In which I review The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton’s 1920 novel about a doomed love affair set in the claustrophobic high society of 1870s New York.
What it’s about: New York City, the 1970s. Newland Archer, a lawyer from an upper-class New York family, is engaged to marry May Welland, an innocent young debutante from an equally impeccable background. His comfort is disrupted by the arrival of May’s cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska, who has returned to New York after fleeing her unhappy marriage. Attracted by Ellen’s vivacity and non-conformist spirit, Newland intercedes on her behalf when New York society threatens to reject her, and encourages her not to seek a divorce. As his infatuation grows, he starts to question his betrothal to May. The pair confess their love for each other, but agree not to consummate their relationship, and Newland marries May as planned. Ellen moves to Washington, in unofficial exile from her family who have cut off her allowance. Newland and Ellen meet intermittently. Ellen explains that she has turned down her husband’s offer to return to Europe so she can be near Newland. Ellen’s grandmother agrees to reinstate her allowance and make her financially independent of her husband. Bowing to pressure to Newland, Ellen agrees to spend a single night with him before she returns to Europe. Newland silently resolves to leave May and follow Ellen abroad, but Ellen inexplicably refuses to meet him. May hosts a farewell dinner for Ellen, and which Newland realises that his family have plotted to separate him from Ellen. Newland starts to tell May that he is leaving her, but she interrupts him to say she is pregnant. May adds that she told Ellen of her pregnancy two weeks earlier, before she was sure of the news – the implication being that May lied to Ellen to stop the affair and drive her back to Europe. The story ends twenty-six years later: Newland, now 57 has lived a life of quiet respectability with May and their three children. Following May’s recent death, he accompanies his eldest son Dallas to Paris. Dallas tells Newland that he has arranged for them to meet Ellen, and that May confided in him about the affair before her death. Newland waits outside Ellen’s apartment while his son goes inside, then returns to his hotel.
Why it’s a classic: Edith Wharton wrote The Age of Innocence when she was in her late 50s and living in France, in permanent exile from her native New York, and following the devastation of the First World War. Published as a four-part serial in the Pictorial Review, it was released in book form in 1920 and became a critical and commercial success. Critics admired Wharton’s detailed depiction of the social customs of “Gilded Age” 1870s New York, which seemed to speak to a post-War nostalgia for a lost age of exquisite manners, social stability and economic prosperity. The story offered a more gentle and genteel critique of upper-class society than in her first novel The House of Mirth, and was viewed by some as a belated apology for her earlier and more savage condemnations of her own social circle. In 1921, the novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, making Wharton the first woman to be given the award.
In more recent years, critical interpretation has focused more heavily on the satirical and feminist threads in Wharton’s story, especially her sympathetic depiction of Ellen’s status as a “fallen woman”, the double-standard applied to women who transgress social rules and Wharton’s tough-minded portrait of marriage as “a dull association of material and social interests held together by ignorance on the one side and hypocrisy on the other“. Her portrait of Newland’s and Ellen’s doomed romance manages to be both swooningly romantic (“”Then stay with me a little longer,” Madame Olenska said in a low tone, just touching his knee with her plumed fan. It was the lightest touch, but it thrilled him like a caress“) and bracingly realist (“The idea that he could ever, in his senses, have dreamed of marrying the Countess Olenska had become almost unthinkable, and she remained in his memory simply as the most plaintive and poignant of a line of ghosts.”)
Critical opinion has shifted, too, about Wharton’s fascinatingly complex characters. Newland is now seen less as a tragic hero and more as an existentially anguished wimp, who feels deeply but lacks the courage to follow his desires. Similarly, May, traditionally perceived as the saintly wife who took desperate measures to save her marriage, is now viewed more ambiguously as a manipulator, expertly trained by her upbringing to crush her husband’s will without dropping her smile. There’s also been much biographical speculation about Newland as Wharton’s alter-ego – both are well-brought-up New Yorkers who suffered long and unhappy marriages – though unlike Newland, Wharton allowed herself an affair (with journalist Morton Fullerton) and eventually divorced her husband in 1913 after his mental illness became incurable.
