The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

New York, New York - a wonderful town - here depicted from the point of view and life style of the wealthy high society in the 1870s. It is a fascinating mannered, historical view of this iconic metropolis outlining the day to day lives and concerns of the very privileged and wealthy of Dutch,French and English heritage. Washington Square, Fifth Avenue, On the Hudson and Newport - locations to conjure with. Edith Wharton herself grew up in this society and class and I think presents a warm view via her many characters and the detailed pictures of their surroundings and way of life. Whilst I dont think this is humorous as such there is considerable irony and some parody of several of the family situations and characters.

The book was published in 1920 - Wharton had lived and worked hard for dispaced persons in her chosen home town of Paris during World War 1 so she had seen great social change first hand. She had not lived a simple or an idle life herself by any means. The changes that were to come in New York society after 1870 would therefore be seen clearly by readers in 1920 when the book was published - overall , as mentioned, I think it is a warm picture but not a sentimental one.

The main plot revolves around a romance which has more in common with the grand Russian romance stories of Pushkin and Tolstoy than say, Austen. I thought the author portrayed Newland Archer well - I was caught up in the drama of the romance and the way in which the author uses the device to portray her key individuals, their beliefs and their relationships. Archer's thinking is narrated throughout the story so we can get to know a lot about him. The two main female characters - May Welland and Countess Olenska - are vital to the purpose of the book in examining the way in which the individuals live out and maintain their family and societal obligations.

The structure of the work - with smallish chapters - seems to suit the scenic , almost theatrical style of book . In fact one of the continuous activities in the book is theatre going. Along with the strong emphasis on the importance of belonging to the right tribe and doing the right thing by the family - the deep sense of business probity was a little surprise to me. However a career in politics as such was not worthy of the gentlemen of this group ( and it is interesting to note that the period is just after the Civil War which is mentioned only briefly in the book). A new generation has taken its place at the end of the story and all manner of changes are afoot.

The authors control of the narrative is tight and the style is fluid and for me, very enjoyable and easy to read. I think it is a powerful social and psychological look at a very particular group in society in a very particular City at an interesting time in its history. What do you think of this American classic?