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The Children by Edith Wharton

The Children (1928)

by Edith Wharton

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This is the only Wharton story I can think of that has children as the main characters; she's surprisingly good at writing them. The basic tale follows a middle-aged man who, through a shipboard friendship with a young woman, becomes the nominal guardian of seven children. The children's parents, all jet-setting superficial types who have married and subsequently divorced each other, use the children as pawns in divorce settlements and suchlike--only the children themselves want to stay together as a ragtag little family. I always want to fling Wharton books across the room when I'm done with them, and this was no exception. For all the lack of a happy ending (like this comes as a surprise), it's an almost upbeat book.
( )
  wealhtheowwylfing | Feb 29, 2016 |
I am a big fan of Edith Wharton. She wrote of a time and class that she knew well. She was also a keen observer and wrote with such detail that it is easy to get caught up in her stories. Martin Boyne is on a voyage to Venice when he recognizes his seat mate's name as someone he knew many years ago at Harvard. He is quite surprised when a lovely teenage girl sits down and proceeds to take command of a lively assortment of younger children. When he learns this is the daughter of his friend who is traveling with six "siblings", a governess, and two nurses, he takes the group under his wing. What he had thought would be a lonely voyage quickly turns into fun and games with this loosely related troupe of fun-loving children.

As in all of Wharton's writing, there is a dark side. In this case it is the lax parents who come and go as they please leaving 15-year-old Judith in charge. "The Wheaters," as their children refer to them, have recently reunited after a divorce, but philandering is common in their social group and their reunion with the seven children is short-lived. Wharton shows that things haven't changed all that much in the 86 years since the book was first published. The "smart set" is more concerned with their social status than their duties as parents. As she often does in her books, the author presents difficult circumstances which lead to troublesome outcomes.

While this book isn't in the same exemplary category as her more well-known works, it is very good. I just don't think it was possible for this woman to write a bad book! I would recommend it to fans of Wharton as another example of life in the gilded age. ( )
1 vote Donna828 | Nov 3, 2014 |
The Children is the fourth Edith Wharton novel I have read this year. I have been reflecting on how glad I am that I have come to her fairly late. I first read The House of Mirth many, many years ago, when, I think, I was too young to appreciate her. I then re-read it in January and it remains one of my favourite reads of 2012.
The Children I think is probably a novel that is less well known than some and according to the introduction to my edition by Marilyn French – much less appreciated. Yet I have to say straight off that I loved it.
The subject is one that many people (especially at the time when it was written) may have found rather distasteful – the infatuation of a middle-aged man for a fifteen year old girl. Future readers however will be pleased to know that this story is not Lolita. Judith Wheater is a charmingly honest young girl by turn maternal and childlike whose preoccupations are totally innocent and familial.
“The young face mounting towards him continued to bend over the baby, the girl’s frail shoulders to droop increasingly under their burden, as the congestion ahead of her forced the young lady to maintain her slanting position halfway up the liner’s flank.”
Many Edith Wharton novels are known for their exploration of old New York society into which she was born and within which she lived for many years. This old New York society with its mores, manners and conventions is very much in the background of this novel. The setting is Europe, yet the characters are from the very sections of society that Edith Wharton is famed for writing about.
While travelling by cruise ship between Algiers and Venice Martin Boyne an unmarried engineer from New York – and very much part of that old New York Society, although a poor one - meets the children of the title. Seven children ranging in age from a toddler to a girl of fifteen, they are a group of full blood, half and step siblings who are travelling with their governess and nursery maids. Judith the eldest has taken on the role of surrogate mother to the younger children. The children’s parents a group of self-centred wealthy nouveau riche – who live mainly out of hotels, and think nothing of marrying, divorcing, re-marrying, and squabbling over their children - are the other section of society that Edith Wharton portrays brilliantly, with a satirical slant. Martin is due to meet up with the woman he has loved for many years, Rose Sellars a conventional member of New York society is newly widowed and now free to acknowledge her feelings for Martin which her marriage had not allowed her to do. Drawn into the lives of the Wheaters however, Martin decides to stay for a couple of days in Venice before going on to Switzerland, and here he involves himself further into the lives of the children and their parents.
“Lady Wrench had snatched up her daughter and stood, in an approved film attitude, pressing Zinnie’s damp cheek against her own, while the child’s orange-coloured curls mixed with the red gold of hers. “What’s that nasty beast been doing to momma’s darling?” she demanded, glaring over Zinnie’s head at Judith. “Whipping you for wanting to see your own mother, I suppose? You just tell momma what it was and she’ll…”
The children are determined to stay together, rather than be farmed back out to the various natural or stepparents who decide they want them at one time or another. Martin pledges to help, not admitting even to himself at first, his true infatuation to Judith. Martin does have very real affection for all the children, and does want to help them. However when the group follow him to Switzerland without their parent’s knowledge, Martin’s and Rose’s burgeoning engagement is affected. Martin is endlessly pulled between these two different worlds, the world of polite old New York that is represented by Rose Sellars and the less conventional world of the children.
The characters of the children are wonderful, they are funny and endearing, and the relationships between each of them and with Martin Boyne are poignant and deeply charming. Martin is a fool, but a sympathetic one nonetheless. Martin’s dilemmas and mistakes are age-old ones, the ending inevitable and beautifully poignant. ( )
1 vote Heaven-Ali | Oct 17, 2012 |
"The Children" (1928) is a less successful than Wharton's masterpieces, but it's an OK read nonetheless. In this one, Martin Boyne, a man in his forties meets not only an old acquaintance on a cruise ship, but also a group of children being shuttled around from parent to parent that he is drawn to, including one (age 15) that he is particularly drawn to.

