The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

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 pure 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 a bit of 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, and 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 Olena rather mysterious with her curious European ways and interests; but the more time he spends in this lady’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. As a consequence, 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.

In spite of 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 so beautifully realised, so fully painted on the page that it’s hard not to get completely draw 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 shades 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 have read for 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

56 thoughts on “The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

  1. Tredynas Days

    I agree about the qualities of this novel, Jacqui. Do you think she manages as subtle a portrait of a male protagonist as she did with Lily Bart? I think she just about pulls it off – but he is a bit of a clod! Lily has more panache.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ooh, that’s an interesting question, Simon. I agree, Lily has more style and panache than Newland, she’s a stronger character in some respects. Nevertheless, something about Newland’s vulnerability really touched me. I couldn’t help but feel for him at various points in the story, especially towards the end.

      Reply
  2. Claire 'Word by Word'

    Exquisite review Jacqui, it’s clear this one really does deserve to be a classic, I too love Edith Wharton’s work and find similarities with the literary observations of Irene Némirovsky, they make a great pair as they analyse the inner workings of the different societies they quietly observed in their time, and for the reader, interesting contrasts.

    I’d love to read through all Wharton’s work and must add another to read this year. Love the quotes you’ve provided, they’re so effective aren’t they.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Claire. I feel sure you would enjoy this one – it’s a little different from Ethan Frome, which I know you loved, but the quality of the writing is just as good. That’s an interesting observation about the potential parallels with Irene Némirovsky. I haven’t read enough of her to comment – only Suite Francaise, which I guess is the one she’s best known for. Is there another you would recommend in particular?

      Reply
      1. Claire 'Word by Word'

        I say that because I read Fire in the Blood immediately after Ethan Frome and the correlation/contrast of how the characters dealt with their romantic dilemmas was so fascination, I remember wondering if they’d written their books at the same time. I also read Wharton’s novella ‘Summer’ which fits in with that theme.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          How interesting. Thanks, Claire – I’ll take a look at Fire in the Blood. Funny you should also mention Summer in this context as it may well turn out to be my next Wharton – I have a copy on the unread shelves at home. It’ll be fascinating to see how it compares with her others, Ethan Frome in particular.

          Reply
  3. Emma

    I love The Age of Innocence and agree with what you wrote about it.
    Wharton is an amazing writer. The Custom of the Country is different but equally good.
    Her books stay with you and you remember the stories and the characters.

    PS: I recommend La Princesse de Clèves by Mme de Lafayette if you haven’t read it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, she’s wonderful. I’d almost forgotten quite how absorbing her books can be! The Custom of the Country is in my TBR, along with Summer and a collection of her short stories. Lots to look forward to there.

      Thanks for recommending La Princesse de Clèves. I will definitely take a look at it. :)

      Reply
  4. susanosborne55

    I haven’t read any Wharton for years, Jacqui, and after reading your excellent review I can’t imagine why. She skewers the duplicity of the society in which she moved in such polished elegant prose.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, she definitely excels at that. Her novels are so carefully constructed and plotted, it makes me wonder how she approached the writing process

      Reply
  5. Brian Joseph

    Great review Jacqui.

    I read this last year and was also impressed by it.

    This is a great book for all the reasons that you mention.

    I also thought that the ending was very impressive. It has stayed with me. I also see more and more depth to it as time goes by.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. It doesn’t surprise me to hear that you were impressed by it too – it’s very much the type of novel you tend to enjoy. As Emma was saying above, she creates characters and stories that stay with the reader for a long time. I can still remember various details from Ethan Frome even though it’s been a good six or seven years since I last read it. All her big-hitters strike me as being sufficiently layered/complex to justify a re-read every now and again.

      Reply
  6. MarinaSofia

    This is probably my favourite Edith Wharton book and your review really does do it justice. You’ve also made me want to reread it again – oh, I just need more hours in my day!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I suspect it may well turn out to me my favourite Wharton too, although I still have The Custom of the Country to come. I’d been saving Innocence as a little treat for myself to mark the beginning of spring and it didn’t disappoint. February is a difficult month for me far a variety of reasons, so I always like to have something good to look forward to in March. This year it was the Wharton plus Hangover Square of course, another hit from my classics list.

      Reply
      1. Maureen Murphy

        Hi Jacqui,

        I am really looking forward to your take on “The Custom of the Country.” Will not provide any “spoilers” here, but from the POV of someone learning to write novels, I found the novel fascinating. Imperfect, but fascinating. Do check it out! The most intriguing thing about it is it is quite obvious how much Wharton dislikes the protagonist!

        I highly recommend an essay by novelist Roxane Robinson (“Edith Wharton – A Writer’s Reflections” – 4/11/2012 ) on the lit website The Millions http://www.themillions.com ) Robinson had an interesting observation I am still musing over. I think this is a little tough on Miss. Wharton!

