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?

6 comments:

John Kennedy said...

Trial. John Kennedy

John Kennedy said...

Trial. John Kennedy

John Kennedy said...

I took quite a while to get into this book, and though it seemed to pick up in the second half, I don't really think I can fully share Faye's enthusiasm, although I am glad I was encouraged to read it.

I think the title is significant. It is about an age, rather than about Newland, May, or Mme. Olenska, who do not really come to life for me (particularly May, though I guess that is quite deliberate - though she can move to look after her interests, she is a rather vapid 'perfect' member of her society). The subject is the milieu and mores of a group of very wealthy aristocrats in what Edith Wharton chooses to call an age of innocence, although historians more often used the more jaundiced title 'The Gilded Age'. Wharton is far from blind to the limitations of the small leisured class she presents, but hers is basically an affectionate picture, and she stressed the probity of the people concerned, although this is mainly manifested rather negatively in their ostracisation of the banker Beaufort, who is in any case a foreigner, rather than from an old New York family. I know one should not demand Tolstoy or Shakespeare from a writer who decides to limit herself to a narrow social group, but I am constantly conscious that she is describing a tiny elite, ignoring the vast majority of people (the comments on the working class and black people are few and dismissive) and even the people who were at their very time creating vast fortunes and making the US the world's leading economy (the Rockefellers, Carnegies, etc.) Jane Austen also had a small canvas, but I think she had a sharper and more critical eye,a nd a greater sense of humour.

Edith Wharton did not herself lead a life of leisured indolence, but I suspect we have here essentially a tribute to the class from which she herself came. It is not really my 'cup of tea' though I am glad I read it.

John Kennedy

Faye said...
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Faye said...

Everything you say John makes sense. I agree the canvas is narrow - the Civil war and all that implies re slavery, devastation for the South and the working class families whose men were lost doesnt make much of a mention. The outsiders are looked down on disgracefully too , I agree - however what I heard coming through was an expose of a group who, whilst being self satisfied , were nervous and self conscious in the face of the Europeans. I think Age of Innocence is ironic as a title . It culd even be a play on Age of Ignorance or Self satisfaction.

I agree however that it is a bit of a tribute - and I note also that the next level of successful new Yorkers coming through - Carnegies etc hadnt made the cut with that group.

On characterisation - I thought the 2 main women , and in some ways especially May , were very interesting. May carried a lot of Whartons burden about what was going to have to change in the society, I reckon. On the other hand she was the mistress of the manipulation required to keep the family on track - in her terms- so she was a force which had to be constantly reckoned with. She was probably the end of the era for the book - her timely death let the author make this point i think.

Did you see the film with Day-Lewis etc ? I am going to go and have another look at it - I remember being impressed at the time with the heaviness and the melodrama of it all. I think the film was made by smeone significant - Altman maybe.

I enjoyed your insights . I will be interested in your views on Peter Temple - a deliberate contrast . I find I need variety in my reading so I hope you do too.

John Kennedy said...

I think there is indeed more in May than first meets the reader's eye - or Newland's eye. His initial attitude is cringingly patronising - May is someone whom he can shape into a more perfect companion for himself. She turns out to be much more aware of what is going on, and much more able to defend her own interests, than at first appears. Your point about her early death is interesting, Faye. I must admit I still find it a bit hard to take much interest in her, however.