Monday, April 19, 2021

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

 Source of book: I own this.


While not officially my selection for Women’s History Month, I did choose to read this book as an adjacent selection. I previously read The House of Mirth a couple years ago. 



The Age of Innocence was written 15 years after The House of Mirth, and it has a very different feel. The earlier book had a razor-sharp, nasty edge to the humor, and a really bitter view of old New York society. Time seemed to have mellowed Wharton a bit, as the humor in this book is gentler, and the social critique tinged with sadness, not anger. 


One reason for this may have been that, in 1905, the old class-based New York society that Wharton grew up in was still hanging on, after a fashion. By 1920, World War One had dramatically changed everything - something The Age of Innocence notes in its epilogue. During Wharton’s lifetime, The Age of Innocence won the most accolades, including a Pulitzer Prize, and indeed, the novel has aged fairly well, despite being intentionally about a very specific time and place. 


I also felt that the characters were more nuanced in this book than the other. Wharton’s skills grew with time and experience. Plus, she put a lot of herself into this book - her actual personality, not just her frustration with social hypocrisy and sexism. The result is a cast of characters that feel more human and complex than in the earlier book. There are no villains, in the true sense, except for the Count, and he never actually appears in the story; really society itself is the villain, but it is too impersonal and too inertial to be called a usual villain. Indeed, while society is the stage on which the story plays out, and social mores affect the characters, the heart of the story is about regret and missed chances, and the question of how fantasy compares to reality. Which is why the ending is devastating, even though nothing really happens. 


The protagonist of the story is, interestingly, a man. Newland Archer is a scion of a wealthy and high-class New York family. He works as a lawyer, but doesn’t need the money, which is kind of amusing to us 21st Century lawyer sorts - no billable hours, little work to do most days, a steady paycheck - it’s like a fantasy island. Newland has just become engaged to May Welland, a very eligible young woman of a similarly prestigious family. She’s also pretty, docile, incurious, and socially perfect. This is what Newland thinks he wants. At least until May’s cousin Ellen shows up. 


Ellen is now the Countess Olenksa, having married a Polish aristocrat. The problem is, he is an abusive and philandering asshole - and it is strongly implied he swings both ways - and she has left him to return to the United States. This is, of course, a huge social disgrace. Although not as much of one as it would be if she were to follow through with her threats and divorce him. (Shudders and pearl clutching.) Ellen is everything May is not: sophisticated in a European way, striking rather than pretty, intelligent, and shockingly unconcerned with New York social niceties. 


It is, of course, socially impossible for Newland to marry Ellen, so, when he falls in love with her, he has exactly zero good options. He can keep her as a mistress, or he could run off with her to Europe, or...well, those are the options. So, of course, he marries May, mostly regrets it, and feels his life has become horrifyingly conventional and boring. But (spoiler) many years later, when he and Ellen are both free, he declines the change to see her again, feeling that his fantasy of her would leave him disappointed with the reality. And he is probably right. 


The general consensus about the characters seems to be that the stand-in for Wharton is not Ellen, but rather Newland. The ennui, the disappointment, the desire for something more that can never truly be satisfied - these are her. As is the life with a spouse who was unable or unwilling to travel - that was Wharton’s husband, who she eventually divorced. And that makes sense, because Newland is the most developed character, and his psyche is the true subject of the book, not Ellen’s difficult reality. For that matter, Ellen herself seems to accept the limitations of her life far better than Newland. She takes the one action she must, which is to secure a way to exist without having to reconcile with her husband. But she chooses to support the marriage of May and Newland, even though, in a different world, she would have preferred to marry Newland. 


The way the internal (and external) drama plays out over the course of the book is superbly written. Wharton’s pacing is good anyway, but the slow tightening of the strings that control society happens one micrometer at a time as the story progresses. I already mentioned that the characters are good in this one. Newland and Ellen, of course, as the central ones. But also May, who, despite her insipid public persona is willing to fight for her own. That she and Newland are never able to connect as friends is also one of the tragedies of the book. Had she been able to let the mask slip for a bit, she might have become more. Had she been willing to actually live, rather than exist within convention, they might have traveled and talked and connected. With that, she and Newland may have been happy. But, that didn’t happen. 


The social system is portrayed with a confidence and accuracy that only a true insider like Wharton could have pulled off. Indeed, at the time it was published, those who, like her, had grown up in New York society praised it as accurate down to the last detail. Speaking of details, the interior decor is lovingly depicted: no surprise since Wharton also worked as an interior designer - and indeed set many of the fashions of the day. 


There are so many great lines in the book too. I have always loved this sort of writing and this sort of book - I’m a bit old fashioned in some ways - so there was a lot of visceral pleasure in the well-turned phrases for me. Anyway, here are some of them. 


