AN “UNCONNECTED” WALK WITH ME. I’m not much of a walker. I’m a bicyclist. But this time of year I walk.
If it starts to rain, that’s okay.
And then my iPod dies. And you know what? That’s okay.
For one thing, it hasn’t allowed me to listen to anything except R.E.M. in six months. It doles out one Rolling Stones song occasionally on shuffle: “Sympathy for the Devil.”
My iPod has determined what I can listen to.
So the iPod dies, and suddenly I am unconnected. I am calm. There is no music. There is no audiobook. It’s rain and the occasional bird.
We weren’t always connected. We didn’t have personal computers till the ’90s, cell phones till the zips (well, I still don’t have one), and e-books till lately.
There really wasn’t much to do, so we’d walk or bicycle and then come home invigorated.
Well, we still do that.
We’d write on our typewriters. And, God, we wrote better in those days.
Why is that person on his phone in the car? It’s sad, isn’t it?
And what the hell do we really need with iPads?
As for the e-readers… they’re recharging right now.
Turn it all off and time slows down.
WALKS IN EDITH WHARTON’S NOVELS. In Edith Wharton’s novels, walks are important. Characters walk for exercise. They walk for entertainment.
And if you’re staying at a country house, you take a walk.
Walks can be sexy.
In The House of Mirth, on a Sunday at the Trenors’ house, Bellomont, Lily Bart has declared she will go to church. She doesn’t usually go to church at Bellomont, but she must impress the callow wealthy Mr. Gryce, whom she wants to marry, that she is traditional. She says primly that she is sorry the omnibus often drives away empty to church, without even the Trenors’ daughters.
Lily had hinted to Mr. Gryce that this neglect of religious observances was repugnant to her early traditions, and that during her visits to Bellomont she regularly accompanied Mildred and Hilda to church.”
But Lily is more interested in walking with the charming Lawrence Selden than going to church. In fact, she wonders if Lawrence has come to Bellomont deliberately to see her, or his old mistress, Bertha Dorset.
So she heads for the library, where he is talking to Bertha. Lily asks if the omnibus left without her. She says:
“Ah, then I shall have to walk; I promised Hilda and Muriel to go to church with them. It’s too late to walk there, you say? Well, I shall have the credit of trying, at any rate–and the advantage of escaping part of the service. I’m not so sorry for myself, after all!”
Selden leaves the library to pursue Lily on her walk, and her long afternoon walk with Selden is perfect. Most of Chapter V and Chapter VI are devoted to the walk.
But she makes a lifelong enemy of Bertha. And she also alienates Mr. Gryce, who marries someone else.
Although she and Selden have so much in common, are both witty, attractive, charming, and sensual, the desire for money dominates her actions. He isn’t rich enough.
Actually, he has plenty of money. But not enough for the worldly Lily.
Yet this walk determines the course of her life. She thinks she wants to marry, but she doesn’t want to marry. Time and again, she wrecks her own schemes for marrying rich men. There is a certain moral level beneath which she will not fall. And so we know that Lily is better than she seems.
Her later walks in the novel are much, much less happy than this one perfect walk.
In Chapter XV of The Age of Innocence, the walk is also important. Newland Archer takes a walk with Madame Olenska, his fiancée’s cousin, after he tracks her down determinedly at the van der Luydens’ country villa where she is staying.
Archer’s walk with Ellen Olenska is the reverse of Lily’s walk with Selden in The House of Mirth. Lily never makes it to church–the walk “to church” is just flirtation–but Archer meets Ellen walking back from church. And the very fact that she went to church tells us something about Ellen. She has depths that Lily didn’t have, and doesn’t have to impress people. And she doesn’t need to plot her flirtations. She is straightforward.
It seems she is walking briskly, hoping to avoid another suitor, the rich, debauched Julius Beaufort, who wants to make her his mistress.
She says to Archer,
“Shall we walk on? I’m so cold after the sermon. And what does it matter, now that you’re here to protect me?”
And then they have a race. There is a playfulness about Ellen.
They notice the old Poltroon’s house is open, because Mrs. van der Luyden (who never takes walks–saying something about her sex life?) had opened it up so they could see it after church. Archer builds up the fire, and Ellen tells him she lives in the moment when she is happy. He walks away from the fire to avoid temptation, because he is so attracted. They do some hand-holding.
Their happiness interrupted by Beaufort.
In Chapter XVI, Archer takes another walk. Afraid of his sexual feelings for Ellen, He travels to St. Augustine, where his fiancée May is staying, and walks with her. She resists sex and his urging to move the wedding date up.
So there are walks and walks.