The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton (1920)
Technically, I suppose, this is a reread: I first read it before I started keeping records in July 2007, so I was younger than fifteen. (My guess is eleven or twelve.) Of it, I remembered precisely nothing except the three main characters’ names, the fact that the opening scene takes place at the opera, and a vague but persistent recollection of having been bored and slightly baffled by it. This happened to me occasionally as a young reader: I was capable of technically comprehending the plots of works that were, emotionally speaking, far beyond my experience, and so there are a number of books that I read when a pre-teen or adolescent that would probably benefit from being read again now, with almost-fresh eyes and a considerably more developed sense of human behaviour and feeling. Pleasingly, The Age of Innocence, which depends strongly on the unspoken and on evoking an oppressively conformist social atmosphere, has proved a success in this regard: I enjoyed and was impressed by it in equal measure, and in some places found it extremely difficult to put down.
The plot is pretty well known: as the book opens, Newland Archer, a young, wealthy New Yorker of an old family, has been courting May Welland, the young, wealthy daughter of another old New York family, for an appropriate length of time. His proposal of marriage to her coincides with the reintroduction of her cousin Ellen to New York society. Ellen is now the Countess Olenska; her marriage to a Polish nobleman has broken down and she has returned from Europe to seek safety with her family. Her family, however—the extended Mingott, Welland and Archer clan, all closely interlinked through marriage—has its position to consider. American high society is very unlike the more cosmopolitan European world to which Ellen is accustomed: divorce is a genuine scandal, “bad form” is indistinctly defined but the committing of a faux pas is instantly identifiable, the sexual double standard for men and women is an absolute given, and no one ever discusses “unpleasant” things openly. (This leads to some devastating throwaway lines; Ellen has obviously been abused, probably both physically and sexually, by her husband, but when she tries to talk about it with her otherwise loving aunt and uncle, they both recoil and beg her to “spare them” the ordeal of having to hear details of Count Olenska’s behaviour.) Newland and Ellen—entirely unsurprisingly to the reader, but to Newland’s great bewilderment—are passionately drawn to one another, but he has already proposed to May, and the marriage is unavoidable. Indeed, it takes place precisely halfway through the book. The stakes of The Age of Innocence, then, are this: what kind of life is bearable? How courageous is it possible for someone who is basically comfortable to be? What is the nature of the silence that defines these old-fashioned lives? And is there hope for any of their generation, or must they place their hope in the happiness of their children?
Wharton’s writing is remarkably frank and clear: writing in 1920, although her action is set mostly in the 1870s, she does not hide a sentence’s meaning behind great Victorian coils of prose. (In this way, although the content and thematic preoccupations of The Age of Innocence reminded me a lot of Trollope’s Palliser novels, particularly Can You Forgive Her?, its style and execution make significantly smaller demands on the reader’s patience.) What Wharton does have to represent, however, is her characters’ inclination to avoid direct statement, and here she manages to have her cake and eat it too, by both giving her characters the oblique dialogue that makes sense in their mouths, and glossing it. One of the most famous examples is May’s response to Newland when he tells her he has to visit Washington for work, although he’s actually going in the hopes of seeing Ellen:
“The change will do you good”, she said simply, when he had finished; “and you must be sure to go and see Ellen,” she added, looking him straight in the eyes with her cloudless smile… It was the only word that passed between them on the subject; but in the code in which they had both been trained it meant: “Of course you understand that I know all that people have been saying about Ellen… I also know that… it is owing to your encouragement that Ellen defies us all… Hints have indeed not been wanting; but since you appear unwilling to take them from others, I offer you this one myself, in the only form in which well-bred people of our kind can communicate unpleasant things to each other…” Her hand was still on the key of the lamp when the last word of this mute message reached him.p. 228-229
There is also the question of cultural confusion. Ellen was raised abroad by an eccentric aunt (who, it is implied, has done her no favours with this upbringing), came back to New York as a ten-year-old, made her society debut and married almost immediately afterwards, then went to Europe and has lived there for about ten years, putting her in her late twenties. This has given her a broader horizon for art, culture, philosophy, and behaviour, but her frame of reference for social acceptability in America is fatally skew-whiff. At one point, when she has declared her intention of seeking a divorce from her husband, she is surprised by the strong negative reaction of her relations: isn’t it more American to seek one’s freedom? But no; elite Europe, apparently, is much less bothered by divorces than elite New York.
