Around this time last year, I allowed myself to experience Edith Wharton’s novel The Age of Innocence. I’ve visited a handful of short stories since, and I’ve not had reason to doubt Wharton’s ability to transport a reader through time and space with such ease and grace. Then, as things go in my world, other distractions took hold, and Wharton bowed out, patiently waiting for me to rediscover her. Well… that happened.
As it turns out, The Age of Innocence has little siblings in the form of a quartet of novellas. They are not interconnected directly, I’m told, but some characters appear in more than one story. What brings them together is that they depict the same upper tier 19th century New York society of the novel, whittled down to character studies. All four novellas are prequels of a sort to The Age of Innocence, each spotlighting within a specific decade. The first of these four, False Dawn, centers on the (18)40s.
When I picked up False Dawn last night after dinner, I had no idea of any of this. I was drawn in by three points. First, I decided to revisit Wharton and her world. I love her prose. Second, the narrator of the audiobook is Sir Derek Jacobi, the voice who introduced me to the idea of audiobooks decades ago when I purchased them on cassette. And third, False Dawn deals with the world of art, which is near and dear to my own heart.
The story centers around Lewis Raycie. At age 21, he is given an assignment by his father, Halston Raycie, to finally prove himself worthy of his family name and legacy, an assignment that, for me, would be considered something of a fever dream. Young Raycie is sent to Europe to collect great, original works of art from the Italian masters that will form the center of an ever-expanding collection, through which the elder Raycie hopes his family will be long remembered. The expectation is that Lewis will choose works from well-known artists, specifically those who are accepted by New York society’s understanding of great art. In other words, it’s not about the art; it’s about the prestige of owning such art and catering it for the world. “The Raycie Collection,” as it will be known.
But American tastes are not European tastes. It can be said that the Europeans, who made the art and have it in their blood, understand it, whereas the Americans are obsessed with interpretations of style and notoriety. Though Lewis understands what is expected of him, this distinction is as yet unknown to him. He easily makes friends in Europe, including John Ruskin. Ruskin’s insider knowledge influences Lewis to buy works that are considered superior, but whose artists are as yet unknown in American circles. Upon returning home, Lewis shows his acquisitions to his father. The fallout is that Lewis is all but practically disowned, such is the power of his father’s disapproval. When the elder Raycie dies shortly after, Lewis marries, his choice one that his father would likely disapprove of but no longer gets the opportunity to do so. His bride bears a striking resemblance to many of the subjects in the artworks he selected, which is a character trait that says a great deal in the confines of this story. The couple decides to open a gallery so as to show the collection to New York society… and society at large disapproves.
In an epilogue to the story, decades later, the family name is all but forgotten, but the artwork is recognized as valuable.
Says so much, doesn’t it? The more times change, the more they stay the same, and it doesn’t seem to matter how rich you’re not to experience this sort of thing. Our own modern world is obsessed with brand recognition. Everything is marketing; value is next to meaningless, and true art is merely subjective to the opinions of the internet. How many likes can you get? Or stars in your rating? How much feedback can something generate, regardless of how much spelling and grammar should undermine that opinion? The more clicks you generate, the higher up you go in the almighty Google search rankings. When something does make it big, expect the army of clone knock-offs right behind it. It’s the kind of thing my disenfranchised soul has recognized in the emptiness of most of pop culture, my soul practically starving for truly great art, regardless of medium or genre. Once again, Wharton’s commentaries on her society crosses boundaries and offers up some truly wonderful art.