The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Isn’t this portrait stunning? It was found recently in a Parisian apartment that had been locked up since the war, as its owner, a former demimondaine, as the French so nicely put it, never bothered to return once peace was declared. She died at the ripe old age of 91 a couple of months ago, and the executors of her estate discovered the existence of this palatial apartment that looked like Sleeping Beauty’s castle, left exactly as it was on the day it was abandoned. In a dusty corner was found the above portrait of her grandmother, a famous courtesan by the name of Marthe de Florian, painted by the legendary Boldini, who also painted one of my favourite portraits of all time. The painting, whose existence was unknown until the discovery, sold for a record 2.1million euros and how I wish it were in my possession; the life and vivacity of Marthe oozes from the canvas . Why I am prefacing a review of The Age of Innocence with this story, however, I hear you cry? Well, because when I read about the abandoned, cobweb filled room, frozen in time, it made me think of the absurdly rigid, old fashioned world of 1870s New York Edith Wharton describes, where modern ideas are resisted and tradition overcomes compassion. The inhabitants of this world may just as well be covered in cobwebs, as their lives are so sedate and uneventful that, despite their opulent surroundings, they appear colourless and motionless. It is a tragic tale that Edith Wharton weaves, but a gripping one at that, and I was absolutely memerised by it. This has become one of my favourite books of all time, and now I know I’ll never be able to get enough of Edith Wharton. She is sublime!

Newland Archer is a perfect product of Old New York; a member of one of the most prominent, historic families, he lives in the obligatory sumptuous brownstone on Fifth Avenue with his mild mannered mother and spinster sister, and languidly pursues the law as most gentlemen of his age and inherited wealth do. Newland is engaged to the young, beautiful, and equally impeccably bred May Welland, who is sweet and naive and always says and does the ‘right’ thing, as her similarly bland mother has taught her. Newland believes in the traditions and rites of the small and largely inbred society he lives within, and passionately defends any attempt to damage the thin web of social niceties and unspoken standards that holds his world together. No matter what, the rules of decency and honour have to be adhered to, regardless of what the individual may want. There is no place in Old New York for independent thinking, candid opinions, or passion. However, most of Old New York’s inhabitants have not the imagination or intelligence to know their lives lack these elements, and Newland Archer is one of them, until Countess Olenska arrives and turns his whole world on its head.

The Countess Olenska, May’s cousin, is a beautiful, vivacious, intelligent woman whose long period of living in more liberal European environs has made her innocent of the nonsensical, unspoken rules of the society she has reentered, and incapable of maintaining the shallow facade of her female relatives. She returns to New York after a 12 year absence, having left her brutish husband behind and bringing with her an air of scandal and intrigue that makes her an initial outcast, despite her being the granddaughter of the Dowager Empress of New York society, the grossly overweight and housebound Catherine Mingott. She speaks her mind, throws caution to the wind, does what she likes and refuses to bow down to the pressure of her social circle. Newland finds himself irresistably drawn to this woman, whose candidness opens his eyes to the hypocrisies and absurd conventions of the world he lives in.

Next to Ellen, May looks like a marble statue, deaf, dumb and blind to the world and all of its possibilites, and Ellen represents a life of colour,  spontaneity and vibrancy that Newland has never experienced but desperately wants. The pair strike up a friendship that is made stronger through Newland’s legal firm’s involvement in her divorce proceedings. However, Newland is forced, by his own realisation of how Ellen will be treated if she dares to divorce her husband, to advise Ellen against it, and she, trusting him implicitly, agrees. For Newland, this is the equivalent of signing his own death warrant; bound to marry May now there is no chance of Ellen ever being free, he sees, with despair, the long years of marriage to a woman with no mind of her own and no spirit stretching before him, dooming him to a life of quiet misery. Ellen leaves town and Newland marries May, but a year after their wedding, Ellen comes back, and this time, Newland is determined he won’t let Ellen go. However, running away from the only world he has ever known will not prove to be as easy as Newland hopes, and nor is May as blind as he thinks…

