Amsterdam, Interviews and Edith Wharton
At the end of last summer I flew from Dublin to Amsterdam. I met up with university friends and we wandered the canals, visited Anne Frank’s house, ate pancakes, saw Vermeers and drank lots of beer. I was staying in a hostel called The Bulldog which was in the middle of the tacky Red Light District, where prostitutes wave at you through windows. That sounds like it might be kind of fun, but I ended up thinking it was sad. Immediately every morning I escaped downtown and, map constantly in hand (Amsterdam is a complicated city, built in concentric half-circles) searched for small museums, interesting shops and gay bars. Speaking of which, the Dutch speak English well, but are very blunt.
“Everyone rides a bike here!” I told an older gay guy at a bar.
“Yes,” he said. “I ride my bike every day.” Then he squeezed my thigh. “Hmm, you don’t ride your bike every day.”
But that is not the story I intended to recount.
After Jen and Stu flew home, after I received a bad email from UofT at my friend Liam’s house in Leiden informing me that I failed a third French test (bursting into tears due to emails has been a habit of mine again this week), and I tried to cheer myself up by going to see Away We Go with Dutch subtitles at the fabulous ‘Chinese’ art deco Tuschinski theatre, I went to an English bookshop on my last day.
“Would you like something about Amsterdam?” the shop woman asked.
“No, I’m Amsterdamed out.” Eventually, I chose between The Bostonians by Henry James and The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. My only experience with Wharton had been watching the film version of The House of Mirth, with the X-Files’ Gillian Anderson when she was trying for a film career. I began reading it at the airport and felt immediately I had found a kindred spirit.
Published in 1920 but set in the 1870’s, The Age of Innocence is a tragic-comedic satire about Gilded Age New York, when the old Dutch families who represented capital-S Society had to contend with the liberalization of divorce, the changing role of women and the allegedly-classless ‘new’ money of industrialists and foreigners. It is a world where no one says what they mean, a world of “hieroglyphics”, as the narrator observes, but with Wharton you have a perceptive and sardonic guide leading you through.
Back in Dublin, I found the Wharton biography by Hermione Lee at a charity shop, and I collected what other significant books of hers I could find. She also loved fashion and style, detailing what characters wore in the hopes that you’d pick up the same social meanings as she did. The covers of Wharton’s novels often feature elegant turn of the century ladies, either paintings or photographs (sometimes of the author herself), descending stairways, waiting for trains, or ripping up letters to be blown away by the autumn breeze. Sometimes they even feature pictures which are obviously anachronistic (one cover for House of Mirth had a formal woman at an opera house clearly from the 1950’s!) but it was enough for the publishers to just evoke a lost age of elegance, even if it’s the wrong century.
It was this aspect which popped in my mind during my interview at WORN. Asked for two pitch ideas, a question I had expected but should have been better prepared for, I rambled on about how long trends take to die out (only later did I realize how much the WORN staff reject stories about trends) but then I remembered Edith. I pitched a story about the portrayal of clothing and accessories in Wharton’s novels.
“Edith Wharton!” Assistant Publisher Sara Forsyth said. “I’ve been reading a lot of her!”
‘That was a freebie,’ I thought.
I got the internship.
And a month or so later, my Editor Serah-Marie asked me to grab a book from a pile to review, and the second one down was called Edith Wharton and the Making of Fashion. I couldn’t believe it.
“Serah-Marie! This book is on the exact topic I pitched in my interview!”
“Oh yeah, I guess it is.”
“I have to review it!”
“Umm, I think Anna called it…” My face fell. But then she went online and Anna said I could review the book that I was destined to.