Thursday, March 21, 2019

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Last week I read Edith Wharton's book
A House of Mirth and loved it. This week I read her book An Age of Innocence. And loved it. Sometimes I immerse myself in a single author, enjoying their worlds, enjoying their words. I've done this with Herman Hesse, Barbara Kingsolver, Michael Crichton, Karen Armstrong, and Alexandre Dumas, to name a few.

Edith Wharton books, though, now that's an acquired taste. Wharton isn't the first author I'd recommend to someone. In fact, a new online friend of mine, Julia, thought she might read Wharton and I suggested that, perhaps, she start with something more fun.
Like Jane Austin.

The Age of Innocence is another book by Wharton that was made into a film, this one starring Daniel Day Lewis as Archer, Michelle Pfeiffer as the Countess Ellen Olenska, and Winona Ryder as May. Man, I dislike knowing the casting of a film of a book. I so prefer to visualize characters myself. But there you are. In every case, I always prefer the book to the film, though I do plan on watching this movie later this week. I don't see how there is enough content to make a full-length movie of this book! There is so much musing, remembering, thinking, planning, etc...

Here's a quick look at the story of The Age of Innocence, just enough to whet your whistle:

Our protagonist, Newland Archer, a man brought up in a life of extreme privilege living in New York society in the 1870s, is engaged to the lovely May Welland, a young woman of a similarly high-society family. May's cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, is returning to New York society after leaving her husband in Europe. Dear Countess Ellen is followed to NYC by her untoward reputation, whispers of her behavior in leaving her husband, gossip of her bohemian ways, and concern for her ruined position in society.

May's family protects and nurtures Ellen to the best of their ability. As a part of the protection and recovery plan, May asks Newland, her affianced and, eventually, her husband, to treat Ellen with public respect, lending his upstanding reputation to hers. It is through the early conversations between the stodgy Newland and the worldly Countess that Newland begins to see the wool removed from his eyes with regards to the upper crust of his class. He begins to see the world more as it is, and this, he owes to Ellen. His respect for and understanding of the countess rises. Furthermore, his work as a lawyer helps her involvement with legalities regarding her pending divorce, all of which adds to the depth of the intimacy and secrecy of their exchanges.

Newland begins to see her in a new light, as well as seeing the small cadre of socialites in a new light, including May and her family. Thus begins the forbidden attraction between Newland and Ellen.

Who doesn't love a good love triangle?
In the culture of 1870's New York society, important things are not discussed openly, even in the most intimate of relationships. The convoluted, stilted dialogue of the cream of society is painful at worst, almost comical at best, and completely confusing most of the time for nothing of importance is ever spoken of clearly, concisely, or openly. Important issues are discussed through allusion and suggestion. How any understanding ever comes about is a real testament to the ability of the
crème de la crème  to read nonverbal communication so well, or did they?
He had to deal all at once with the packed regrets and stifled memories of an inarticulate lifetime.

A lift of the eye. A slight coloring of the cheek. Hesitation in speech. All of these tiny physical movements carry large amounts of information. How handicapped we would be to reply on these types of non-communicative communication in 2019. How handicapped were they then? Again and again I found myself rereading sections of text, wondering if I'd missed something crucial that was, now obvious in the story.
 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.

I found myself amused and constantly wondering why Wharton would put so much energy and effort into describing homes, rooms, and property...that is, until I discovered that Wharton also wrote books on home decorating in her time! She also seemed to enjoy writing on the history or time line of developing New York City and city culture. I found her exploration of cultural advancements entirely fascinating. Writing in the 1920's, Wharton is looking back a period of fifty years in this book.
...he remembered that there were people who thought there would one day be a tunnel under the Hudson through which trains of the Pennsylvania railway would run straight into New York. They were of the brotherhood of visionaries who likewise predicted the building of ships that would cross the Atlantic in five days, the invention of a flying machine, lighting by electricity, telephonic communication without wires, and other Arabian Night marvels.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is also visited several times by the protag Archer who muses, wouldn't it be interesting to see this museum get larger and more grand?  Wharton entertains her readers (and probably herself as well!) with a variety of historical references, including a beautiful moment when one character is being gaped at by passers by as she writes a note on paper on her knee in the park using the new stylographic pen, such an unwonted sight! Another wonderful moment on this cultural timeline is when our literate socialite protag, Archer, opens a crate of the newest and most popular books and authors of the time...another beautiful moment in time.
That evening he unpacked his books from London. The box was full of things he had been waiting for impatiently; a new volume of Herbert Spencer, another collection of the prolific Alpohonse  Daudet's brilliant tales, and a novel called "Middlemarch," as to which there had lately been interesting things said in reviews...he turned the pages with the sensuous joy of the book lover..."

Considering some of the characters in this novel, the Countess Ellen Olenska is, likely, considered the most interesting character in the book, but I have to give props to the innocent and simple  May. Living within the restrictive confines of her role as a newlywed lady of society, she has to find a way to both live with the fact that her husband is straying in his heart and to move through all social and family gatherings with her head held high. While Newland is discounting May as boring and the epitome of noblesse milquetoast, she is actually stronger than he is and capable of surviving and winning at a life that is unfair to the weaker sex.

Newland Archer, on the other hand, I must give some credit to for being able to open his eyes and see the facade inherent in the gentility of pedigreed high society. His romantic heart, however, proves to be a bit too bothersome to this middle-aged reader. I might have sighed over his amorous pronouncements to Ellen, given in hushed tones in the private places, when I was younger: Each time you happen to me all over again.  As an older reader, though, I found him tiresome, weak, and a tiny bit annoying at times. He does have several moments of marked saving grace, and he is  living during a time of immense social change, so I'll let him off of the hook and give him credit for making the most of his burgeoning awareness of a larger world. Coming from his Old Family, and having been brought up in the traditional way, I guess we can give Archer credit where credit is due.

The truth is, if the story had been set in the 2000's, it would have been over in a month. May would have moved on to a more worthy wealthy guy. Newland and Ellen would have had a weekend affair and then bored one another to death. Ellen would move on to a wonderful European decade, involved with a variety of dark, wealthy men while Newland would boringly work as an attorney and, forever, feel slighted. 😄

As a more mature reader myself, I wonder if I would have appreciated the fullness of this novel in my younger years. Edith Wharton's irony and humor is wonderfully placed throughout the novel. The subtlety and subtext of the writing is probably intended for an older audience, though some younger readers might appreciate the love story. A deeper historical understanding of the social changes in which this story takes place moves the novel from merely entertaining to quite superb. 

I'm delighted I decided to read this book before the stack of other books I have waiting for me. I give the surprising An Age of Innocence a high score of eight stars.

"Ah no," Newland thinks as he realizes May's similarity
 to her mother, "he did not want 
May to have that kind of innocence, 
the innocence that seals the mind 
against imagination and the heart against experience!

  Have you read it? .

1 comment:

  1. I watched the movie last night too and I thought it was AWFUL.


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