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!*