Monday, October 17, 2011

#58 - The Age of Innocence

I took rather an uncharitable swipe at Edith Wharton in a footnote to my introductory entry, so I thought it best if I took up Age of Innocence, one of her two books on our list, relatively early. (The other is the House of Mirth, ranking at #69.) To my surprise, I actually found it clever and rather well-written, with a deep sense of irony and clean prose. I admired it, even liked it a little. That in the final analysis I did not truly enjoy or connect with this book says as much about me as it does about Wharton.

First, the necessary biographicals, courtesy of my edition. Edith Wharton (1862-1937) was born a child of privilege in the elite New York society that became the dominant setting of her works. She wrote short stories and worked in interior design, but she is most known for her success as a novelist. At the age of 58, she became the first female recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, awarded to her in 1921 for the present book.

Age of Innocence tells the story of Newland Archer[1], gentleman attorney of New York, and his relationships with two women – first, the pretty, proper, and well-bred May Weland; the other her cousin, the exotic Ellen Olenska, the separated wife of a Polish noble. Newland begins the story positively giddy (in the domineering way that society males always are in this kind of novel) to be recently betrothed to the former, a somewhat sheltered (and good Heavens, properly so!) girl.
”The darling!” thought Newland Archer[2] […] And he contemplated her absorbed young face with a thrill of possessorship in which pride in his own masculine initiation was mingled with a tender reverence for her abysmal purity.
Mrs. Wharton’s got a firm grip on precisely this kind of ironic pose. Although the work is written through Newland’s eyes, the narrator’s voice remains just independent enough to show us sides of our protagonist that he himself can’t see. The effect is not subtle, but it’s not a bludgeon, either.

Newland’s blissful thoughts of being initiated into his longed-for role as Manhattanite head-of-household are thrown into confusion by the arrival on the scene of cousin Ellen Olenska, who is something of a black sheep after having separated from her husband and contemplating (of all things!) divorcing him. Newland is employed as a go-between on the family’s behalf, trying to prevent Madame Olenskafrom doing anything that might bring the family into disrepute.

Of course, in the process, he finds himself growing ever fonder of Madame Olenska. And suddenly we find ourselves in a love triangle as old as time. The twists and turns of the plot are not particularly surprising – the ending is one you can see coming a mile away, and the epilogue is equally as predictable a setup. However, what keeps the text readable (for me, at least) is Mrs. Wharton’s sense of humor about the whole thing. The text swims in little witty bits (“In the rotation of crops there was a recognized season for wild oats; but they were not to be sown more than once”) and dry asides on the nuances of high-society New York in the late-19th century.
To come to the Opera in a Brown coupĂ© was almost as honorable a way of arriving as in one’s own carriage; and departure by the same means had the immense advantage of enabling one (with a playful allusion to democratic principles) to scramble into the first Brown conveyance in the line […] It was one of the great livery-stableman’s most masterly intuitions to have discovered that Americans want to get away from amusement even more quickly than they want to get to it.
The web of New York’s suffocating social conventions is deftly lain out, so that even we the denim-clad Visigoths of Generation Y can feel something of Newland’s sense of entrapment (as if he were “like a prisoner in the centre of an armed camp”, as he puts it) which leads him to his fondness for Madame Olenska and the bucking of convention that she represents.

For let’s be clear on this point (Edith Wharton is) – whatever he may tell her, or himself, or (indirectly) us, Newland Archer is not in love with Madame Olenska, not in any sense of the word that we would recognize - no more than he loved May Weland. In fact, there are hints that it may not even be so much a desire to escape a stifling milieu that drives Newland, so much as the simple desire for another fantasy to play out in his mind. From the very beginning, Wharton tells us of our protagonist:
He was at heart a dilettante, and thinking over a pleasure to come often gave him a subtler satisfaction than its realization.
It is the dream of the woman, and the dream of the life she represents, that at all times holds Newland’s fancy. The archetype of the Man In Love with Love is an old one, but Wharton deploys it effectively, and half-way subtly, in her protagonist.

Mrs. Wharton displays throughout the book mastery of the society of her birth and a nuanced ear for its particular kind of dialogue. Her sense of irony and her sense of humor are fine-tuned, and enliven the tale a little. To my biased eye, the whole matter seems a little slight for a 300-page novel, and might have been a little livelier in the form of a novella half as thick - but as I said at the outset, this reflects more upon me and my taste than it does upon Age of Innocence. I shall have to find a new target for the ire of my footnotes, because to my chagrin, I am forced to admit that Edith Wharton is Worth Reading.

[1] Could there BE a more 19th century American “society-name”?

[2] I kept noticing this tic of Mrs. Wharton’s throughout my reading – she uses “May” or “Newland” or “Ellen” far less frequently than a “modern” would – it’s nearly always “May Weland” or “Newland Archer” or “Madame Olenska”. Is it a deliberate choice or an artifact of her upbringing? Is it authentic to the social scene she is trying to represent? (In the last of these three examples it does serve the secondary effect of drum-beat reminder that this is a married woman.)

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