This plot summary cannot hope to conjure up the sheer depth of emotion, of pain, and of sheer frustration Wharton manages to communicate in this magnificent novel of thwarted dreams, despairing disillusionment and unbearable regrets. Newland and Ellen share a love that enables each of them to be the best people they can be, fulfilled intellectually, emotionally and socially, and that they cannot be together is just as unbearable for the reader as it is for the characters. May is neither clever nor truthful; only rarely does she show a spirit that reveals a depth of feeling, and that spirit soon dies in the face of convention and social expectations. Their life together is one of unspoken frustration and dull routine, and the initial ardour Newland felt for May had faded long before their perfect wedding day. Both Newland and Ellen are crushed by the power of the society neither of them have the courage to truly turn their backs upon, and their passion and misery is truly heartbreaking to read about. Products of a world where dignity and honour are everything, and the consequences of a transgression can destroy an entire family’s reputation for generations to come, every action has to be governed by a strict moral code that allows for no deviation from the social norm. Those with the misfortune to possess independent minds and roving hearts are either ostracised or forced to live in a prison of their own making, and it is this prison that Newland occupies after his marriage to May, forever locked out from the life of richness and adventure he once imagined he might have.

The most devastating aspect of the entire novel, however, comes at the end, when Newland is speaking to his now grown son, who is marrying the daughter of a formerly disgraced banker who, in Newland’s day, it would have been unthinkable for an Archer to be associated with. In just a generation, the strict standards that prevented Newland and Ellen’s happiness have been torn down, and everything Newland sacrificed himself for has become irrelevant and pointless, laughed at by the liberated children of those whose youths were bound by the convention of Old New York.

This novel is exquisite, and moved me immensely, as I thought about all the people in the generations before mine whose lives have been dictated by a society that didn’t allow them the freedom they longed for. The Age of Innocence is so dense and rich and multilayered and fascinating; I genuinely couldn’t put it down, and felt bereft when I had finished. Edith Wharton was a master; a genius, even – of characterisation, and every page sizzles with the intensity of the doomed love affair between Newton and Ellen. If you haven’t read this yet, make it the very next book you read; I promise you won’t regret it. Last night I watched the Scorsese movie and was once again blown away by the magnificence of the story Wharton created; do watch the film, it’s an excellent adaptation, and very faithful to the novel. I’ll leave you with one of my favourite quotes, which sent a shiver down my spine:

“It would presently be his task to take the bandage from this young woman’s eyes, and bid her look forth on the world. But how many generations of the women who had gone to her making had descended bandaged to the family vault? He shivered a little, remembering some of the new ideas in his scientific books, and the much-cited instance of the Kentucky cave-fish, which had ceased to develop eyes because they had no use for them. What if, when he had bidden May Welland to open hers, they could only look out blankly at blankness?”

*Updated to add: KarenLibrarian is the winner of The Girls from Winnetka! Please email me to arrange to have it sent out!*

56 comments

  1. I agree – I can never get enough of Edith Wharton. In fact her most famous novel in the UK of late is my least favourite – The Buccaneers. The Age of Innocence is heart-rending and minutely observed. Wharton was an exceptional novelist. The House of Mirth is the novel I return to most, when I can bear it.

    1. Hi Sally! I’m flad you’re also a Wharton fan. That’s interesting about The Buccaneers – has there been something on TV lately? I have only been gone from London for two months!

      I have read The House of Mirth and it was such a painful read that I couldn’t bear to read Wharton again for a good while afterwards – excellent novel though. The Buccaneers I am put off by because it is ‘unfinished’, though I am sure I’ll get around to it once I have exhausted her other novels!

