THE BAG: ELLEN OLENSKA
Dreaming of a romantic but unconventional life
Feminine and romantic the purse Ellen Olenska is made from two different leathers, both Italian lambskin. Lined with elegant silver gray satin fabric, it has two interior pockets, and closes with two silver magnetic snaps, unseen. The under flap is the same silver leather as the upper flap and the chromatic matching makes the difference. A perfect balance between femininity and sobriety, the two contrasting shiny colors create a bon ton style for your special occasions. You will feel like the elegant Countess Ellen Olenska on the evening at the opera house after coming back to New York from Europe.
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In the middle of the room she paused, looking about her with a grave mouth and smiling eyes; and in that instant Newland Archer rejected the general verdict on her looks. It was true that her early radiance was gone. The red cheeks had paled; she was thin, worn, a little older-looking than her age, which must have been nearly thirty. But there was about her the mysterious authority of beauty, a sureness in the carriage of the head, the movement of the eyes, which, without being in the least theatrical, struck his as highly trained and full of a conscious power. At the same time she was simpler in manner than most of the ladies present, and many people (as he heard afterward from Janey) were disappointed that her appearance was not more “stylish” –for stylishness was what New York most valued. It was, perhaps, Archer reflected, because her early vivacity had disappeared; because she was so quiet–quiet in her movements, her voice, and the tones of her lowpitched voice. New York had expected something a good deal more reasonant in a young woman with such a history.
On a January evening in 1870s the fashionable are attending the opera at the new opera house in New York City. May Welland, Newland Archer ‘s fianceé is seated in the box of her aristocratic old grandmother, Mrs. Manson Mingott . Suddenly all the glances of New York’s high society are directed at a slim young woman wearing a theatrical and low-cut dress . It is no other than the Countess Ellen Olenska, cousin to May Welland, who has returned to New York after having lived abroad for many years. It is rumored that she had left her unfaithful husband, the Polish count Olenski , but she seems to be unaware of the attention she attracts. Countess Olenska shocks the staid New York aristocracy with her revealing clothes, carefree manners, and rumors of adultery. The arrival of Countess Ellen Olenska brings tension to the perfectly ordered scene of the boring upper class world in Old New York where no one acts differently from anyone else and there is no variation in the course of events from year to year.
Ellen Olenska however, is different: the “poor Ellen” who has had the misfortune to make an unhappy marriage and for this reason is considered to be the “black sheep” of the family, is a woman whose pale and serious face appeals to Newland Archer’s fancy as suited to the occasion and to her unhappy situation; but the way her dress (which had no tucker) slopes away from her thin shoulders shocks and troubles him.
She is perfectly unconscious at first that people in New York are shy of her, that they think she is a dreadful sort of person. She knows nothing of all this till her grandmother blurts it out one day. She blames herself for being “ stupid and unobservant since “New York simply meant peace and freedom to her: it was coming home. And she was so happy at being among her own people that every one she met seemed kind and good, and glad to see her.” But Ellen is neither hypocritical nor politically correct so the very good people don’t convince her; she feels they have never been tempted. And then speaking to Archer who has just revealed his love she says :“ But you knew; you understood; you had felt the world outside tugging at one with all its golden hands–and yet you hated the things it asks of one; you hated happiness bought by disloyalty and cruelty and indifference. That was what I’d never known before–and it’s better than anything I’ve known.”
Brought up by her eccentric aunt Medora after her parents’ death when she was a child, Ellen has acquired a taste for the extravagant . She has settled in a strange quarter where her nearest neighbours are small dress-makers, bird-stuffers and “people who write” ; and further down the dishevelled street Archer recognises a dilapidated wooden house, at the end of a paved path. However he wishes to be as simple and striking as possible when Madame Olenska’s asks him “How do you like my funny house?…It’s a poor little place. My relations despise it.” but at any rate she considers it less gloomy than the van der Luydens mansion. Madame Olenska’s rebel personality also reveals in the choice of some personal objects.
