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The Age Of Innocence By Edith Wharton: Masterful Exposé Of A Stifling Society

Cover ofThe Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

I’m kicking myself for leaving The Age Of Innocence by Edith Wharton unread for so many years. This masterpiece of storytelling and characterisation has lingered on my “owned but unread” bookshelves for well over five years. I dug it out purely because it was the only book I own that fitted the brief for the 1920 book club hosted by Karen of KaggsysBookishRamblings and Simon of StuckInABook. 

Why haven’t I got around to reading this book earlier?

The answer is simple. My experience with another of Wharton’s much-praised novels, House of Mirth, coloured my judgement. I couldn’t get into that book at all, finding it rather uninspiring. I was afraid The Age of Innocence might be a repeat of that experience. 

How wrong could I be? 

The Age of Innocence is a tremendous study about a society that is completely bound up with rules and codes of behaviour.

Today we think of New York as a city of ceaseless energy, a melting pot of cultures, ideas and backgrounds. But in the 1870s it was a city where the ‘establishment’ of rich and powerful, live in a structured world of complex values and unwritten codes. These people reject anyone – and anything – who dares to change the status quo.

Wear the wrong dress to the opera. Dine at any time other than 7pm. Get married too soon after the engagement and before the requisite number of visits to “the Family.” Blatantly engage in extra-marital affairs. All such transgressions of the accepted order can result in the offending party being ostracised.

Edith Wharton examines this society and its constraining effects through the character of Newland Archer, a cultured young man who is a bit of a catch in the marriage stakes. He likes to think of himself as a non-conformist “distinctly the superior of these chosen specimens of old New York”. Yet he lives very much governed by the codes of his class.

A]n unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences. This seemed as natural to Newland Archer as all the other conventions on which his life was molded: such as the duty of using two silver-backed brushes with his monogram in blue enamel to part his hair, and of never appearing in society without a flower (preferably a gardenia) in his buttonhole.

The plot of the novel revolves around this tension in his life.

When the novel opens he is about to be engaged to May Welland, an acknowledged beauty from an esteemed family. He envisages she will fully blossom under his guiding hand. Though he loves her grace, her horsemanship and skills at games, his intent is to coach her to a greater appreciation of literature and art. Together he plans, they will travel and be unconventional.

But frustrated by May’s lack of independent action, her refusal to speed up the betrothal time or to elope with him, he comes to view her as “a terrifying product of the social system he belonged to.”

His eyes are opened wider by the arrival into his life of a distinctly unconventional woman, Countess Ellen Olenska. As a young girl she had been educated in Europe. Instead of the ‘proper’ lessons of needlework and etiquette, she had learned life drawing with nude models. She married a fabulously wealthy count Olenska, but when he turned out to be a bore, she left him.

The Countess has now returned to New York City., cutting a glamorous though controversial sway through its stuffy circles. Much tut tutting ensues because she chooses to live in a bohemian neighbourhood alongside artists and writers, goes to parties hosted by women deemed “common” women and – horror of horror – scatters flowers around instead of arranging them neatly in vases.

Newland falls in love with her and her spirit of independence. The feeling is reciprocated. But there’s a problem – she is still married and he is engaged to another woman.

The Age of Innocence follows the course of this love triangle. Will true love prevail or are Ellen/Newland destined to be forever apart? I’m not going to tell you because it will spoil your enjoyment of reading this novel and especially the haunting final chapter.

Newland Archer is an expertly rendered character. He feels utterly trapped, driven to “inarticulate despair” by a marriage (he does go through with the wedding) to a woman he finds boring and a life he has accepted out of “habit and honour.”

In one key scene, he is at home with his wife. As he regards May he is dismayed to recognise she is “ripening into a copy of her mother”, becoming a woman who would “never, in the all the years that lay ahead, surprise him with an unexpected mood, a new idea, a weakness, a cruelty or an emotion.” In despair he throws open the window.