Wharton makes a strong case for the provinciality and self-satisfaction of American high society, but also makes it clear how quickly the world is changing and how little that provinciality will be able to withstand. Within a generation, Newland Archer’s son Dallas is capable of speaking candidly to his father about his (Newland’s) experiences of first love. The final chapter takes place in 1905 in Paris, and the novel ends with Newland rejecting the possibility of meeting Ellen again, preferring instead to live on with his nostalgic ideal of her untouched by reality. In less than a decade, though, reality will come for Newland, for Dallas, and for their entire social world in the form of the First World War. The Age of Innocence was published two years after that war’s ending. Meanwhile, Newland as a young man ought to have childhood memories from the time of the American Civil War (1861-1865), although that conflict is not once alluded to throughout the novel.
Social change through violent conflict is an intriguing thread to consider, especially as Wharton makes it clear, through Dallas’s behaviour in the final chapter, that the world has begun to change before a shot is fired. Perhaps it was ever thus. After all, old Mrs. Manson Mingott—the magnificently fat and iconoclastic matriarch of the extended Mingott/Welland/Archer family—was known for making decisions that shocked society in her youth. But this is also testament to Wharton’s emotional skill: you can never quite tell, in this novel, whether a person’s apparent openness and agreeability—their apparent innocence, if you will—is the result of consideration and choice, or whether it masks a lack, a limitation, an inability to think beyond a horizon. Newland wonders, “What if [May’s] ‘niceness’ carried to that supreme degree were only a negation, the curtain dropped before an emptiness?” It suggests a kind of cosmic horror lying behind this world of opera boxes and tennis matches: an interesting lens through which to read the Gilded Age.
This is the third book in my American Classics reading project, and has whetted my appetite for more Wharton—what should I try next?
13 thoughts on “The Age of Innocence”
Newland may have been far removed from the war. Being wealthy they may have paid substitutes. But what a good observation! I enjoyed this book
Oh, I would imagine Newland was too young to have been in the war at all—if he’s in his mid-twenties in 1875, he’d have been about ten or eleven at the war’s start and fifteen at its end. But presumably he’d have been aware of it, and his older family members even more so. It reminds me a little of the absence of war in Austen, an omission so complete it feels intentional.
Ah this is one that I’ve always meant to read and also one that I constantly mix up with other books from a similar era that are probably nothing alike! I’m intrigued by the Trollope comparison. I struggled with Can You Forgive Her? but loved the rest of the Palliser novels (though can’t remember now if I actually ever read The Duke’s Children or not ha).
God, The Duke’s Children was a bit of an effort, in my recollection. (Though, as I’ve discovered, this doesn’t always mean it’ll be a slog upon rereading!) Can You Forgive Her is definitely less political than most of the others.
Love this piece, Elle! It’s my favourite Wharton novel, and Scorsese’s film adaptation is back in a handful of cinemas at the mo – I’d love to see it again on a big screen. Wharton was such a master at exposing the constraints and hypocrisies of the Old New York society at the time, and this particular variation on that theme is hard to beat.
Yeah, I saw that the film is back on in a few places! So glad this is a favourite of yours. I’d only ever read Ethan Frome before, which I absolutely hated and feel no great need to revisit, but would definitely like to read more of her work.
Brilliant review, Elle! I have only read Hudson River Bracketed (which I absolutely loved and highly recommend) and Roman Fever – I think… She’s marvellous, and I need to read more!
I remember reading your review of Hudson River Bracketed! I’d had no idea Wharton was so prolific (since the classic reprints tend to only focus on the handful of “major novels”).
This was a great, thoughtful review. I’ve not read any Wharton but you’ve left me wanting to now. I know what you mean about reading books at a young age that you technically understand but a lot of the meaning still is over your head.
I think this would be a great place to start a Wharton journey! (Not Ethan Frome; anything but Ethan Frome. A godawful book.)
This is the only Wharton I’ve read, many moons ago, but I remember the film better which was great. My daughter did it for A-Level (along with Gatsby) and she found it a bit of a slog, which put me off re-reading it then!
Ooh, I’d say this is better than Gatsby (although I’m not impartial, I deeply don’t get on with Fitzgerald). The film definitely seems worth seeing!