Thursday 25 April 2013

Was it really The Age of Innocence?

I wonder whether those who inhabited Edith Wharton's social circles felt themselves closely observed, for they surely must have been, judging by the detailed precision with which Wharton dissects 1870s upper class New York in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Age of Innocence.

This is a selective and closed society, made up of only a few old American families whose descendants have inter-married to the point of all being related. So finely nuanced are its subtleties of manners and dress that they're often missed by outsiders like the flashily arriviste Beauforts, who own the most distinguished house in New York, but have questionable connections and are considered
 not exactly common, some people said they were even worse
Newland Archer is at home in this world he was born to, and as the story begins he is about to be engaged to May Welland, the unblemished daughter of another venerable New York family. May is a passive and innocent blank page and Newland is looking forward to educating her in the ways of life and literature - moulding her to his desires -  as soon as they're married. But this settled path is upset by the return to New York of May's cousin, the Countess Olenska, leaving her abusive husband behind in Europe and threatening to bring scandal down around the family Newland is about to marry into.

Ellen Olenska is everything May is not, cultivated in European arts and life and not afraid of living outside the narrow conventions of the New York elite. She may not be as fashionably attractive as May, but Newland is drawn to Ellen from the beginning, while still pushing May to marry him more quickly than her parents will allow. In a moment of insight, May asks about his reasons for the undue haste, hazarding
Is it - is it because you're not certain of continuing to care for me?
Newland is at first angry but then relieved he and May might perhaps talk frankly for once, but his hopes are dashed as he realises she believes the object of his affection is a past love rather than her cousin. The veil is drawn once more over the briefly glimpsed possibility of a future other than the one prescribed for them and a marriage date is set.

At the beginning of this novel, Wharton appears critical of the society she too belonged to, parodying characters like Lawrence Lefferts, the foremost authority on 'form' in New York
on the question of pumps versus patent leather 'Oxfords', his authority had never been disputed
and drawing some delicious character sketches, such as the 'lumbering coquetry' of young Miss Blenker. Wharton satirises the closed attitudes of Newland's mother and sister, of his future in-laws and their adherence to the strict protocols of being in certain places, at certain social engagements at set times of year. Mrs Archer reacts to any change as detrimental and a sure sign of society's disentigration; in an age long before the advent of social media as we know it, Wharton comments
to Mrs Archer it was terrifying and yet fascinating to feel herself part of a community that was trending
As Newland's desire to break away and his attraction to Ellen continue to grow, however, Wharton's implied criticism of society's rules seems to fade; she uses the demise of the Beauforts, who flout one of New Yorks' most implicit rules of honour, as an example to Newland of what his fate might be if he were to do the same. Her tone shifts to one of greater sympathy for the responsibilities of belonging to a rigidly oppressive yet supportive family structure like the Mingotts and an awareness of the damage and hurt so easily wrought by acting out of step.

The Age of Innocence was not written as a contemporary novel, but published in 1921 from the other side of the First World War, describing the long evaporated New York of Edith Wharton's childhood. Often, she seems to be harking back to a simpler, more honourable age before society's structures were blown wide apart and literature deconstructed by streams of consciousness from the likes of Joyce and Woolf. It was directed as a film by Martin Scorcese in 1993, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder.

On reading the novel, I was pleasantly surprised to find Wharton amusing and began by loving her precisely drawn style, as nuanced as the society she was describing. The more I read, though, the more oppressive became the ties keeping Newland and Ellen apart and I longed for some decisive action. Their prevarication and deceit became frustrating through the prism of today's individualism and as the story concluded, I was left with the feeling this was a lost age of suffocation, subterfuge and regret rather than one of innocence.

Do you agree? Have you read the Age of Innocence or any other Edith Wharton books?

Image from the film courtesy of

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