        Here it is:

        “Rage can be used as a narrative engine to drive a novel, but in order for the novel to achieve greatness the rage must be tempered by compassion — a deep understanding of the characters, despite their flaws. Wharton feels no compassion for the shallow, heartless Undine. The book is like a melody played only on the brasses — it’s shrill and relentless, without the deep mellow notes of understanding.”

        Best to you, Jacqui….!

        Maureen Murphy

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          How intriguing – you are certainly firing up my interest in getting to The Custom of Country sooner rather than later. I had an inkling that Undine Spragg was a controversial character from various comments I have seen over the years. It’s interesting to see that quote from Robinson, as this apparent lack of compassion contrasts so strongly with Wharton’s depiction of Newland (and Countess Olenska) in The Age of Innocence. I think she demonstrates a real depth of understanding of her characters’ personalities in that novel – it’s the flaws and shortcomings that make them seem so human, certainly in my eyes. And she does so with great compassion. I never felt she was judging either Newland or Countess Olenska for their actions (or for their inability to act in certain situations)…

          Reply
  7. madamebibilophile

    Wonderful review as always Jacqui. I love this novel but its been so long since I read it! Definitely time for a re-read. I wrote my sixth form extended essay on it (comparing it with Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, women outcast from society) and even that didn’t kill it for me – definitely a testament to the power of Wharton’s writing ;-)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Madame Bibi. That is a strong testament to the quality of her writing. The requirement to study The Mayor of Casterbridge for O-Level killed that novel (and Thomas Hardy in general) for me. It was years before I was able to go back to him and even then I still struggled somewhat. He’s an author I admire for his technical skills and abilities, but that’s probably as far as it goes for me!

      Reply
  8. Naomi

    I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t read any Edith Wharton, even though I keep meaning to. The one I have on my shelf is Ethan Frome, which I’ve pulled out many times, only to push it back in again. I will get to it!
    I love the cover of your copy!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, Ethan Frome is terrific but very bleak. You’ll need to pick the right moment for that one, a time when you’re feeling resilient and able to engage with some powerful emotions.

      It’s a nice edition, the Vintage. I’m glad you like the cover – it caught my eye in Waterstones a few years ago.

      Reply
  9. Sarah

    I left it too late to jump on board the Librarything Virago read this month, but your review has convinced me to dig this out to read soon – it sounds marvellous!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s great – I doubt you’ll be disappointed, Sarah. Oddly enough, this has turned out to be a complete fluke as far as the timing is concerned as I only realised that Wharton was in the spotlight for March when Ali reviewed her short stories last week. My read of Innocence was prompted by the Classics Club as I’ve been trying to work through some of the titles on my list over the past few months. Plus my edition isn’t a Virago, so it probably doesn’t count towards the Librarything event anyway! Neverthless, I’m delighted to have finally made the time for this novel as it’s almost in a class of its own.

      Reply
  10. TJ @ MyBookStrings

    It has made me so happy to know that you loved this book. It is one of my all-time favorites. The writing, the characters, I love it all. I think you will enjoy Summer as well. I have The Custom of the Country next to my bed, but I am saving it as a special treat at just the right moment.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Wonderful! I had it my mind that you were a Wharton fan, so it’s great to hear that you loved this one too. I’m looking forward to Summer – maybe it would be a good choice for later this year, once the sunshine has started to fade. :)

      Reply
  11. Resh Susan @ The Book Satchel

    My friend who is an ardent admirer of Wharton keeps recommending this book to me. I love the quote “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.”
    I think it is so true. Sometimes I think I am turning into a version of my mother. And funny enough I seem to have even those traits that I dislike in her. :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s a recommendation worth heeding.

      I’m glad you liked that quote. I found it almost unbearably sad to read, particularly as it seemed to encapsulate so much about the state of Newland’s marriage to May – both current and future potential.

      Reply
  12. Rebecca Foster

    I haven’t read much Wharton beyond Ethan Frome, but I would like to. I know the story of this one from the Daniel Day-Lewis/Michelle Pfeiffer film. Also, it was reworked in 2012 in the novel The Innocents by Francesca Segal, which I dearly love.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, I had completely forgotten about Francesca Segal’s book, so thank you for mentioning it. The core of the story was familiar to me too for the same reason: Scorsese’s film with Daniel Day-Lewis in the lead. I think it’s time for a re-watch now, just to see how it compares with my impressions of the novel!

      Reply
  13. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review Jacqui as always and I think you get to heart of Wharton’s writing. The short stories of hers I’ve just been reading have the same qualities of sharp observation and excellent writing. Her characters struggle so with the restrictions of the society they move in and it really is brutal the way they have to stifle their real feelings. An excellent author!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. Those are her trademarks, I think. Her short stories sound excellent too. I have a lovely NYRB collection which a friend gave me following a trip to New York – more treats to look forward to in the future.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, absolutely outstanding. I thought The House of Mirth was brilliant, but Innocence just edges it for me. She’s one of my desert-island writers for sure.

