Friday 27 September 2019

Book Review: The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton


I could tell you what happens in Edith Wharton’s 1920 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (the first one written by a woman to win, incidentally) in a single, long sentence—New York’s High Society steps out to the Opera, a wealthy young lawyer announces his engagement at a ball, invitations to a dinner are declined, invitations to another are accepted, the lawyer advises his client regarding some family matters, High Society vacations in Florida, a wedding takes place, High Society vacations in Rhode Island, a young woman stands at the end of a pier, an old woman falls sick, a young woman throws a farewell party for her cousin, a wife becomes pregnant, and an old man walks away from a closed window. 

That would tell you the events depicted in the 300-odd pages in the book, and may even pass for an adequate review if I added in a few lines about how I inherited the book from my uncle’s library well over a decade ago, how it came back to my consciousness while watching an episode of Gossip Girl on Netflix, and end by asking whether you, dear reader, have read it as well.

Except that, if I did leave it there, I would fail to point out that within the exquisite elegance of these rather mundane actions lies a story of devastating brutality.

The Age of Innocence, published in 1920, does not contain a hint of physical violence. Not so much as a slap. It is set among the elite of 1870’s New York, among a people ensconced in privilege, lineage and wealth, committed to appearance and manners, ruled by overt politeness and genteel behaviour. Through their polished words and grand homes, their eminently predictable habits and cold respectability, Edith Wharton shows how pain can be inflicted and hopes crushed just as effectively as through the most stark, gory prose that another author might write.

We see the world through the eyes of Newland Archer, a young blue-blooded New Yorker who has just gotten engaged to the lovely ingenue May Welland, a member of the numerous and prestigious Mingott family. The arrival from Europe of May’s cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska, fleeing her abusive husband, upends the quiet order of High Society, for rather than hiding her under a proverbial rock, as such fallen women should be, the Mingotts, led by their formidable matriarch, Catherine Mingott, choose instead to parade Ellen at the favourite haunts of the city elite. Archer, who fancies himself a progressive man, questions why Ellen must be ostracised for leaving a husband who was clearly a brute, and announces his engagement to May publicly at a ball hosted by Julius and Regina Beaufort, making sure his family is seen as firmly on the side of the Mingotts. Despite this, when the Mingotts decide to host a formal dinner to re-introduce her grand-daughter to New York, the invitation is declined by every family it is sent to. In response, Archer enlists the ‘big guns’—his aristocratic elderly cousins, the Van Der Luydens—who agree that such an insult should not be tolerated, and host a dinner where Ellen is personally invited. As a Van Der Luyden invitation cannot possibly be declined, the rehabilitation of May’s cousin into New York Society seems to be complete.

However, Ellen Olenska proves to be rather square peg, unwilling to fit neatly into the Upper East Side of Manhattan and its round holes. Vivacious and charming, far too interested in proletarian pursuits, far too disinterested in the shallowness of New York’s prestige-obsessed, anti-intellectual society, shaped by the intellectualism of European courts and boudoirs, she chafes in the shallow, stifling confines of what New York deems ‘proper’ even as she takes solace in its comforting politeness and predictability after the nightmare that was her marriage. As a woman living separated from her husband, she also occupies a precarious position—she cannot marry, but she is too interesting and beautiful to be left alone; and she becomes a target for the attentions of several men, among them the rich but somewhat disreputable Julius Beaufort. 

Archer finds himself drawn to Ellen; her apparent freedom from the conventions and hypocrisies that he is so familiar with, and so tired of; her appreciation for a world beyond the vapid and superficial one he lives in; as well as the mystery surrounding her past makes him question his feelings for May, who represents precisely the vacuous, hypocritical, convention-bound New York Society that he has begun to hate being a part of.

As the novel progresses, we see Archer, Ellen and May each play out their parts, riding conflicts within themselves, their allegiance to society, to conscience and to their own feelings. Jealousy and passion, honour and deceit, play a role, but it is all buried under the veneer of gentle conversation and propriety, whitened out under a blaze of opulence, concealed beneath the ordinariness of the daily routine of the life of the wealthy.

With a soft touch and deft hands, Edith Wharton sinks the knife into the reader’s hearts, spinning and twisting it as she spins and twists this poignant story of love and duty. The emotionally-draining climax, the moving epilogue, all speak to the human condition in ways that resonate across the ages from the time it is set in, to when it was written, to the present day, a century later.

The Age of Innocence is a novel that operates at many levels, and not just because its characters almost never actually say what they mean. A love story it is, and a family drama as well, but it manages to go well beyond that. It shines a harsh light on the injustice perpetrated on men and even more, upon women, in the name of being ‘proper’ in upper-class society, upon the hypocrisy and vacillation of even ‘good’ men like Newland Archer, the indecision and cowardice of women like Ellen Olenska, the vapid cunning of women like May Welland, and the role of High Society women in institutionalising patriarchy upon themselves. 

But it also, somehow, simultaneously, induces a latent sympathy for that same crusty upper-class society, struggling to hold on to the world they had established over so many years even as it crumbled around them in the construction of high-rises and raced past them in trains and shouted over them in the raucous dance of democracy. It makes us sympathise for poor Newland, struggling between the frightening solace of comfort without love and the frightening perils of love with disgrace; for Ellen who keeps reaching for a happiness that she always knew was not hers to achieve, or lacks the capacity to reach for the happiness she wants; and for May, innocence raised to a shallow saintliness and dragged into deviousness.

Edith Wharton’s writing blends Victorian convention with a more modern, conversational style that makes it easy enough to read. That does not mean it is easy to grasp, however. A certain degree of familiarity with the times and conventions of the time it is set in would help, but the most important factor a reader needs to bring to it is a desire and ability to delve into the world created by the author, else one is in danger of coming away having read nothing more than a story about an Opera, a Ball, a Wedding, a couple of vacations and a couple of parties. 

In his 1993 film of the same title, Martin Scorsese adapts the novel more or less faithfully, and perhaps the definite proof that he knew exactly what he was doing lies in his assertion that it was the most violent film he ever made. What I found fascinating was that he made it at all, though—Scorsese’s versatility is indisputable, but adapting a costume-period drama in 1993 would seem like an odd choice for someone whose previous films were Goodfellas and Cape Fear, and whose next was Casino—except that it is not. In it’s true essence, The Age of Innocence is a story with striking relevance, for you see, there is a reason some stories stand the test of time, and it goes beyond narrative excellence or memorable characters; it has to do with the universality of themes. That’s why we continue to make and re-make films based on the classics, that’s why we continue to read and love them, generation to generation—because they do still speak to us. 

Have you felt suffocated by the pressures of conventional morality? Have you struggled to keep a smiling face while your heart broke inside? Have you found yourself devastated by the luxury of comfort, frightened by the unending changelessness of your predictable life? Have you walked away from something, convinced yourself that it was not what you wanted, though it was everything you ever did? If you have, you have lived through The Age of Innocence.

Maybe you still are. 

Maybe you will again, one day.

And maybe you will, one day, shudder at the ruthlessness of Catherine Mingott when she tells her niece, 

It was Beaufort when he covered you with jewels, and it's got to stay Beaufort now that he's covered you with shame.”

at the magisterial death sentence Sillerton Jackson pronounces when he says,

I didn’t think the Mingotts would have tried it on.”

at the jealousy and hatred contained in Newland Archer’s,

Hallo, Beaufort, this way! Madame Olenska was expecting you,”

at the unfathomable sense of helplessness expressed when he says, with a smile,

Tell her I am old-fashioned: that’s enough.”

Purchase here