher Reeve met his future wife Dana in Williamstown where they later married. Reeve began as an apprentice at age 15 with the Wiliamstown Theater Festival right in those venues and eventually performed there for fourteen more seasons.
I had the chance to talk to a woman who was working on the grounds and learned that, lo and behold, she was born in Alberta, Canada, my home province! Imagine a chance encounter with an Alberta born American thousands of miles away.
The Berkshires region is beautiful and cultural. I made a mental note to come back to Williamstown for its annual Theater Festival.
My original plan was just to drive south on RT 7 from Williamstown to Lenox to see the Edith Wharton House at The Mount, when another serendipitous find came upon me: Tanglewood Music Center. So here I was at the famous summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra on my way to Edith Wharton House.
The Koussevitzky Music Shed was named after the Russian-born conductor, composer and double-bassist, long-time music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1924 to 1949:
I lingered at Tanglewood for quite some time, for the grounds were beautiful and offered magnificent views. Another mental note: I must come back for the Tanglewood Festival in the summer. :
Across the road from Tanglewood, fall foliage began to emerge. That was October 7. I can imagine how beautiful it is now:
And finally, to The Mount, Edith Wharton’s home from 1902 – 1911. I knew she was a prolific novelist and short-story writer, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize (The Age of Innocence, 1921); later I learned too that she had been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature three times.
So I was a little surprised to find out from the tour guide at The Mount that she was also a house and landscape designer in her own right. Her book The Decoration of Houses is still used today by architects and designers.
Built as a writers retreat, The Mount reflects Wharton’s fondness of symmetry:
What happened to the left side of the building? That makes it not symmetrical, you might ask. That’s the servants quarter which Wharton was willing to compromise her design principle.
Here’s another view why it’s called The Mount:
I took a tour of both the inside as well as her gardens. Here’s one wall of her library:
Well read in several languages since she was young, Wharton left these books behind when she moved away to live in Paris the latter part of her life after the demise of her marriage. Her husband Edward had fallen into a state of dementia after lengthy bouts of depression and mental illness. The writer’s years at The Mount had not been as happy as its surroundings could offer her.
The Drawing Room:
Dining Room, where Henry James was one of several usual guests:
But where did she write? Not in the library, or at the desk in her room, but right in her bed. She had an assistant who would take her handwritten pages and type them up after her six hours of continuous writing every morning before she got out of bed. I’m sure Wharton would love to have a laptop:
And these other items I found interesting. Downton images conjured up in my mind. Typewriter, telephone, telegram:
An original 1902 ice box, Daisy would love it but maybe not Mrs. Patmore. Give her some time to warm up:
A luggage lift. Definitely would be a fave among the footmen:
And only after the tour did I find out, The Mount had given a Life Time Achievement Award to Julian Fellowes. The Downton creator had attributed Wharton as a major influence on his works, first Gosford Park (Oscar Best Original Screenplay, 2002) and then Downton Abbey. Speaking upon receiving the Award at the Harvard Club, Fellowes noted that he was particularly inspired by Wharton’s “… ability to judge without feeling the need to condemn.”
I bought the book The Custom of the Country in the gift shop and only just now did I learn that it is being adapted into a TV mini-series, with Scarlett Johansson playing the anti-heroine, Undine Spragg. This will mark Johansson’s first TV role.
As for Julian Fellowes’ new work? I eagerly await. After visiting The Mount, I can see what a natural shift it is for him to create an American version of Downton. The Gilded Age should be a smooth sequel.
From Lenox, I began the last leg of my New England Road Trip. I headed east on I90, a breezy 2.5 hrs. drive back to Wayland, the suburb outside Boston, thus completing the loop and a memorable journey. An item checked off my bucket list.