Category Archives: Wharton Edith

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

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (book review)

Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth is such a brilliant classic, I wasn’t sure if I would have anything to add to the multitude of reviews already covering this book, but in the end I decided to capture a few thoughts in this post.

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The novel takes us back to New York in the late 19th century where we meet Lily Bart, who at the age of twenty-nine remains unmarried despite her beauty. Lily spends much of her time with a wealthy society set, namely Judy and Gus Trenor, Bertha and George Dorset and other assorted players in the same social sphere. However, Lily is a woman of very limited financial means; she enjoys the finer things in life, but is conscious of the need to rely on the generosity of her friends in return for gracing their social gatherings with her beauty and charm. Above all else though, she fears the threat of poverty:

No; she was not made for mean and shabby surroundings, for the squalid compromises of poverty. Her whole being dilated in an atmosphere of luxury; it was the background she required, the only climate she could breathe in. (pg. 23, Wordsworth Classics)

Between visits to the Trenors at their Bellomont estate, Lily (an orphan) finds herself dependent on her aunt, the somewhat mean-spirited and passive Mrs Peniston. In order to secure her future, Lily knows she must net a wealthy husband, but Lawrence Selden, the man to whom she is attracted, has insufficient funds to support her desired lifestyle. Nevertheless, Lily is smart enough to see a potential end to her financial worries; she believes she can marry the prosperous Percy Gryce whenever she chooses and although she doesn’t love or desire him, she knows this move would relieve her of a heavy burden:

She would be able to arrange her life as she pleased, to soar into that empyrean of security where creditors cannot penetrate. She would have smarter gowns than Judy Trenor, and far, far more jewels than Bertha Dorset. She would be free for ever from the shifts, the expedients, the humiliations of the relatively poor. Instead of having to flatter, she would be flattered; instead of being grateful, she would receive thanks. (pg. 43)

At a fairly early stage in the novel, Lily seems all set to allow Mr Gryce to offer his hand in marriage. However, the reappearance of Lawrence Selden throws Lily off course at a key moment, prompting her to see her situation (and possible future life with Gryce) in a new light, one in which she envisages a desperately dull and boring existence despite the financial security it offers:

How dreary and trivial these people were! Lily reviewed them with a scornful impatience:

[…]

How different they had seemed to her a few hours ago! Then they had symbolised what she was gaining, now they stood for what she was giving up. That very afternoon they had seemed full of brilliant qualities; now she saw that they were merely dull in a loud way. Under the glitter of their opportunities she saw the poverty of their achievement. […] She closed her eyes an instant, and the vacuous routine of the life she had chosen stretched before her like a long white road without dip or turning; (pg. 49)

A small spark was enough to kindle Lily’s imagination, and the sight of the grey dress and the borrowed prayer-book flashed a long light down the years. She would have to go to church with Percy Gryce every Sunday. […] There was nothing especially arduous in this round of religious obligations; but it stood for a fraction of that great bulk of boredom which loomed across her path. (pg. 51) 

For a variety of reasons Gryce’s proposal of marriage never materialises, and this seems indicative of a certain aspect of Lily’s character; over the years she had squandered a number of opportunities for marriage in the belief that she could do better for herself. As Mrs Fisher, another member of the society set, comments:

‘…An Italian prince, rich and the real thing, wanted to marry her; but just at the critical moment a good-looking stepson turned up, and Lily was silly enough to flirt with him while her marriage-settlements with the stepfather were being drawn up. […] That’s Lily all over, you know: she works like a slave preparing the ground and sowing her seed; but the day she ought to be reaping the harvest she oversleeps herself or goes off on a picnic.’ (pg. 164)

In The House of Mirth, Wharton gives use a fascinating insight into the workings of this sector of American society at the time, a society in which appearances and others’ perceptions of one’s character are crucial. In fact in many ways, perceptions are more important than the truth in this rather cruel and unforgiving world. At an early stage in the novel, we learn that Lily must be seen to maintain an honourable and unblemished reputation for her to be fully accepted by society. She commits the indiscretion of joining Selden for tea in his rooms and when she bumps into Mr Rosedale (another player in the society set) on leaving Selden’s building, she invents a story to cover her tracks, one that Rosedale suspects is a white lie:

Why must a girl pay so dearly for her least escape from routine? Why could one never do a natural thing without having to screen it behind a structure of artifice? She had yielded to a passing impulse in going to Lawrence Selden’s rooms, and it was so seldom that she could allow herself the luxury of an impulse! This one, at any rate, was going to cost her rather more than she could afford. She was vexed to see that, in spite of so many years of vigilance, she had blundered twice within five minutes. (pgs. 13-14)

And it is other society members’ perceptions of Lily that ultimately play a key role in the narrative. Lily is drawn into playing bridge at the Trenors’ Bellomont estate, and as her gambling debts and expenses mount, she asks Gus Trenor to invest her meagre finances in the stock market. At first Lily believes her ‘investment’ to be a wise move as Trenor passes on the profits, but this transaction is far from transparent and Trenor clearly expects more than a little something from Lily in return for his efforts. As the ramifications of this episode unravel, Lily – through no real fault of her own – is once again at the mercy of the perceptions of others; a victim of scandalous rumours, ostracised and virtually abandoned by the society that once embraced her, she finds it increasingly difficult to establish a foothold in life. Lily realises that ‘a woman’s dignity may cost more to keep than her carriage; and that the maintenance of a moral attribute should be dependent on dollars and cents made the world appear a more sordid place than she had conceived it.’

That’s about as much as I’m going to say about the plot, but it’s a brilliant story and Wharton executes it perfectly – her prose is magnificent. There are so many additional nuances to the narrative that I haven’t even touched upon here, and I can see myself rereading the novel to revisit Lily at some point.

Wharton has created a wonderful character in Lily Bart, one of my favourites this year (along with Cassandra from Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the Wedding). Lily is a beautiful and fascinating creature, yet she is also frivolous and a little naïve despite her intelligence and wit. There are times when she doesn’t always make the best choice in life, but she seems to emerge with her own scruples intact. Ultimately though, she falls prey to the politics and conventions of society at the time and Wharton dissects this rather harsh culture with great skill, precision and candour. Bertha Dorset, another fully-realised character, is also worthy of a brief mention at this point as it she who plays a key role in Lily’s fall from grace.

Finally, I loved the dynamics of the bond between Lily and Lawrence Selden: their obvious attraction to one another; their knowledge that they cannot marry as Lily must find a wealthy husband; the role of chance and missed opportunities in their relationship. Interestingly, Selden is the one character in the book who is permitted to circulate in society, but also observe it from a distance. Here’s Lily as she studies Selden (at a time when she is still considering marrying Gryce):

It was rather that he had preserved a certain social detachment, a happy air of viewing the show objectively, of having points of contact outside of the great gilt cage in which they were all huddled for the mob to gape at. How alluring the world outside the cage appeared to Lily, as she heard its door clang on her! In reality, as she knew, the door never clanged: it stood always open; but most of the captives were like flies in a bottle, and having once flown in, could never regain their freedom. It was Selden’s distinction that he had never forgotten the way out. (pg. 48)

So there we are; a few thoughts on The House of Mirth, another one for my end-of-year highlights. Cathy at 746 Books and My Book Strings have also recently reviewed this book.

My copy of The House of Mirth is published in the UK by Wordsworth Classics. Source: personal copy.