The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

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.

  1. Brian Joseph
    August 30, 2012 at 12:33 am

    Your commentary is very insightful Emma.

    I have not read this but I read House of Mirth which I thought was outstanding. It sounds like the themes are very similar between these books. The attack on high society and characters who you want so badly to dispense with their self imposed bounds and just get together. I want to get to this novel soon.


    • August 30, 2012 at 12:51 pm

      I need to read The House of Mirth too. The Custom of the Country is stunning,highly recommended.


  2. August 30, 2012 at 12:58 am

    Wharton is one of my favourite writers. I agree with what you say about Newland and Ellen. I doubt they would have been happy in the long term if they had run away together. Too many people would have been hurt by their actions & they would have been outcasts. Look what happened to Anna and Vronsky. I think Wharton’s portrayal of NY society is wonderful; she escaped to Europe, but others were stuck there, playing out those ghastly rituals of mutual obligation. Have you read House of Mirth? That’s my favourite Wharton novel.


    • August 31, 2012 at 12:34 am

      You know, from here, New-York is a symbol of freedom, a place where everything is possible. Wharton gives another picture of the city.

      I haven’t read The House of Mirth but it’s the next Wharton I’ll read. Have you read La Princesse de Clèves by Madame de Lafayette? You might like it; I know, it means you have to read in translation…


  3. August 30, 2012 at 3:17 am

    So this one’s all right?

    That’s just a joke – Wharton’s novels are some of my biggest Humiliations. I’ll get to them some day.


    • August 31, 2012 at 12:35 am

      Not sure I understand your comment, Tom.
      But if you’ve never tried Wharton (which sounds impossible), the two I read are masterpieces.


  4. August 30, 2012 at 9:57 am

    Our book group read ‘The House of Mirth’ last year, which was a first for me where Wharton is concerned. I have been trying to find time to fit another of her novels into my reading life ever since but haven’t got round to it in part because I wasn’t certain which one to choose. Now I know, thank you.


    • August 31, 2012 at 12:36 am

      Thanks for your message.
      You might want to read The Custom of the Country. There’s a review on my blog. Undine Spragg, the character is incredible. I’ve never seen a female character like this one.


  5. August 30, 2012 at 10:41 am

    This is one of my favourite novels too. It’s wonderful. I would like to read House of Mirth, even started it but it wasn’t the right moment. I suppose at the time it must have been the right choice they made (although, I’m not sure) but not nowadays.


    • August 31, 2012 at 12:40 am

      I want to read The House of Mirth.

      Nowadays, Newland would have dumped May when he was engaged and Ellen would have gotten a divorce. That’s where the situation they are in is linked to their time.
      But afterwards, when he’s married, I’m not sure their decision stems from their time. Have you read The Good Life by Jay McInerney? If yes, think about the ending and compare it to The Age of Innocence. The reasons behind the decisions are the same.


      • August 31, 2012 at 6:24 am

        I have not read it.


        • August 31, 2012 at 8:23 am

          How strange, it was a big success when it was published and it’s your kind of books. It deserves to join your TBR.


          • August 31, 2012 at 9:20 am

            I suppose it is because I have another of his unread novels on my piles but I will follow your advice and have a look very soon. Thanks.


  6. August 31, 2012 at 4:56 pm

    I’m late to the party. Emma: I wanted the lovers to run off with each other the first time I read this, but a second read yielded the response you had: an understanding of compromise and pressures, and that’s what makes the ending so beautiful.

    Have you read The Old Maid as that novella is a companion piece to The Age of Innocence.


    • September 1, 2012 at 10:36 pm

      It would have been a disaster if they had run off. Newland would have withered and what made him who he was would have vanished. Ellen would have lost the man she fell in love with anyway. A useless social suicide and a love Berezina.

      I haven’t read The Old Maid, I’ll look for it.


      • September 2, 2012 at 12:01 am

        Ah! You got that term in there and I understand it thanks to Balzac. The Old Maid is shorter (there’s a great film of it) and it would be a good one as a companion piece as the theme of the pressures of society is along the same lines.


        • September 2, 2012 at 12:04 am

          It’s not proper English but I knew you’d remember.

          PS: we also call un coup de Trafalgar (coup like blow not like what Pinochet did in 1973) something huge and that stays in mind for a long time.


  7. leroyhunter
    September 3, 2012 at 11:46 am

    House of Mirth is fantastic (no surprise) and Custom of the Country is right at the top of my TBR – I’d read it immediately but I’ve promised Max I’ll follow him in his Hungarian exploits this month. I’m saving Age of Innocence.

    Incidentally, I think the film is one of Scorsese’s finest and sadly under-rated by his fans. The ball scene is superb and must have been influenced by Visconti.


    • September 3, 2012 at 10:29 pm

      The Custom of the Country is amazing. I hope you’ll leave a comment on my billet when you read it. I’m interested in reading your thoughts about it.

      I want to watch The Age of Innocence again. I remember I loved it.
      I want to read a Hungarian book too but I’m not sure I’ll make it. Our book club read is The Turn of the Screw.


  1. December 27, 2012 at 12:18 am

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