Saturday, April 18, 2015

Review: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

The Age of Innocence

I read The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton for the 2015 Back to the Classics Challenge as my 20th Century Classic (it was first published in 1920).  When first considering this category, I immediately thought of Edith Wharton, whose work I had been meaning to read, but I had originally picked The House of Mirth, which sounded darker and thus more interesting, of course. Fate intervened, however, when I was asked to join my friend's book club, which had picked The Age of Innocence as its next book - so Innocence it was!

To be honest, I found the love story to be a little unbelievable, with the characters falling in love after seemingly little conversation or time spent together. However, Wharton's eye for character description and her insight into New York culture of the period  are truly wonderful and the main attraction of the novel. She puts in those little details that make the story feel alive and real and true. For example, speaking of senior partners (Misters Skipworth and Redwood) in the law firm of Letterblair, Lamson, and Low, Wharton writes "[t]he gentlemen he [old Mr. Letterblair] spoke of were the other senior partners of the firm; for, as was always the case with legal associations of old standing in New York, all the partners named on the office letter-head were long since dead; and Mr. Letterblair, for example, was, professionally speaking, his own grandson."  And, describing a journalist, Wharton says,

"Winsett was not a journalist by choice. He was a pure man of letters, untimely born in a world  that had no need of letters; but after publishing one volume of brief and exquisite literary appreciations, of which one hundred and twenty copies were sold, thirty given away, and the balance eventually destroyed by the publishers (as per contract) to make room for more marketable material, he had abandoned his real calling, and taken a sub-editorial job on a women's weekly, where fashion-plates and paper patterns alternated with New England love-stories and advertisements of temperance drinks."

How can you not love a writer who is so funny in describing characters but still shows a tenderness and affection for them? Describing Madame Olenska, the object of Archer Newland's affection, Wharton states, "[t]he quiet, almost passive woman struck [Archer] as exactly the kind of person to whom things were bound to happen, no matter how much she shrank from them and went out of her way to avoid them. The exciting fact was her having lived in an atmosphere so thick with drama that her own tendency to provoke it had apparently passed unperceived." I never got the impression that we were supposed to condemn any character, any more than we were supposed to approve of their behavior.

Wharton is willing too to question the strictures of the culture that she grew up in (the 300 families of the wealthy New York elite) and amidst which she sets her work. Importantly, this setting was written with the benefit of hindsight; Wharton was writing in adulthood about the social world of her girlhood. This distance allows her to view its faults more objectively. Discussing his impending marriage, Archer Newland, the novel's protagonist, notes about his wife-to-be May Welland, "[t]hat terrifying product of the social system he belonged to and believed in, the young girl who knew nothing and expected everything, looked back at him like a stranger through May Welland's familiar features; and once more it was borne in on him that marriage was not the safe anchorage he had been taught to think, but a voyage on uncharted seas." And, he later wonders, disparagingly, "at what age 'nice' women began to speak for themselves."

Later, Wharton renews her criticism of the social structure, stating that New York society is made of "people who dreaded scandal more than disease, who placed decency above courage, and who considered that nothing was more ill-bred than 'scenes,' except the behavior of those who gave rise to them."

I won't delve too deeply (must avoid spoilers) into a discussion of Wharton's female characters, especially May and Ellen, the two female leads, but I will say that they are complex and interesting, even if because they are being filtered through the perspective of Archer, their motivations remain somewhat obscured. The book group had an especially interesting discussion about Wharton's choice to have a male protagonist in a novel so focused on women's roles and lives.

In many ways, Innocence is a very adult novel, not because of particularly adult scenes or language, but because Wharton's characters don't get the benefit of a fairytale ending; they are not particularly brave and daring for their time, nor do they follow their passions without care to how their actions might harm their families and their reputations. They certainly consider it, but ultimately are constrained by societal convention. The ending and epilogue feel satisfying. This realism is a strength of the work and in this way it manages to transcend weaknesses in the plot development. While not romantic like (some) Austen or adventurous like Dickens, Wharton is a writer worth reading.

First review done! Hope it was okay. Please feel free to make suggestions for next time in the comments!

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