After he had leaned out into the darkness for a few minutes he heard her say: “Newland! Do shut the window. You’ll catch your death.
He pulled the sash down and turned back. “Catch my death!” he echoed; and he felt like adding. “But I’ve caught it already – I am dead. I’ve been dead for months and months.”

If May represents death and constraint, the Countess is life. She holds out the promise of a relationship filled with passion, drama and a world of possibilities. But where Newland seems ready to reject everything he believes America stands for, Ellen sees there is much in American culture that is worth keeping. She values its fairness, honesty, integrity, and a respect for others.

These two women are frequently shown as opposites. In the first scene for example which takes place at the opera house, May is corseted in virginal white with a “modest tulle tucker” to disguise her breasts. Ellen shocks the patrons by arriving in a revealing Empire style dress which draws attention to her bosom. Innocence versus experience clearly in this setting but I think this is rather too simplistic an interpretation of May. Throughout the novel she shows her self to be an artful player, cleverly manipulating her husband and his lover yet never showing her hand.

I loved the way Edith Wharton shows the conflict between his desire for a new way of life, and the reality. Wharton makes him a figure of ridicule, a daydreamer who is seldom able to realise his dreams. He talks passionately about breaking away from convention yet when the opportunity arises for him to revel, he bottles out.

The Countess provides the colour and energy of the novel. a woman for whom we are meant to feel empathy. Like Newland Archer she is caught in a trap between her desire for independence from a loveless marriage and the pressure of her family to avoid the social stigma of a divorce. It’s a powerful illustration of Wharton’s key themes of entrapment and the lifeless nature of a society that was ignorant its reign was coming to an end.

The Age of Innocence was a glorious book to read. What a fantastic way to bring my ClassicsClub project to an end!. This experience with Wharton’s novel has encouraged me to have another go at The House of Mirth. I fear I may have misjudged it.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles #bookreview

gentleman_in_moscowIn Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow, the Russian Revolution is a few years old but the country is still in a state of upheaval. The ruling bodies are on a mission to root out individuals whom they consider to be a destabilising force. Their attention turns to Count Alexander Rostov, a suave and handsome member of the aristocracy who has gained a reputation as a poet but whose work is considered counter-revolutionary by the Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs.

Only his connections with some high-ranking officials save him from being stood in front of a wall and shot. Instead, after declaring him to be a “Former Person” , the Committee sentence the count to imprisonment in Moscow’s Hotel Metropol. It’s the city’s foremost hotel, an Art Deco edifice place frequented by the rich and famous, bureaucrats and foreign visitors. As befitting his status and love of the finer aspects of life, the count has been a regular guest at the Metropol, occupying the elegantly furnished suite 317 from which he can look upon the Bolshoi Theatre.

His new abode will be considerably more modest; a miniscule attic room whose ceiling slopes so acutely it’s difficult for the new occupant to stand to his full height. Into this disused servant’s quarter, the count crams some of his favourite pieces of fine furniture: two high back chairs, an oriental coffee table, a Louis XVI desk, two table lamps fashioned from elephants and his grandmother’s favourite set of porcelain plates.

It’s in this cell that he will live for the next forty years.

The insularity of this setting seemed one that would pose considerable challenges for both writer and reader. A Gentleman in Moscow is a long novel with more than 400 pages of small text and not much white space. I started reading with some trepidation. Could this book sustain my interest when the central character never goes anywhere?

The answer is unquestionably yes.

Unable to send his count out into the world, Towles makes the world come to the count. Effectively he makes a whole new world out of the hotel, one peopled by a multitude of colourful characters. Actresses preen in the lobby, overseas journalists get drunk in the bar; members of the ruling elite plot and scheme and architects dream of one day being allowed to design more than just residential tower blocks. Other more permanent characters are the people who make this haven a special place: the barber who does not permit political talk within his salon; the moody chef who has to work magic with cauliflower and cabbage when other food becomes scarce and the bar staff who keep the candlelight glowing and glasses twinkling. And then there is Nina, a child of nine who has discovered more about the hidden corners and spaces of the hotel than the count ever dreamed existed. With the aid of a skeleton key she unlocks for him the secrets of the Metropol.