What Newland sees while waiting for her, is “the faded shadowy charm of a room unlike any room he had known…some small slender tables of dark wood, a delicate little Greek bronze on the chimneypiece, and a stretch of red damask nailed on the discoloured wallpaper behind a couple of Italian-looking pictures in old frames”. The atmosphere of the room is “so different from any he had ever breathed that self-consciousness vanished in the sense of adventure. He had been before in drawing-rooms hung with red damask, with pictures “of the Italian school”; what struck him was the way in which Medora Manson’s shabby hired house, with its blighted background of pampas grass and Rogers statuettes, had, by a turn of the hand, and the skilful use of a few properties, been transformed into something intimate, “foreign,” subtly suggestive of old romantic scenes and sentiments”.
He tries to analyse the trick, to find a clue to it in the way the chairs and tables are grouped, in the fact that only two Jacqueminot roses (of which nobody ever bought less than a dozen) have been placed in the slender vase at his elbow, and in the vague pervading perfume in the room. It is “ the scent of some far-off bazaar, a smell made up of Turkish coffee and ambergris and dried roses” which symbolically represents Ellen’s exotic and unconventional personality.
Ellen Olenska made no answer, and did not move. After a moment he sat down beside her, and, taking her hand, softly unclasped it, so that the gloves and fan fell on the sofa between them.
She started up, and freeing herself from him moved away to the other side of the hearth. “Ah, don’t make love to me! Too many people have done that,” she said, frowning. Archer, changing colour, stood up also: it was the bitterest rebuke she could have given him. “I have never made love to you,” he said, “and I never shall. But you are the woman I would have married if it had been possible for either of us.”
“Possible for either of us?” She looked at him with unfeigned astonishment. “And you say that–when it’s you who’ve made it impossible?” He stared at her, groping in a blackness throughwhich a single arrow of light tore its blinding way.
“I’VE made it impossible–?” “You, you, YOU!” she cried, her lip trembling like a child’s on the verge of tears. “Isn’t it you who made me give up divorcing–give it up because you showed me how selfish and wicked it was, how one must sacrifice one’s self to preserve the dignity of marriage . . . and to spare one’s family the publicity, the scandal? And because my family was going to be your family—for May’s sake and for yours–I did what you told me, what you proved to me that I ought to do. Ah,” she broke out with a sudden laugh, “I’ve made no secret of having done it for you!”
Newland Archer is a brilliant young lawyer belonging to the exclusive New York society, a gentleman heir to one of the best families in the city. When he is introduced to Ellen Olenska, who was one of his childhood playmates, he is struck by her flippant, friendly manners and finds her descriptions of New York society rather disrespectful. He is engaged to May Welland , the best product of New York society: beautiful, exquisite, naïve and, apparently, unimaginative. But when he comes across the romantic figure of Madame Olenska, Newland Archer falls desperately in love with her.
On a wintry night, after visiting Ellen, thinking of his fiancée he turns into his florist’s to send her the daily box of lilies-of-the-valley which, to his confusion, he finds he has forgotten that morning. As he writes a word on his card and waits for an envelope he glances about the embowered shop and he notices a cluster of yellow roses. “He had never seen any as sun-golden before, and his first impulse was to send them to May instead of the lilies. But they did not look like her–there was something too rich, too strong, in their fiery beauty. In a sudden revulsion of mood, and almost without knowing what he did, he signed to the florist to lay the roses in another long box, and slipped his card into a second envelope, on which he wrote the name of the Countess Olenska”.
Worried by temptation, Newland flees to Florida where May’s family is vacationing and asks May to move the wedding date up. In the meantime Ellen wants to divorce so the Mingotts enlist Newland’s boss, Mr. Letterblair, to ask Newland to dissuade the Countess from her purpose.
Newland also longs for a life of passion, intellectual stimulation, and freedom, represented by Madame Olenska. He is unfulfilled by his “gentlemanly pursuit” of law and feels that he wants the sophisticated and passionate Ellen and he even thinks to go to Europe with her, but when he confesses his love to the Countess telling her “ May guessed the truth. There is another woman, but not the one she thinks…” , a telegram arrives from May, saying that they can be married in a month. Newland knows his duty and he eventually marries May.
He suggests Ellen they have an affair but she refuses, knowing that it will hurt May and Newland realizes he will dutifully stay married to her forever.
When May announces that she is pregnant Newland’s fate is sealed forever but the memory, of his impossible love with Ellen Olenska will stay forever in his mind, young, perfect and unchanging over time.
By Valentina C.