Though there was already talk of the erection, in remote metropolitan distances “above the Forties,” of a new Opera House which should compete in costliness and splendour with those of the great European capitals, the world of fashion was still content to reassemble every winter in the shabby red and gold boxes of the sociable old Academy. Conservatives cherished it for being small and inconvenient, and thus keeping out the “new people” whom New York was beginning to dread and yet be drawn to…


The book is plotted such that the beginning and the end have a lot of mirrored images, from the opera and singer being the same to many of the same ideas being shown again, but in a different light. Thus, the book mentions “new people” at the beginning and end. After the Beauforts’ failure, the society guardians worry that the vacuum will be filled by the “wrong” people. 


“It will never do, my dear Louisa, to let people like Mrs. Lemuel Struthers think they can step into Regina’s shoes. It is just at such times that new people push in and get a footing.”


And there is this zinger, on the fashion to leave the opera before the end, to “avoid the traffic”:


It was one of the great livery-stableman’s most masterly intuitions to have discovered that Americans want to get away from amusement even more quickly than they want to get to it.


Ah, the old “leave Dodger Stadium before the crowds” thing is apparently neither modern nor limited to the West Coast. 


Or, how about this description of May and Ellen’s grandmother, the matriarch of the socially powerful Mingott family?


The immense accretion of flesh which had descended on her in middle life like a flood of lava on a doomed city had changed her from a plump active little woman with a neatly-turned foot and ankle into something as vast and august as natural phenomenon. She had accepted this submergence as philosophically as all her other trials, and now, in extreme old age, was rewarded by presenting to her mirror an almost un-wrinkled expanse of firm pink and white flesh, in the centre of which the traces of a small face survived as if awaiting excavation. A flight of smooth double chins led down to the dizzy depths of a still-snowy bosom veiled in snowy muslins that were held in place by a miniature portrait of the late Mr. Mingott; and around and below, wave after wave of black silk surged away over the edges of a capacious armchair, with two tiny white hands poised like gulls on the surface of the billows.


Because of her size, she defies convention by having her bedroom on the first floor of the house. 


Her visitors were startled and fascinated by the foreignness of this arrangement, which recalled scenes in French fiction, and architectural incentives to immorality such as the simple American had never dreamed of. This was how women with lovers lived in the wicked old societies, in apartments with all the rooms on one floor, and all the indecent propinquities that their novels described. It amused Newland Archer (who had secretly situated the love-scenes of “Monsieur de Camors” in Mrs. Mingott’s bedroom) to picture her blameless life led in the stage-setting of adultery; but he said to himself, with considerable admiration, that if a lover had been what she wanted, the intrepid woman could have had him too.


Later, as Newland realizes he is having second thoughts about marrying May, Wharton writes this remarkable line. 


With a new sense of awe, he looked at the frank forehead, serious eyes, and gay innocent mouth of the young creature whose soul’s custodian he was to be. That terrifying product of the social system he belonged to and believed in, the young girl who knew nothing and expected everything, looked back at him like a stranger through May Welland’s familiar features; and once more it was borne in on him that marriage was not the safe anchorage he had been taught to think, but a voyage on uncharted seas. 


Isn’t that the truth. Now, you may be down for an adventure, of course. But you will want to have the sort of someone that you like to adventure with come along, not someone anchored to a rigid social system. Fortunately for me, I picked well. In retrospect, my family would have preferred I had ended up with someone who would, like May, rigidly uphold the structures of the social system, not of New York society, but of the white fundamentalist subculture. But I have no regrets about my choice. Throughout the book, Wharton expands on Newland’s feeling of entrapment. 


Packed in the family landau they rolled from one tribal doorstep to another, and Archer, when the afternoon’s round was over, parted from his betrothed with the feeling that he had been shown off like a wild animal cunningly trapped. 


Ellen too feels somewhat trapped by society. Her family does their best to help her acclimatize to New York - she has lived overseas most of her life. Newland explains that they are trying to help, but she also needs to pay attention to their guidance through the treacherous waters of society. 


She shook her head and sighed. “Oh, I know - I know! But on condition that they don’t hear anything unpleasant. Aunt Welland put it in those very words when I tried….Does no one want to know the truth here, Mr. Archer? The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend!”


Yes indeed. It is very lonely being around people who just want you to pretend, to avoid the unpleasant reality. 


Wharton also gets some cutting digs in at society, this one in an inadvertently amusing an damning statement by Mr. van der Luyden, the official guardian of social distinctions, in complaining about these foreign sorts - Ellen included - who just mix with everyone as if they were equal. 


