Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton is such an amazing author, able to present a character, portray a situation and tell a story with such clear, concise and blessedly few words. No Dickens or Eliot, she. The opening scenes find Newland Archer and May Welland announcing their engagement to their family and friends of the New York high society set. Newland almost immediately has second thoughts as he becomes smitten with May's newly single and returned-from-Europe cousin, the unconventional, free-spirited Countess Ellen Olenska. It suddenly dawns on him that he is doomed to lead a dull and predictable life with May unless he can convince the Countess that it is they who are meant to be together, if they can somehow wrangle it with out ruffling too many feathers. I was never really sure if Newland meant to leave May for Ellen, or simply have an affair with her while keeping up a happily married appearance for propriety's sake. He certainly tied himself into knots trying to find strategic ways to 'bump into her' while out on errands and traveling for work. Poor, besotted Newland spends almost the entire book dithering between convention, expectation and the allure of the Bohemian Countess. It was hard not to feel sorry for the guy; he carried on like a lost puppy. May is of course suspicious and yet encourages him to support her wayward cousin because Ellen is family and the two of them are such 'great friends'. And, naturally, avoiding scandal is priority number one. How fun it is, though, to get an inside peek into the lives of the super rich at the turn of the century. Wharton has a special talent for portraying it beautifully but also with a side of wit and irony.


Winner of the 1921 Pulitzer Prize, The Age of Innocence is Edith Wharton's elegant portrait of desire and betrayal in Old New York. With vivid power, Wharton evokes a time of gaslit streets, formal dances held in the ballrooms of stately brownstones, and society people "who dreaded scandal more than disease." This is Newland Archer's world as he prepares to amrry the docile May Welland. Then, suddenly, the mysterious, intensely non-conformist Countess Ellen Olenska returns to New York after a long absence and Newland Archer's world is never the same. Edith Wharton's classic tale of thwarted love is an exuberantly comic and profoundly moving look at the passions of the human heart. (back cover)


"The real loneliness is living among all these kinds of people who only ask one to pretend!" She lifted her hands to her face, and he saw her thin shoulders shaken by a sob. pg77

His heart sank, for he saw that he was saying all the things that young men in the same situation were expected to say, and that she was making the answers that instinct and tradition taught her to make- even to the point of calling him original. pg82

Archer disliked her use of the word 'clever' almost as much as her use of the word 'common'; but he was beginning to fear his tendency to dwell on the things he disliked in her. After all, her point of view had always been the same. It was that of all the people he had grown up among, and he had always regarded it as necessary but negligible. Until a few months ago he had never known a 'nice' woman who looked at life differently; and if a man married it must necessarily be among the nice. pg203

Then there had been the pleasurable excitement of choosing a showy grey stepper for May's brougham (the Wellands had given the carriage), and the abiding occupation and interest of arranging his new library, which, in spite of family doubts and disapprovals, had been carried out as he had dreamed, with dark embossed paper, Eastlake book-cases and 'sincere' arm-chairs and tables. pg206


There was something about the luxury of the Welland house and the density of the Welland atmosphere, so charged with minute observances and exactions, that always stole into the his system like a narcotic. The heavy carpets, the watchful servants, the perpetually reminding tick of disciplined clocks, the perpetually renewed stack of cards and invitations on the hall table, the whole chain of tyrannical trifles binding one hour to the next, and each member of the household to all the others, made any less systemized and affluent existence seem unreal and precarious. pg 218

No one in the Mingott set could understand why Amy Sillerton had submitted so tamely to the eccentricities of a husband who filled the house with long-haired men and short-haired women, and, when he travelled, took her to explore tombs in Yucatan instead of going to Paris or Italy. pg220

Ellen Olenska was like no other woman, he was like no other man: their situation, therefore, resembled no one else's, and they were answerable to no tribunal but that of their own judgment. pg306

Well, perhaps I haven't judged her fairly. She's so different - at least on the surface. She takes up with such odd people - she seems to like to make herself conspicuous. I suppose it's the life she's led in that fast European society; no doubt we seem dreadfully dull to her. pg315

17 comments:

Beth said...

Another classic I haven't read. (Shame on me.) I'm heading to my favourite used book store on Saturday - will look for it there.

Anne said...

I really liked this book too, I am a huge fan of Edith Wharton.

Trish said...

Beth - I hope you find a copy and enjoy it as much as I did.

Anne - She's a wonderful writer, isn't she? I had no idea until now.

Tracy said...

I've not read this one yet, but it does appeal. Thanks for the quotes.

Sam (Tiny Library) said...

I know next to nothing about Wharton but I am attracted by the fact that the writing is concise, that's something I appreciate a lot and think takes much skill to pull off.

Larissa said...

A classic I intend to read one day. The quotes help to realize it may not be as daunting as I feared, thanks!

Trish said...

The writing was really lovely and, yes, so concise. I hope you all give her a try. She also has many short stories available, which are enjoyable, too. I don't know much about her other books, though. I just bought a used copy of Ethan Frome and am on the lookout for House of Mirth.

laughingwolf said...

have heard of, but not read, her, as far as i recall...

but, i did grow up in welland! ;) lol

Trish said...

Well that's something right there! You were practically neighbours. lol

portraitsofwildflowers said...

A few years ago I visited The Mount, Edith Wharton's estate in Massachusetts. Unfortunately it's in danger of going into foreclosure. Getting the public to support cultural things can be difficult.

Trish said...

What a shame that would be! It's probably very expensive to keep an estate like that going.

laughingwolf said...

lol

Natalie~Coffee and a Book Chick said...

I so enjoyed The House of Mirth and Ethan Frome; been meaning to get to The Age of Innocence as well. I just love the way Wharton writes. The House of Mirth is on my all-time favorites list.

Trish said...

Ohh that's good to know! I just picked up a copy of Ethan Frome and am on the look out for House of Mirth now, too. She is indeed a wonderful author.

Primero Fin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Primero Fin said...

I loved House of Mirth, but I thought Age of Innocence covered the same ground as House of Mirth without adding anything new. In fact, to me Age of Innocence seemed like an unofficial sequel to House of Mirth - more superficial, more melodramatic. It, Innocence almost felt like a toned down re-write of Mirth.

Wikipedia entry for Age of Innocence contains and interesting comment that Wharton wrote Age of Innocence as an 'apology' for House of Mirth which was considered to be too brutal. That was exactly why I preferred House of Mirth to Age of Innocence. House of Mirth is a brutal look at society's cruel and crushing constraints on people, particularly women. Age of Innocence convey's the same message but in a much more subtle manner, subtle to the point where the message is trumped by the melodrama.

Anyone else have thoughts on comparison of Mirth to Innocence?

Trish said...

Interesting observation. I have not read HoM yet so I'm not sure how I will find it compared to AoI. Now I'm really curious! I hope to read it soon though so I will certainly keep your observations in mind.