Edith Wharton: The Age of Innocence
Age of Innocence is perhaps Wharton’s best-known book, helped, at least in recent years, by the success of the the film. It is set among the”smart set” of the New York of the 1870s, in other words the people that Wharton knew best and associated with. The title, of course, suggests that she saw it as an innocent age but, the theme is very much concerned with the changing mores. Convention is very important in this world (This [the opera singer singing in Italian] seemed as natural to Newland Archer as all the other conventions on which his life was moulded). But though he accepts the conventions, Archer is not fully a part of this group ( In matters intellectual and artistic Newland Archer felt himself distinctly the superior of these chosen specimens of old New York gentility.) He does not go to church and associates with the bohemian artists. He is even (mildly) feminist (Women should be free–as free as we are) and, much to the disgust of his mother, approves of divorce when a marriage goes wrong.
Archer gets engaged to the very nice May Welland (We’ll read Faust together . . . by the Italian lakes). But, before he does, there is trouble in paradise. He starts to have misgivings early on and soon the misgivings take tangible form in the person of May’s cousin poor Ellen Olenska. At first, Archer is unenthusiastic (He hated to think of May Welland’s being exposed to the influence of a young woman so careless of the dictates of Taste.) Ellen is the complete antithesis of May, both physically and in her behaviour. Archer soon finds himself torn between the nice but dull May and the exciting Ellen. He tries to behave properly and eventually pushes Ellen out of his life and marries May. However, when he bumps into Ellen, the old flame is rekindled and they soon start a passionate affair, which is wonderfully described by Wharton. Only a suitable plot contrivance can prevent disaster and May’s pregnancy is just such a contrivance. The affair is ended and Archer becomes a dutiful husband and father.
Wharton’s portrait (it has been called anthropological) of old New York is masterly. Mr. Sillerton Jackson, the expert on families and traditions and characters such as Mrs. Manson Mingott, who had long since succeeded in untying her husband’s fortune, and had lived in affluence for half a century stand in distinction to Archer who does not conform to Old New York’s conventions. But it is the story of Newland Archer and his struggle with convention, that makes this novel one of the best.
First published 1920 by Appleton and Company