Settle down, this is no "Lolita" (blech). However, while Wharton is a FAR better writer than Henry James in my opinion, here she seems to have been influenced too much by him, and is sometimes a bit overwrought in her descriptions; the book suffers as a result.

On freedom:
“She lay in his hold as quietly as a frightened bird, and presently he bent his head and whispered: ‘Judy –.’ Why not? he thought; his heart was beating with reckless bounds. He as free, after all, if it came to that; free to chuck his life away on any madness; and madness this was, he knew. Well, he’d had enough of reason for the rest of his days; and a man is only as old as he feels…”

On happiness; I like the feeling this one evokes:
“In the cold colourless air a few stars were slowly whitening, while behind the blackness of the hillside facing him the interstellar pallor flowed imperceptibly into morning gold. His happiness, he thought, was like that passing of colourless radiance into gold. It was joy enough to lean there and watch the transmutation.”

On kids:
“…moreover, they probably felt that if they were to state with sincerity what they wanted to be their aspirations would be received with the friendly ridicule which grown ups manifest when children express their real views.”

On love:
“p.s. ‘Of course she’s awfully pretty, or you wouldn’t have taken so much pains to say that she’s not.’”

“When a man loved a woman she was always the age he wanted her to be; when he had ceased to, she was either too old for witchery or too young for technique.”

“He was willing to assume the blame, since the joy of holding her fast, of plunging into her enchanted eyes, and finding his own enchantment there, was still stronger than any disappointment. If love couldn’t be friendship too, as he had once dreamed it might, the only thing to do was to make the most of what it was…”

“What he wanted, at the moment, was just some opiate to dull the dogged ache of body and soul – to close his ears against that laugh of Judith’s, and all his senses to her nearness. He was caught body and soul – that was it; and real loving was not the delicate distraction, the food for dreams, he had imagined it when he thought himself in love with Rose Sellars; it was this perpetual obsession, this clinging nearness, this breaking on the rack of every bone, and tearing apart of every fibre.”

On manipulation:
“…Blanca observed tartly that by always pretending to give up you generally got what you wanted.”

On marriage:
“…can’t you imagine, that a man’s first need is to – to respect the woman he hopes to marry?’
Judith received this with a puzzled frown. ‘Oh, I can see it; I have, often – in books, and at the movies. But I can’t imagine it, exactly. I should have thought wanting to give her a good hug came before anything.”

On the rich:
“The mere existence of Palace Hotels was an open wound to him. Not that he was indifferent to the material advantages they offered. Nobody appreciated hot baths and white tiles, electric bedlamps and prompt service, more than he whose lot was usually cast in places so remote from them. He loved Palace hotels; but he loathed the mere thought of the people who frequented them.”

On women’s powers of observation:
“Mrs. Sellars had invited Judith, Terry, and Blanca to lunch; and when they appeared Mrs. Sellars’s eye instantly lit on the crystal pendant, Judith’s on the sapphire ring. The mutual reconnaissance was swift and silent as the crossing of searchlights in a night sky.”