    2. I must say that I love – The Age of Innocence. I am especially amazed at Martin Scorcece’s adaption – to film. The production values are exquisite… dinner at the Var der Guyden’s is perfect, unforgettable really. So many visually stunning moments… all the scenes in Countess Olenska’s house: dark reds, and gold, and shadows… her amazing art collection. The view of New York City, with the sidewalk of men in bowler hats, is one of the most haunting images in the film – Marble Halls. The casting was perfect, Granny Mingott, Archer Newland, and Ellen Olenska. With Michelle Pfeiffer playing the role, she must have been told to be herself. The scene when Ellen enters the Van der Guydens… late, as bold as day, up the dead center of the stairs, adjusting her bracelet, and wearing a grand smile ” “signaling a carelessness of which she was entirely unaware” Ellen was light years beyond beyond the gilded cage within which everyone else was trapped. Moving back to Europe was the best thing for her. She was free and Archer deserved to suffer. Didn’t he know that men, in whatever age, could do anything they want?

      1. And, Granny Mingott is footing the bill to live in that awesome neighborhood in Paris, and no doubt Granny also allows Ellen to have all of her dresses sewn by hand – couture. I wanted to say that I found your blog when I was searching to discover if Boldini ever painted a portrait of Edith Wharton… your blog is a serendipitous surprise. Sorry for the cheesy writing but I mean every word of it.

  2. This book (which I am longing to re-read!) becomes even more meaningul when you read about EW herself, who was on the cusp of old and new, and found herself so out-of-place in both. I’m re-reading RWB Lewis’ biography of her, and it’s so moving… your heart breaks for her.

    1. Oh I am desperate to read a biography of Wharton, Audrey! Your recommendation is very welcome as I have heard mixed reviews of the Hermione Lee one, which is the only one I knew anything about. I think I’m going to read a couple more of her famous novels before dipping into a biography though, as sometimes biographies spoil book plots!

  3. Your description reminded me how much I love this author, though of all her books, I think House of Mirth is the one that has stuck with me the most.

  4. I see that others have beaten me to it but, Rachel, you’d love The House of Mirth if you haven’t already read it.
    Is The Buccaneers really the best-known of her novels? I’d have thought The Age of Innocence if only because of the movie.

    1. I have read it Mary and I did love it – though it was a long time ago and I need to re-read it.

      I don’t know about that either – as it’s unfinished I didn’t think it was that popular. I think The Age of Innocence is probably most people’s default Wharton, though I could be wrong!

  5. Both Edith Wharton and Henry James wrote about the lives of women who were raised to be only one thing–society wives–and what happens when the number of men who can provide that “career” is far exceeded by the number of women looking for them. THE AGE OF INNOCENCE is almost the masculine version of that same conundrum: Newland is raised to be the type of man who could only marry a woman like May–and, despite all his anguish, he does so.

    I know you’ll be reading THE HOUSE OF MIRTH in the future, but the lesser-known Wharton novels are equally good. One of the best is THE CUSTOM OF THE COUNTRY, about a much-married (and divorced) woman and the effect her selfishness has on her husbands and her child. I also enjoyed THE BUCCANEERS about rich American women seeking husbands amongst the British aristocracy (but don’t bother with the TV adaptation–totally wrong).

    1. Hi Deb – that’s an excellent summary and I hadn’t thought of it that way before – it’s very true. I think even if Newland had married Ellen, he would have found his ostracisation from New York society equally unbearable as he did his separation from Ellen. He didn’t know how to live another kind of life, and, as the end exemplifies, he is happier with the dream of what that life would have been like than with truly pursuing the reality.

      I have read The House of Mirth and now want to re read it. I have The Custom of the Country out of the library and all ready to read – The Buccaneers I will also try once I’m through with my current library pile!

  6. I really must re-read this, it was my first Wharton read long before I was ready to appreciate her. I agree with the recommendation of The Custom of the Country … It’s marvelous!

  7. The newly discovered painting and the masterful novel, told here with the weaving of words as only you can do, Rachel. So well done. Do you know her house is open in the Hudson River Valley? I would love to see it someday, with all her books, which nearly bankrupted the effort to rehab the mansion. I am sorry to say I have not read The Age of Innocence. I will have to rectify this someday. Thank you for another meaningful review.

