It’s been a while since I last read anything by Edith Wharton – more than two years in fact since I reviewed The House of Mirth, a novel I loved for its central character, the fascinating Miss Lily Bart. I suppose I’ve been trying to save Wharton for the right time. Having just finished The Age of Innocence (another of her critically-acclaimed society novels), I can see it has the potential to become one of my all-time favourite books – such a beautiful and compelling portrayal of forbidden love, I longed for the times when I could return to these characters and their expertly-realised world.
Set within the upper echelons of New York society in the 1870s, The Age of Innocence centres on Newland Archer, a highly respected young lawyer from a wealthy, privileged and traditional family. On the surface, everything in Newland’s life appears to be perfect. In spite of an earlier dalliance with a married woman, Newland recognises the importance of adhering to the established codes and behaviours of his natural social set. As a consequence, he is looking forward to the announcement of his forthcoming engagement to one of the prettiest girls in New York, the sweet-natured and equally privileged May Welland, a young woman who seems to embody everything that is decent and virtuous in life.
Into this perfectly ordered and balanced world comes May’s cousin, Ellen Olenska, recently returned from Europe following the breakdown of her marriage to a Polish Count. Much to the disapproval of New York society – a culture that condemns social scandal above all else – Countess Olenska has taken the drastic step of fleeing her abusive husband, reputedly with the aid of another man, the Count’s secretary. As the novel opens, Newland catches sight of the Countess for the first time during a visit to the New York Opera where the lady’s appearance in public has created quite a stir.
As for the cause of the commotion, she sat gracefully in her corner of the box, her eyes fixed on the stage, and revealing, as she leaned forward, a little more shoulder and bosom than New York was accustomed to seeing, at least in ladies who had reasons for wishing to pass unnoticed. (pp. 12-13)
On seeing the Countess, Newland’s first thoughts are for May. He urges his sweetheart to bring forward the announcement of their engagement in the hope that the support of two influential New York families – the Wellands and the Archers – will bolster Countess Olenska’s social standing. (This is a watchful, judgemental world, one where everyone seems to know everyone else’s movements and intentions before the day is out.)
Initially, Newland considers the exotic Countess Olenska rather mysterious with her curious European ways and interests; but the more time he spends in this woman’s company, the more fascinating he finds her. Deep down, in spite of his placid, conventional nature, Newland longs for a richer, more stimulating cultural and emotional life. In many respects, Countess Olenska is the natural embodiment of these desires – she is imaginative, unconventional, passionate and artistic. Unsurprisingly, Newland finds himself becoming increasing attracted to the Countess, a development that also leads to questions about the nature of his potential future with May.
What could he and she really know of each other, since it was his duty, as a ‘decent’ fellow, to conceal his past from her, and hers, as a marriageable girl, to have no past to conceal? What if, for some one of the subtler reasons that would tell with both of them, they should tire of each other, misunderstand or irritate each other? He reviewed his friends’ marriages – the supposedly happy ones – and saw none that answered, even remotely, to the passionate and tender comradeship which he pictured as his permanent relation with May Welland. He perceived that such a picture presupposed, on her part, the experience, the versatility, the freedom of judgement, which she had been carefully trained not to possess; and with a shiver of foreboding he saw his marriage becoming what most of the other marriages about him were: a dull association of material and social interests held together by ignorance on the one side and hypocrisy on the other. (p. 37)
I love that quote – it’s so typical of Wharton and her ability to highlight the duplicity at play in this closed and censorious society.
Despite receiving the initial support of various influential members of the New York set, Countess Olenska comes under considerable pressure to return to her brutish husband, thereby conforming to established conventions. Ideally, the Countess wishes to press for a divorce, an action considered socially unacceptable by the traditional American society of the day – while the city’s legal system permits divorce, its social customs do not. As a lawyer with a close connection to the Welland family, Newland is enlisted to persuade Countess Olenska that filing for divorce would be utterly foolish, a view he is in agreement with once it becomes clear that the Countess would likely be ruined if the circumstances of her departure from the Count ever came to light. However, by advising the Countess against a divorce, Newland must effectively let go of any hope of ever marrying the Countess himself – for if she remains tied to the Count, she cannot possibly be free to marry again.
In time, Newland ties the knot with May and settles down to the rituals of married life, an existence he finds increasingly bland and stifling. After a gap of about eighteen months, he sees Countess Olenska again, and all his old feelings for her (and hers for him) are rekindled. Nevertheless, Countess Olenska is unflinchingly realistic in her outlook on life. She seems to understand the true nature of their circumstances more clearly than Newland, at least at first. If they are ever to see one another now that Newland is married, they must do so discreetly. It would not do to destroy the lives of those around them, especially not May’s and those of the members of their respective families. All of a sudden, the reality of situation dawns on Newland, and he sees the delicate balance he must try to maintain.
It was clear to him, and it grew more clear under close scrutiny, that if she should finally decide on returning to Europe – returning to her husband – it would not be because her old life tempted her, even on the new terms offered. No: she would go only if she felt herself becoming a temptation to Archer, a temptation to fall away from the standard they had both set up. Her choice would be to stay near him as long as he did not ask her to come nearer; and it depended on himself to keep her just there, safe but secluded. (p. 210)
I don’t want to reveal too much more about the story, save to say that it gripped me to the very end. Instead, I’m going to touch on some of the things I love about this novel as they fall into three broad areas.
First, there is the subtlety and depth of the characterisation. The three main players are beautifully realised – so fully painted on the page that it’s hard not to get completely drawn into their world. Naturally, Newland and Countess Olenska are the centre of attention, and the complexity of their emotions are clearly felt. Both of these characters are torn between opposing forces: on the one hand, a powerful desire to give in to their true feelings by spending time with one another; on the other, a necessary duty to preserve the happiness of those around them by trying to remain apart. Nevertheless, in spite of the subtleties that are visible in the portrayal of Newland and the Countess, it would be unfair to dismiss May as the innocent, childlike creature that her husband perceives her to be. As the novel progresses, it becomes apparent that May sees and understands much more than Newland appreciates. She appears to have moments of great insight, observing the nuances of the situation around her in ways that Newland simply does not realise – well, not until the game is almost over. (There is a brilliant quote that I would have loved to include here, but I fear it’s too much of a spoiler to share.)
Then there is Wharton’s ability to expose the underhand workings of this repressive society, a culture that seems so refined on the surface, and yet so terribly brutal, hypocritical and intolerant when the protective veneer of respectability is stripped away. It is only then that the real machinations are exposed in all their blatant cruelty.
It was the old New York way, of taking life ‘without effusion of blood’; the way of people who dreaded scandal more than disease, who placed decency above courage, and who considered that nothing was more ill-bred than ‘scenes’, except the behaviour of those who gave rise to them. (p. 286)
Finally, there is the quality of the writing. The Age of Innocence contains some of the most glorious, perfectly crafted prose I’ve read in quite a while. This is a novel shot through with a deep sense of yearning for a more fulfilling life, a longing for a love that seemed ill-fated and condemned from the start. I’ll finish with a final quote, one that stayed with me to the end. As Newland sits in his library with May, he reflects on the true nature of his marriage some two years down the line.
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. Now she was simply ripening into a copy of her mother, and mysteriously, by the very process, trying to turn him into a Mr Welland. He laid down his book and stood up impatiently; and at once she raised her head. (p. 251)
The Age of Innocence is published by Vintage Books; personal copy