“You know what these English grandees are. They’re all alike. Louisa and I are very fond of our cousin - but it’s hopeless to expect people who are accustomed to the European courts to trouble themselves about our little republican distinctions.” 


As Newland’s view of the social system that he grew up in starts to crack, he notices that there is a kind of intentional “innocence” that chooses to wilfully ignore the harsh realities caused by their “morality.” The society matriarchs are opposed to Ellen getting a divorce, but all the while they look the other way at what she appears to have to do to survive - become the mistress of someone wealthy. Newland sees through this, and comes to loathe this kind of “innocence.”


Ah, no, he did not want May to have that kind of innocence that seals the mind against imagination and the heart against experience!


But of course, that is exactly what happens. May, even more than her mother, never is able to give up her “innocence.” Later, after they are married, Newland has this observation. 


As she sat thus, the lamplight full on her clear brow, he said to himself with a secret dismay that he would always know the thoughts behind it, that never, in all the years to come, would she surprise him by an unexpected mood, by a new idea, a weakness, a cruelty or an emotion. She had spent her poetry and romance on their short courting: the function was exhausted because the need was past.


Ouch. One wonders if Wharton’s experience is on display here. One suspects that it is a mercy that May dies before she can see her son marry the daughter of the disgraced British banker, Beaufort, whose largesse Ellen depends on. 


Beaufort’s financial failure in the Panic of 1973 is the event that brings things to a crisis. With money no longer forthcoming from her family, her husband, or Beaufort, Ellen is placed in a bind. She eventually finds a solution, but the veiled gossip about her and Beaufort (the book is never clear if they are actually lovers, or if this is just the assumption - just like they all assume Newland and Ellen are having an affair, even though they never consummate it) places her in a ever more precarious social position. Here too, Wharton gets a scathing line in. 


New York was inexorable in its condemnation of business irregularities. So far there had been no exception to its tacit rule that those who broke the law of probity must pay; and every one was aware that even Beaufort and Beaufort’s wife would be offered up unflinchingly to this principle. But to be obliged to offer them up would be not only painful but inconvenient. The disappearance of the Beauforts would leave a considerable void in their compact little circle; and those who were too ignorant or too careless to shudder at the moral catastrophe bewailed in advance the loss of the best ball-room in New York.


Here is another zinger, about the way that New York society looked down on men who played around. Less so than women who did the same, interestingly. For sexist reasons, but still. 


It was easier, and less dastardly on the whole, for a wife to play such a part toward her husband. A woman’s standard of truthfulness was tacitly held to be lower: she was the subject creature, and versed in the arts of the enslaved. Then she could always plead moods and nerves, and the right not to be held too strictly to account; and even in the most strait-laced societies the laugh was always against the husband. 

But in Archer’s little world no one laughed at a wife deceived, and a certain measure of contempt was attached to men who continued their philandering after marriage. In the rotation of crops there was a recognized season for wild oats; but they were not to be sown more than once.


And so, Newland is trapped, by society, by his wife, and by his own lack of judgment. The ending is fascinating. As I said, to read it is to be devastated. But the thing is, I think Newland is ultimately right. His love for Ellen has never been entirely based on reality. It is his fantasy. His attraction to her is as much about his wish to break the bounds of society as anything else. But we know he will not, and indeed cannot, because his own personality fits best with that society. We may feel bad for him that he never really gets to “live.” But we are also convinced that eloping with Ellen would have led to even greater unhappiness for him. And for her, of course. 


This is where the nuance of the book really shows. The world changes, society changes, circumstances change. But what has happened has happened. It cannot be changed. And, one suspects, nothing would have been gained anyway. 


The saving grace is the close relationship Newland develops with his son, and there is the promise that, since the next generation will marry for love, Newland can look forward to his daughter-in-law becoming part of that friendship. 


The Age of Innocence is an enjoyable read, with a psychological depth I appreciate from my favorite authors, like Anthony Trollope and Henry James. It was a lot less of a blow to the head than The House of Mirth, because of its subtlety and more perceptive humor. I own a few other Wharton novels, so it will be interesting to compare them to the two I have read. 


  1. I've returned to Edith Wharton this year after a stint of more than 25 years. I've recently reread The House of Mirth and Summer, and earlier this year I read The Custom of the Country for the first time. I'm reading The Reef at the moment. I have always preferred The House of Mirth to The Age of Innocence, but the first time I read each of them was in the late 1980s. I plan on reading The Age of Innocence before the end of the year, and I'll see if that still holds true.

    I think you will like The Custom of the Country. The writing is spectacular, and the heroine isn't the typical tragic female.

    1. I will definitely have to read The Custom of the Country. I'm not sure which of the others I like better. They are definitely very different.