A tantalising ‘what if?’ emerges from the opening chapters of Hermione Lee’s immense, intricately researched life of Tom Stoppard. On the day in 1939 when the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia, the future playwright’s assimilated Jewish parents were obliged to flee the Moravian town where they lived. They made it to Singapore, only to endure Japanese invasion soon afterward. Stoppard’s mother, Martha, had to move again, and swiftly, with her two sons while her beloved husband, Eugen, a doctor, remained behind to aid with civilian defence. His evacuation ship was destroyed, and he was lost, presumably drowned, a little later. But when Stoppard’s mother boarded her own ship, earlier in 1941, she thought it was headed for Australia. Only later did she learn that India was their destination.
I took to Edith Wharton in the late 1970s but don’t remember why. I have never forgotten the name of the heroine of the first of her books that I read: Undine Spragg, all soft promise dashed by that biting surname. This was The Custom of the Country (1913), and I read on: Ethan Frome (1912), Summer (1917), and The Children (1928), for instance. Someone offered me R.W.B. Lewis’s Edith Wharton: A Biography (1975), and a friend created space on his bookshelf by unloading The Collected Short Stories (edited and introduced by Lewis, who calls himself an ‘addict’). Much later, when the film of The Age of Innocence was released in 1993, I primly chose to read the novel rather than see a version of it. Then I left Edith Wharton, née Jones, born to wealth in 1862 in New York, on the shelf.