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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.

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