      Reply
  14. Christine A

    Superb post. I’ve read The Age of Innocence twice for my two book clubs about 3 years apart. The second time round I had slightly gone off it because the plot is so hesitant in places. But you have reminded me how her social observations are spot on and your choice of quotations so encapsulates the spirit of the book I’ve been won back to its finer qualities. (I once read an agony aunt refer a questioner to The Age of Innocence as a way to come to terms with his problem – can’t say more or I’ll plot spoil). Needless to say its a book which has burrowed in my mind.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you for such a lovely comment – that’s wonderful to hear! I can imagine some readers getting a little frustrated with the pacing at times, but I just found the whole story so absorbing – plus the quality of Wharton’s writing just carried me through. Re-reads can be tricky things, especially when the timing is driven by external events such as your book groups. I would love to revisit this novel one day, maybe in 5 or 10 years’ time once the story has faded from my mind. Any sooner might be too early especially given your experiences…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you. I have a feeling it will turn out to be my favourite Wharton. I couldn’t help but feel for Newland, especially towards the end.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Ali. I was spoilt for choice with potential,quotes for this review, but that second one really stood out. It just seemed to encapsulate so much about the society of the day and the expectations it placed on people.

      Reply
  15. Caroline

    Lovely review indeed. I read thus years ago and did the nfortunate thing- I watched the movie afterwards. That spoilt the book. I have zero recollection of the prose. I loved The House of Mirth so much, I should reread it.
    La Princess de Cleve’s is my favourite novel, btw. Sadly, most people I know who read it in English translation didn’t warm to it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s interesting about the film of this. I saw it many years ago and enjoyed it at the time, but my memories are rather sketchy now. I was thinking of revisiting it now that I’ve read the novel, but maybe I should abandon that plan given your experience with it.

      The House of Mirth is brilliant too, isn’t it? Definitely the sort of novel that would stand up to a re-read.

      Another vote for La Princesse de Clèves – I shall have to take a closer look at it. That’s an interesting point about reactions to the English version vs the original – maybe something got lost in translation along the way?

      Reply
      1. Caroline

        I’d suggest you don’t watch it. It’s very close to the book and the opulence of the images, costumes might wipe out your impression of the book.
        It is interesting about La Princesse (I’m on my iPad hence the lack of accents). I’d love to hear what you think of it.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          That’s good advice, thank you. I feel quite protective about this novel now, so it’s probably best if I leave the film for a while.

          (PS – No worries about the typo, it happens to me all the time! I’ve edited your comment accordingly.)

          Reply
  16. bookbii

    Lovely review Jacqui. I read House of Mirth last year, my first Wharton, and immediately went out and picked up Age of Innocence which is now languishing on my shelf waiting to be read. It sounds like it is an even better book that HoM, though it seems hard to imagine another set of characters as memorable as Lily Bart. Wharton is a fine writer, those extracts show such skill in skewering the duplicity of the social mores of the day; I suspect she would find our current-day morality equally flawed and I find myself wondering what we’d learn about ourselves if Wharton was still writing today.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh my goodness, I wonder what she would make of the fascination with celebrities, Donald Trump and the whole fake news phenomenon! It would make for very interesting reading no doubt.

      You have a treat in store with The Age of Innocence (good choice) – I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

      Reply
  17. Eric

    Great summary and review of a brilliant novel! You point out so well exactly why Wharton is such a sharp writer with such a clever way of portraying an individual’s precarious place in such a highly ordered – but, as you say: brutal, hypocritical and intollerant – society. Wharton is so wonderful at working symbolism into her novels too: that he is called Archer but May is the one who wins the archery contest (and ultimately triumphs in strategically maintaining her relationship and the status quo).

    I love the film as well – which I rewatched recently – which captures so well the beauty on the surface and the savagery beneath.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Eric, I really appreciate you saying that. Do you know, I had totally missed that use of symbolism in relation to Newland’s surname and May’s skills with the bow and arrow! That completely passed me by. Now I’m wondering what else might be lying in wait for me to discover on a second reading… May is definitely a lady with hidden depths, don’t you think? It would be very easy to dismiss her as a simple girl, but she is more astute in her perceptions of others than appears at first sight. You are so right in saying that she plays the situation to her advantage, maintaining the cloak of respectability by securing her marriage to Newland. All in all, a truly wonderful book!

      Reply
  18. Sylvie Marie Héroux

    I loved this book, the quality of the writing and the insights it provides into the society of the time. I read it one week before seeing the movie at the time it came out. I was living in the US then, and it added to the experience… I though that the movie was an exquisite adaptation of the book.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Wonderful, isn’t it? Truly deserving of its status as a classic. I’m so glad you enjoyed it too. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment – I do appreciate it.

      Reply
  19. luvtoread

    Great review! I haven’t read this book yet (or any Wharton), but hope to one day. I remember watching the movie with Daniel Day Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer and loving the movie.

    Reply

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