False Dawn by Edith Wharton (1862-1937)

The more I read books by this author the more I admire her writing. I started off with The House of Mirth, followed by Ethan Frome (which I wrote about here) and I just finished False Dawn. I\’m now well and truly hooked.

False Dawn is the first of four novellas (short novels) called \’Old New York\’ which are set in the middle of the 1800s.
If you\’ve read Dickens\’ Hard Times, images of Mr Bounderby!! could well be conjured up as you read Edith Wharton\’s descriptions of the imposing Mr. Halston Raycie, the father of the protagonist of this story. Her representation of this domineering man is one of the most picturesque and clever descriptions of a character I\’ve ever read.
Mr. Raycie was a monumental man. His extent in height, width and thickness was so nearly the same that whichever way he was turned one had an almost equally broad view of him; and every inch of that mighty circumference was so exquisitely cared for that to a farmer’s eye he might have suggested a great agricultural estate of which not an acre is untilled. Even his baldness, which was in proportion to the rest, looked as if it received a special daily polish; and on a hot day his whole person was like some wonderful example of the costliest irrigation. There was so much of him, and he had so many planes, that it was fascinating to watch each runnel of moisture follow its own particular watershed. Even on his large fresh-looking hands the drops divided, trickling in different ways from the ridges of the fingers; and as for his forehead and temples, and the raised cushion of cheek beneath each of his lower lids, every one of these slopes had its own particular stream, its hollow pools and sudden cataracts; and the sight was never unpleasant, because his whole vast bubbling surface was of such a clean and hearty pink, and the exuding moisture so perceptibly flavoured with expensive eau de Cologne and the best French soap.
Lewis Raycie was the only son of the pompous Mr. Halston Raycie and as an acquaintance of the Raycie family once observed,
\’… you wouldn’t have supposed young Lewis was exactly the kind of craft Halston would have turned out if he’d had the designing of his son and heir.\’
The son was a different kettle of fish to his father, having an artistic, sensitive nature and when his father announced his desire that Lewis acquire \’a few masterpieces\’ of art during his Grand Tour through Europe in order to establish a family gallery the son was overwhelmed with joy.
Lewis departed on his Grand Tour and in his travels he had a chance encounter with a young Englishman, John Ruskin, who introduced him to the art of Piero della Francesca, unknown in America at that time, and Lewis eagerly spent the allowance his father gave him on his art works.
He excitedly returned to America but his father was mortified with his son\’s purchases and subsequently cut him out of his will.

 Madonna del Parto, detail by Piero della Francesca (after 1457)

 It was first of all the names that stuck in Mr. Raycie’s throat: after spending a life-time committing to memory the correct pronunciation of words like Lo Spagnoletto and Giulio Romano, it was bad enough, his wrathful eyes seemed to say, to have to begin a new set of verbal gymnastics before you could be sure of saying to a friend with careless accuracy: “And THIS is my Giotto da Bondone.”

Lewis married his childhood sweetheart and they set up a gallery in which to display their precious artwork but the collection was scorned and they lived in privation for the remainder of their lives. It was not until many years later that Lewis\’s collection was re-discovered and received the recognition it deserved.
 Queen of Sheba, detail 1466 by Piero della Francesca

 For information on Edith Wharton and her books see: http://www.npg.si.edu/exh/wharton/whar3.htm

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