    1. Thank you, Penny! I’m glad you enjoyed it. I know you would love this book and I urge you to read it very soon! I did know about the house and am planning to visit next year when it is warmer and I have read most of her novels – I am already excited at the prospect! It looks wonderful.

  8. I think this is my favourite Wharton novel. I love impossible romances & Newland & Ellen’s is heartrending. I also love some of EW’s lesser-known books. The Reef & The Mother’s Recompense are also wonderful books about relationships & missed opportunities. Her ghost stories are also great for Halloween reading.

    1. Isn’t it? I haven’t been so affected by a novel in a long time. I was hooked, trying to work out whether they would get together or not, and hoping against hope! I listened to a couple of chapters of The Reef being read on Radio 4 a while back and it sounded brilliant so I will definitely check that out, as well as The Mother’s Recompense. Thank you for those recommendations! I have her ghost stories at home as well – I might read a couple tonight!

  9. May was clever enough to make sure she had caught Newland, but you’re right otherwise. I loved this book as well and it is a favorite of mine as well. It’s so heartbreakingly sad, but also at the same time one of the most perfect novels I think I’ve ever come across.

    1. Oh yes she was! I didn’t want to say that in the post as I didn’t want to ruin that part of the plot…her secretly conniving nature shows a depth to her character that could have been plumbed if she had so chosen to break away from conventionality, but sadly, she never had the desire to do so. Isn’t it almost perfect? Wharton is spectacular and I am so excited that she wrote so many novels – there is so much reading pleasure ahead for me!

  10. I just bought The Children by Edith Wharton in a nice Virago edition today! I read The Age of Innocence a few years ago and liked it, but can’t bring myself to read The House of Mirth yet. I’d like to enjoy Wharton more, as she’s certainly more readable than Henry James, but she’s so sad too.

    1. The new one? I think I’ve seen that and the cover is lovely. The House of Mirth is desperately sad, yes, and so is this, but I found it more manageably sad than The House of Mirth. I don’t get on with Henry James at all so Edith Wharton is my go-to for 19th century American fiction. Henry James is, I am sorry to say, insufferably dull in my opinion. Wharton’s novels have a passion his totally lack.

      1. I can’t get through any of Henry James’longer books, but I really liked Portrait of a Lady a few years ago and Daisy Miller is quite short and easy to read too. I periodically keep trying to finish Wings of the Dove for some reason but haven’t managed to yet… perhaps you’re right about him, but I’m drawn to his plots even though the language is rather dull!

        I don’t think I have the new copy of The Children, I found it in a used bookstore, but it was in very good shape.

  11. I looooove Wharton. Her books are so beautiful and tragic — my favorites are House of Mirth and Ethan Frome. I also highly recommend her short stories — my favorite is Roman Fever, though Xingu is also wonderful. And I love the portrait, I hadn’t heard about it, so thanks for sharing that.

    And OMG about the book giveaway!! Thank you so much!!

    I am completely lame and can’t figure out how to email directly. If you could email me at Ksagun13@yahoo.com I’ll email you back. Thanks again!

    1. I am so pleased to find so many Wharton fans! I should have known all my dear blog readers would be of a kindred spirit! I have just got Ethan Frome out of the library along with The Custom of the Country so I am very much looking forward to reading those. Short stories will be up next!

      I am so happy you’re so happy about the book! You’re a perfect recipient! It should be with you very soon!

    1. I know! There is such a fluidity and sense of flurry and motion about his portraits as well, as if the sitter is in a hurry to get up and do something else. I love the life and vivacity that brings to what is normally quite a formal method of capturing people’s likenesses – he captures their spirit, too.

    1. I am glad to hear it, Lola – do re read it! It’s a very good winter evening sort of book. If I had a fire and a nice armchair, I would have been reading it by one and sitting in one!