No character is as engaging or enticing as the count however. He’s a man who adopts a philosophical stance to the limitations of his new residence. Convinced that “by the smallest of one’s actions one can restore some sense of order to the world.”  he determines on a path that will enable him to live a full and rich life. He adopts a few rituals; a weekly visit to the barber, a daily perusal of the newspapers in the lobby;  dinner in the Metropole’s prestigious Boyarsky restaurant and squat exercises every morning (the number of repetitions he achieves diminishes every few years). He lives according to the principle that, “If one did not master one’s circumstances, one was bound to be mastered by them.” And so he hits on a means to double the size of his room; kicking through into a closet to create a study.

As the years progress he proves to be the epitomy of the perfect gentleman; intelligent and charming; uncomplaining about his confinement and generous with his time and advice about the correct pairing of wine and food. He builds a camaraderie with the chef and maitre d’ that sees them plot how to beg and scrounge the ingredients for a perfect bouillabaisse. He is on first name terms with Marina the hotel seamstress whose help he needs when his trousers split. He even stands in loco parentis to the daughter of young girl.

Meanwhile the revolution lumbers along. It disrupts the smooth running of the hotel to the dismay of the staff who pride themselves on their professionalism. The quality of service which has been the hallmark of the Metropol is threatened. First,  the government decrees, in accordance with the spirit of egalitarianism, that labels must be removed from all the wine bottles in the hotel cellar. Then the overbearing manager nicknamed The Bishop (a Soviet stooge) introduces a new procedure  for taking, placing and billing of orders in the restaurant.  This procedure involves a lot of paperwork:

Henceforth … when a waiter took an order, he would write it on a pad designed for this purpose. Leaving the table, he would bring the order to the bookkeeper, who, having made an entry in his ledger, would issue a cooking slip for the kitchen. In the kitchen, a corresponding entry would be made for the cooking log, at which point the cooking could commence. When the food was ready for consumption, a confirmation slip would be issued by the kitchen to the bookkeeper, who in turn would provide  a stamped receipt to the waiter authorising the retrieval of the food. Thus a few minutes later the waiter would be able to make the appropriate notation on his notepad confirming that the dish which had been ordered, logged, cooked and retrieved and was finally on the table.

Towles can’t resist the opportunity to highlight the idiocies of the Soviet system but that doesn’t mean he completely ignores its darker side.  His unnamed narrator acknowledges that the 1930s was a difficult time for Russia with famine, housing shortages, constraints on artists and regular purges of undesirable individuals. Closer to home, the count’s friend Mishka feels the weight of censorship of the arts and literature and Nina, an enthusiastic supporter of  collectivisation, sees at first hand the savagery of Stalin’s plans for agriculture.  When her husband is arrested and sentenced to hard labour she feels compelled to follow him to Siberia, leaving her small daughter Sofia in the Count’s care and protection.

With the exception of  twist in the final section of the novel, there are no big dramatic turns of events. The delight is in the development of the characters.  I loved the many touches of humour but also the more reflective passages where the count recalls his childhood spent on a large family estate outside of the city and his relationship with his  friend Mishka, a poet. A Gentleman in Moscow is a beautifully paced novel, packed with detail and atmosphere that is a joy to read.

Footnotes

About the author Amor Towles was born and raised in Boston, USA. He worked as an investment professional for many years before devoting himself to writing. A Gentleman in Moscow was published in 2016. It is his second novel.

Why I read this book: Quite simply because I saw several very positive reviews of this during 2017. If you want a second opinion on just how good this book is, take a look at these reviews:

Karen at kaggsysbookishramblings 

Lisa at ANZLitLovers

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