The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton
9/10, a funny, insightful, and engaging look into class and society in late-1800s New York
The first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction was Edith Wharton in 1921, for this novel. “The Age of Innocence” is the story of Archer Newland, a young man in New York society in the late 1800s, engaged to be married to May Welland (note the names: New-land, Well-land). She is everything he could want in a society wife: she always knows just the right thing to say and do. And yet, sometimes he feels dissatisfied, because he knows she is only saying what Society has scripted for her. He feels he will never get to know the “real” woman.
Enter Countess Olenska, Ellen, a scion of the family who has fled an abusive marriage. She knows little of New York Society, but after a couple faux pas (attending the party of a common artist! where there is dancing!), she is accepted into their ranks. Archer falls in love with her free spirit and sees in her the same desire he himself has, to show the Society folks how much of a sham their posturing and elegant disguises are, to show that they are insulating themselves from life.
And yet, and yet…every time he steps boldly toward Ellen, she retreats; when she makes a move in his direction, he seeks the shelter of the familiar. But they grow closer and closer to running away together even as his wedding to May grows nearer and nearer.
Wharton’s grasp of character and story is marvelous. Archer is a tortured and complicated person, no less so than Ellen, but the side characters are simply wonderful: the old dowager who defied expectations to become highly respected and influential, who now is too large to get upstairs in her own house and now has the unconventional arrangement of having her bedroom on the ground floor; the van Luydens, one of the most influential families in Society by birth who nonetheless seem to prefer solitude to the company of people; the lynchpin of society, the aging dandy who knows all the gossip because everyone invites him everywhere to hear the gossip he knows, and in the process he learns theirs (and he lives with his unmarried sister, whom he sometimes sends to the less important engagements)…it’s a marvelous cast of characters, and it makes for a terrific story.
Through it all, as through this review, runs the thread of Society, the unwritten code by which Archer and his peers say certain things and leave others understood; do certain things and leave others undone. Archer continues to question Society, pointing out to himself the ridiculousness of it even as he digs himself deeper into its grip.
A highly enjoyable and most recommended read. I will certainly be looking up more of Edith Wharton’s work.