On the younger generation:
“How many thousand threads of association, strung with stored images of the eye and brain, memories of books, of pictures, of great names and deeds, ran between him and those superhuman images, tracing a way from his world to theirs? Yes; it had been stupid of him to expect that a child of fifteen or sixteen, brought up in complete ignorance of the past, and with no more comprehension than a savage of the subtle and allusive symbolism of art, should feel anything in Monreale but the oppression of its awful unreality. And yet he was disappointed, for he was already busy at the masculine task of endowing the woman of the moment with every quality which made life interesting to himself.
‘Woman – but she’s not a woman! She’s a child!.’ His thinking of her as anything else was the crowning absurdity of the whole business.” ( )
  gbill | Dec 13, 2010 |
Martin Boyne encounters the children, a disparate group of seven siblings, halfs, and steps, as they are being shepherded aboard the first-class deck of an ocean liner sailing from Algiers en route to Venice to meet their parents. Their shepherd is the eldest of the Wheater children, Judith, who at 15 has taken on the role of mothering the tribe with some help from Miss Scopes, an ineffectual governess, and a nurse, Susan, who cares for the infant, Chip. These are Jazz-age hotel/yacht children, shuffled from one destination to another, at the whim of their parents' states of marriage or divorce or their search for pleasure and diversion.

Although Boyne is on his way to Switzerland to meet with long-time friend and newly-widowed Rose Sellars, he determines to first accompany the children to Venice. Touched by their plight, and especially Judith's determination to keep the brood together, he thinks he may have some influence with their parents as he had gone to Harvard with the father and was acquainted with the mother.

Wharton draws the reader in with great sympathy for Boyne, Rose and the children accompanied by disdain for the reptilian lives led by most of the adults who should be responsible for them. But as usual with Wharton, idealism faces a fierce adversary in hard-headed reality.

The novel has moments of lyrical beauty, subtle psychological insights and is quite fascinating. By no means a tragedy, it does, however, leave the reader with a feeling of sadness and lost possibilities. ( )
2 vote janeajones | Aug 22, 2010 |
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Edith Whartonprimary authorall editionscalculated
French, MarilynIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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As the big liner hung over the tugs swarming about her in the Bay of Algiers, Martin Boyne looked down from the promenade deck on the troop of first-class passengers struggling up the gangway, their faces all unconsciously lifted to his inspection.
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Book description
Martin Boyne is a 46-year-old civil engineer, a man whom adventure has consistently eluded. He takes a passage on a cruise ship, "a fortnight on the magic seas between Algiers and Venice", before joining Rose Sellars whom he expects to marry. Rose, a widow in her middle years, is a woman of supreme tact and graciousness. Martin's future life appears settled and calm. But on board he encounters lovely fifteen-year-old Judith Wheater, travelling unaccompanied with her circus of step-brothers and sisters while their parents are "jazzing" in Venice. Wild, enchanting, improper, they have a liberating - and increasingly unsettling - effect on the middle-aged man. First published in America in 1928, this late novel by Edith Wharton has never before been published in Britain. Set in Europe of the Jazz Age, satiric in mood, this portrayal of the vapid, flashy, and disintregating society of the time, and the helplessness of the individual within it, is an interesting and unusual addition to the richly varied oeuvre of this great American writer.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 184408292X, Paperback)

A bestseller when it was first published, The Children is a comic, bittersweet novel about the misadventures of a bachelor and a band of precocious children. The seven Wheater children, stepbrothers and stepsisters grown weary of being shuttled from parent to parent are eager for their parents' latest reconciliation to last. A chance meeting between the children and the solitary 46-year old Martin Boyne leads to a series of unforgettable encounters.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:26 -0400)

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On a cruise ship between Algiers and Venice, Martin Boyne, a bachelor in his forties, befriends a band of unruly, precocious children, kept together as a ?family ? by the efforts of the eldest, Judith. The seven Wheater siblings, grown weary of being shuttled between their mother and father, are eager for their parent ?s latest reconciliation to last. Outraged at the plight of the ?homeless ? and fought-over children, Boyne finds himself increasingly drawn to their enchanting, improper and liberating ways.… (more)

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