Age of Innocence. A tyranny of shoulds and woulds.

There is a thing called people pleasing. If you are not careful, it will turn you inside out. Eat away at your goodwill. Foster an invisible resentment that smoulders away under your amenable surface. If you are even less careful, it may take years to recognise the undercurrent. 

Giving it a name will cost you hours in reflection. You will wonder where your assertion went.

Were you too tired to fight? Were you doing the ‘right’ thing? Was it for a good cause? to keep the peace? Would the peace have been all that disrupted if you’d just said No? Once or twice? And, the killer, would you be happier now if you had?

In the future, just say no.

I have recently been exploring the wealth of good reading on Project Gutenberg. So while we wait for me to finish Farewell to Arms (a hard copy, going well). I thought we might digress into my most recent commuting read, Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1921. I actually didn’t know that before I started reading (oh the perils of reading a book without a cover!). I also didn’t know Edith Wharton was the first female to win the Pulitzer (I give a quiet internal feminist cheer!). I gather Age of Innocence frequents the set text list in North American education. It doesn’t make the cut over here. Excuse me if I’m covering old territory for you. If you’ve been one of the many to study it, I’d be interested to know what the common syllabus point of view is. I’m guessing gender roles and class structures rate a mention. Particularly given their stark contrast with the time in which it was published.

A coming of age story from another era, this book clearly defines setting as the attitude of its people, rather than a mere place. It achieves this quickly and efficiently. I was giggling by page 1 and intrigued shortly afterward. My initial impression was Gossip Girl meets the Importance of Being Ernest. Summarising unknown books by way of two known entities is an old bookstore habit. It is rudimentary, but I hope you see how I came to the description.

“…an unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English- speaking audiences. This seemed as natural to Newland Archer as all the other conventions on which his life was moulded: such as the duty of using two silver- backed brushes with his monogram in blue enamel to part his hair, and of never appearing in society without a flower (preferably a gardenia) in his buttonhole.”

The other striking feature of this book is characterisation. I’d be curious to know whether  graphic, caricature-like, descriptions are a consistent feature in Wharton’s work as she does it exceptionally well here. Let’s have a look at a few of them;

Lawrence Leffert: “…on the whole, the foremost authority on “form” in New York. He had probably devoted more time than any one else to the study of this intricate and fascinating question; but study alone could not account for his complete and easy competence. One had only to look at him, from the slant of his bald forehead and the curve of his beautiful fair moustache to the long patent-leather feet at the other end of his lean and elegant person, to feel that the knowledge of “form” must be congenital in any one who knew how to wear such good clothes so carelessly and carry such height with so much lounging grace.”

Mr Sillerton Jackson: “… old Mr. Jackson was as great an authority on “family” as Lawrence Lefferts was on “form.” He knew all the ramifications of New York’s cousinships [and] could also enumerate the leading characteristics of each family: as, for instance, the fabulous stinginess of the younger lines of Leffertses (the Long Island ones); or the fatal tendency of the Rushworths to make foolish matches; or the insanity recurring in every second generation of the Albany Chiverses, with whom their New York cousins had always refused to intermarry–with the disastrous exception of poor Medora Manson, who, as everybody knew . . . but then her mother was a Rushworth. In addition to this forest of family trees, Mr. Sillerton Jackson carried between his narrow hollow temples, and under his soft thatch of silver hair, a register of most of the scandals and mysteries that had smouldered under the unruffled surface of New York society within the last fifty years… But these mysteries, and many others, were closely locked in Mr. Jackson’s breast; for not only did his keen sense of honour forbid his repeating anything privately imparted, but he was fully aware that his reputation for discretion increased his opportunities of finding out what he wanted to know.”

Mrs Manson-Mingott: “The immense accretion of flesh which had descended on her in middle life like a flood of lava on a doomed city had changed her from a plump active little woman with a neatly-turned foot and ankle into something as vast and august as a natural phenomenon. She had accepted this submergence as philosophically as all her other trials, and now, in extreme old age, was rewarded by presenting to her mirror an almost unwrinkled expanse of firm pink and white flesh, in the centre of which the traces of a small face survived as if awaiting excavation. A flight of smooth double chins led down to the dizzy depths of a still-snowy bosom veiled in snowy muslins that were held in place by a miniature portrait of the late Mr. Mingott; and around and below, wave after wave of black silk surged away over the edges of a capacious armchair, with two tiny white hands poised like gulls on the surface of the billows.”

These are all small fry. The development of the king pin characters is more subtle, but equally striking. You would have to read the whole to fully comprehend. I remember writing character studies in class years ago. Creating a person in a paragraph is no easy feat. It is, however, an enjoyable exercise, particularly when shared among friends. I recommend you try it some time.

Age of Innocence is known for its portrayal of Upper East Side, New York customs and expectations. There are families with secrets, marriages of ambition and self-righteous philandering young men. The women are powerful in their own, underhanded and scheming ways. Balance, in the face of scandal, is restored to society quickly. With their fine manners, sharp tongues and ‘educated’ opinions the women in particular are ruthless in their conservation of tradition. For the men, ‘form’ seems to be a more flexible concept and they cheerfully conceal their indiscretions. And Newland Archer, bless him, craves a life that will save him from such artifice, almost as much as he honours it.

Being from another time and place, I think Wharton’s work has broader implications. Haven’t we all had moments of being Newland Archer? I’m not sure if it’s a common experience of maturity – formulating big dreams, declaring ourselves bound for the extraordinary and settling for the familiar when the day to be controversial dawns. I hope it isn’t. It seems rather a grim prospect. This is not a love story. There are times I wished it was. Like the friends in life we seem to lose to the wrong partner, it is painful to witness. In Newland’s case, disillusion comes at phenomenal cost. Though absolutely determined to be worldly in lifestyle and pursuits, he is painfully vain and naive in both reasoning and decision. He is manipulated frequently, disappointed often and ignorant of it most of the time. I doubt this is intended to be a cautionary tale, but I certainly found it foreboding.

Overall, a splendid little gem of writing. It is full of sharp little caricatures and curt invective. While technically brilliant, the overall effect is not entirely cheering. So, if you’re a happy cynic, read it now. If you’re feeling bitter today, your enjoyment of poor Newland’s struggle with convention will be more like a hollow thud.

  • Read it already? Tell me what you thought.
  • I’m told House of Mirth is actually the better Wharton book. Do you have a recommendation for which Wharton I should read next? 
  • For the literature subjects I took at university, books were grouped according to theme and era. Have you ever studied this book in parallel with another? 
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