  12. What an intriguing post. I will indeed try to find and read this book in the near future. I understand how you can almost grieve when you are nearing the end of a book you love so much. I tend to linger when I am at the end of a beloved book. It feels like leaving a whole community of people. Sometimes I am loathe to give them up.
    I love the portrait found in an unopened apartment. It is so much like a Secret Garden for adults. Surely a book will come out of this.

    1. I am glad you are going to seek this out and I am sure you will not be disappointed, Janet! I do the same – lingering – when a favourite book is about to finish. There is a real sense of grief at leaving a wonderful world behind, isn’t there? I love books that are so well crafted that they suck me in with such talent.

      A Secret Garden indeed! That would make a wonderful story – there has to be a very interesting and novel worthy tale as to why the woman never returned to her apartment…

  13. I’m a great admirer of Henry James. I know he advised Edith Wharton about her writing and it shows in her intricate plots and intensely moving characters.

    Reading your summary, who could not be desperate to read (or re-read) this beautiful book? I love the way you get so involved with your reading, Rachel.

    The BBC made a radio serial of The Age of Innocence. It was very well done and faithful to the story, although only reading a book can really do it justice, don’t you think?

    No one else has commented on the ‘missing’ picture in your entry so perhaps I’m the only one who can’t see the newly discovered Boldini portrait. I’ve just got a pink line at the top of the page!

    1. Oh Chrissy! One point on where we disagree would have to be Henry James. I have tried for so long to like him but we just don’t gel. I am going to try him again this year though so maybe I will come into my Henry James period and suddenly find him fascinating and unputdownable. We shall see!

      I’d really like to hear this read, actually. It’s such a character driven book that is all about tones and nuances and I know I got a lot from watching the film, so an audio version would add another layer of richness. I’ll have to see if I can find it online without getting the ‘this is banned in the US’ message. Very annoying!

      I’m so sorry you couldn’t see the photo – I have emailed it to you. I can see it so I don’t know what the issue might be – I am no techno whiz I am afraid!

  14. Lovely post – it’s made me go and pick up my copy of House of Mirth to see which passages there spoke to me. Thank you for urging us to read Age of Innocence. I think that will definately be a book for 2011.

  15. The painting wasn’t coming up on my computer, I had to go searching but it was so worth the effort. It is breathtaking! Rooms frozen in time are magical.

    I’ve only ever seen the movie but as is usually the case, the book sounds richer and very evocative. And so does your review, Rachel. Thankfully this is another one I saved from the discard bin, I’m practically a literary skip diver!

    1. Oh no! I’m glad you still found it, but I am perplexed as I can see the picture fine. Maybe it was a temporary glitch. Isn’t it stunning? I love Boldini!

      Hahaha I’m glad you saved a copy from extinction! You would LOVE the book Darlene – perfect for a cold winter’s night on the sofa!

  16. Re the picture: Yesterday and this morning, the picture was visible (and was so lovely I had to do an internet search for Boldini, an artist with whom I was unfamiliar), but this evening all that’s there is a pink box. How odd!

    1. Glad to hear it Natalie! Wharton is an author I haven’t read much of before and I am so excited to explore her body of work – thank goodness the library has an excellent selection!

  17. “world…where modern ideas are resisted and tradition overcomes compassion.”

    What a well-put way of describing so many tragedies in human history! Even now it exists.

  18. Wow that is some decolletage! Wharton is a great writer – House of Mirth is my absolute favourite but I’m fond of AoI, too. I think you’ll love The Custom of the Country. Watch out for terrible Undine Spragg!

    1. I know! A very sexy dress by modern standards, let alone Victorian! I’m so excited to read Custom of the Country – I remember reading your review a while back and I am anticipating great things!

    1. I’m glad, Daniel! Yes, Edith does seem to be having a mini renaissance, and this is very well deserved. She should be far more popular and well read than she is.

      I am desperate to go to The Mount and think I might go in the Spring when it’s warmer and I’ve had more time to read more widely of her books and stories and also read her biography.

      Loved the photos of your trip!

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