The book received a major resurgence in popularity in the 1990s with Martin Scorsese’s gorgeous film adaptation, starring Daniel Day-Lewis as Newland, Michelle Pfeiffer as Ellen and Winona Ryder as May. With great style and virtuosity, Scorsese showcases the gorgeousness and the savagery of Wharton’s world, lingering lovingly over details of decor, costume, cuisine, architecture and etiquette, while laying bare the fierce tribal order that annihilates those who break its rules. In its own weird way, Wharton’s tale of class warfare and exquisite suffering against a backdrop of fabulous wealth feels more attuned to the rhythms of late-20th century capitalism than it did at the time of its publication.
Bouquet or Brickbat: A bouquet of yellow roses, like those Newland anonymously sends Ellen. There’s so much to admire in The Age of Innocence, both as a work of literature and a social document. From the opening lines, we know we’re in the assured hands of an expert storyteller: every sentence is perfectly poised, but moves briskly along the page, with an astringent humour that nicely counter-balances the melodrama of the plot. Like her heroes George Eliot and Jane Austen, Wharton understands the power of specific details precisely described, to establish her characters’ environments and give us a sense of the enormity of their struggles. Like those writers, she also takes it upon herself to diagnoses the faults of her fictional landscape: “Americans want to get away from amusement even more quickly than they want to get to it“, her narrator comments tartly, as Regina Beaufort leaves the opera and bustles into a carriage.
Unlike Eliot and Austen, she refuses her lovers a happy ending – and consequently refuses her readers the pleasure of romantic wish-fulfilment. Her descriptions of the lovesick Newland are especially compelling, and have the thorny truth of bitterly-gained experience: “The longing was with him day and night, an incessant undefinable craving, like the sudden whim of a sick man for food or drink once tasted and long since forgotten. He could not see beyond the craving, or picture what it might lead to.” Although Newland never actually commits adultery, he stalks through the latter half of the book with the weariness of a guilty man: “A lie by day, a lie by night, a lie in every touch and every look; a lie in every caress and every quarrel; a lie in every word and in every silence.” The Age of Innocence is less a love story than a war story, in which Wharton is on hand to explain the battle manoeuvres of the warring factions. Archer becomes “a prisoner in the centre of an armed camp“, witnessing “all the harmless-looking people” at his dinner table as “a band of dumb conspirators” rallying silently around May. “There were certain things that had to be done, and if done at all, done handsomely and thoroughly; and one of these, in the old New York code, was the tribal rally around a kinswoman about to be eliminated from the tribe.“
Wharton’s final chapter, in which the older Newland revisits his painful past, is the most fascinating and frustrating part of The Age of Innocence. Wharton, like Newland himself, doesn’t quite seem to know whether he’s heroic for sticking to his old-world principles and refusing to meet Ellen, or a dried-up old fool, forever regretful and resentful for missing out on “the flower of life“. In some ways, he’s both. We feel sorry for Newland as his son blithely rubbishes his parents’ reserve and now outdated morality; unlike Dallas, we’ve been witness to every permutation of the young Newland’s longing for Ellen, and we understand how much pain his choices have created, leaving him as “a mere grey speck of a man compared with the ruthless magnificent fellow he had dreamed of being.” On the other hand, it’s difficult to value Newland’s sense of “the dignity of a duty“, which in our post-Freudian age seems more like rampant self-denial than virtue. In this sense, Wharton is closest to her friend and fellow novelist Henry James, who was similarly interested in what Hermione Lee calls “repudiation” – the idea that not getting what you want is good for you in some obscure way. Both Wharton and James give their characters insight about the difficulties of their lives, but never quite throws them a rope to help them escape. “The worst of doing one’s duty,” Newland reflects bitterly, “was that it apparently unfitted one for doing anything else.”
It’s this ambiguity in Newland’s final self-reckoning, and Wharton’s refusal to give into the cosy sentiment of romantic fiction that makes The Age of Innocence feel so modern – even if it ends with the odour of a stale fart and not the explosion of fireworks that this epic romance seems to deserve. Despite Wharton’s best intentions, The Age of Innocence becomes one of those books that one puts back on the shelf with a tangible sigh of relief that “things are better now” – women can get divorced without facing social ruin, men can express their feelings without self-combusting, and no one has to wait a year before wearing their wedding dress to the opera.
Quotable Quotes: “In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs.”