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The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

August 30, 2012 20 comments

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. 1920. French title: Le temps de l’innocence.

We start our new reading year with The Age of Innocence and it’s a breathtaking start. If the other books are half as good as this one, this new Book Club year is going to be a treat. I had seen the film by Martin Scorcese (1993) but I didn’t remember all the details so it didn’t spoil my reading. Except that I couldn’t think of the main character, Newland Archer differently from picturing Daniel Day-Lewis, who proved to be a good choice of actor. But back to the book.

New-York, 187– Newland Archer is a young member of the high society, well-bred, well-integrated, a perfect model of the New-York gentleman.

Newland Archer was a quiet and self-controlled young man. Conformity to the discipline of a small society had become almost his second nature. It was deeply distasteful to him to do anything melodramatic and conspicuous, anything Mr. van der Luyden would have deprecated and the club box condemned as bad form.

He’s in love with May Welland, a beautiful product of the society he’s accustomed to. May is young, innocent, pure; Newland sees her as the lily-of-the valley he sends her everyday.

Countess Ellen Olenska is May’s cousin; they have the same grandmother, the eccentric and domineering Catherine Mingott. Her realm is her family and she’s a tough sovereign. Ellen was raised abroad by the black sheep of the family, Medora Menson. Ellen married the Count Olenski in France and has now done the unthinkable: she left him and came back to America. The Mingotts show their support by taking her to the opera, where everybody can see her and their intention to reintegrate her in the high society. Newland knows her, he used to play with her as a child and he thinks the Wellands quite daring to expose her to the eyes of the society after what she’s done. He frowns at the idea that the Mingotts back up Ellen but soon feels he could help his future in-laws in a move. If they announce his engagement to May, two families will be behind Ellen and ease her return.

That’s what he does, that’s what happens. The only problem is that Ellen doesn’t slip that easily into a New-Yorker’s clothes. She’s been living abroad for too long and unconsciously disregards many unspoken rules with unaffected manners. Newland tries to help her into fitting in her new environment. Ellen has the intellectual vitality May is lacking. She’s more spontaneous in her language and her actions, less willing to abide by the rules if they go against her moral integrity or what she thinks is right. She’s a catalyst for Newland. He already ached for a more satisfactory life. In his New-York, the intellectual life and the high society life exist in two parallel universes, contrary to Paris where Ellen used to live. No literary salons there, despite Medora Manson’s attempt to settle one:

Medora Manson, in her prosperous days, had inaugurated a “literary salon”; but it had soon died out owing to the reluctance of the literary to frequent it.

So Newland meets with writers in their neighbourhood and endures dull diners in his world. He’s drawn to Ellen and genuinely tries to help her find a middle ground between her need for freedom and the level of independence the social will tolerate. They soon fall in love. She’s married and can’t get a divorce as it would be a society suicide. He traps himself into a marriage with May. What’s going to happen to them?

I love Edith Wharton. The whole story is told through Newland’s eyes and she has a talent for sensitive young men. I was fond of Ralph when I read The Custom of the Country and I’m fond of Newland now. Her male characters appear to be trapped in their lives, not freer than women to live their lives as they wish. The mothers are manipulative and families keep young people in iron claws. Nothing escapes their attention. They will do anything needed to avoid scandal and preserve peace.

Newland has modern expectations about his wife. He’d like May to be more curious about books, to be willing to learn new things but she’s not. And as he admits it years later, how could she be?

Archer had reverted to all his old inherited ideas about marriage. It was less trouble to conform with the tradition and treat May exactly as all his friends treated their wives than to try to put into practice the theories with which his untrammelled bachelorhood had dallied. There was no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free; and he had long since discovered that May’s only use of the liberty she supposed herself to possess would be to lay it on the altar of her wifely adoration.

I don’t know why, but I don’t like the word wifely. It might be perfectly neutral in English but to me it sounds like a condescending word to talk about a brainless married woman. Is it because it rhymes with silly? May wasn’t raised to use her brain for abstract thinking. She was raised to be pretty, well-bred, knowledgeable in all kinds of social rules. She’s more outdoorsy. She wouldn’t be an accomplished woman in the Austen world: she can’t stitch and she can’t sing or play an instrument. She lives in a narrow world and is perfectly happy with it. She’s a mystery to me. How can she cling to a fiancé who only likes her? Perhaps she does because she has a very practical vision of marriage: on paper, he’s a catch. She knows everything and lives with it. And she’ll participate to anything that will her world stay as it is.

Edith Wharton paints a scary picture of the New-York society of that time. It’s a spider’s web knit with tight family knots. Don’t try to walk out of the admitted path, don’t threaten the web with liberal views on women and marriage, don’t try to change the rules. Why did that microcosm put so much effort to part Ellen and Newland? It’s a world where the individual has no weigh, no importance. Only the community counts. Yes, Newland was well-read but ill-prepared to face the world anyway. He’s too innocent: he thinks he hides his feelings but he doesn’t. (Strange as you always think you can conceal your interest in someone and always fail because whatever you do, you never behave naturally). And May isn’t as innocent as it appears. Like in The Custom of the Country, women are more shrewd and manipulative than men.

If I had read The Age of Innocence twenty years earlier, Newland and Ellen would have infuriated me. I would have liked them to elope, put everything behind and be happy or at least take the chance to be happy. Now I understand them. I’ve had enough years of compromising to understand that you cannot just do what you want and disregard the consequences of your choices for the people who love you. The tone is melancholic and this novel made me think. Is their choice wisdom, generosity or cowardice? Is it worth it? Is their sacrifice worth it? It might as it keeps their love beautiful. I also understand Newland and his questionning. He lived his life as an active member of his community but the best part of him was dead all along. He wasn’t strong enough to liberate himself from the impact of his education. And if he had? He didn’t have it in him to live as a pariah; he wasn’t adventurous enough to start over abroad. He would have been like a fish out of his bowl and he had the insight to acknowledge it. Is his life a waste?

This novel is a masterpiece written in a delicate prose unravelling feelings, motives and the workings of a smothering society. It shows the violence hidden in the smooth politeness of boudoirs and dining rooms. In French, we say, “an iron hand in a velvet glove”. As for the relationship between Ellen and Newland, now I want to read La Princesse de Clèves again.

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