On Friday I’ll be cohosting a Classics Chat on Twitter about Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a Polish countess whose arrival threatens to disrupt the lives of the social elite in post-Civil War New York. Please join Kevin Smokler (@weegee) and me (@janiceharayda) at 4 p.m. ET, 9 p.m. GMT, on March 22 at #classicschat to discuss this great book. Kevin wrote Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School, which includes an essay on the book. He and I will be talking about The Age of Innocence with Francesca Segal (@francescasegal) who won the 2012 Costa First Novel Award and the National Jewish Book Award for fiction for The Innocents, inspired by Wharton’s book.
March 16, 2013
April 28, 2011
Americans may have no monarchy, but they know how to treat people royally. In The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton describes how New Yorkers reacted to the arrival of Ellen Olenska, who had returned to the city after years in Europe:
“The Lovell Mingotts had sent out cards for what was known as ‘a formal dinner’ (that is, three extra footmen, two dishes for each course, and a Roman punch in the middle), and had headed their invitations with the words ‘To Meet the Countess Olenska,’ in accordance with the hospitable American fashion, which treats strangers as if they were royalties, or at least their ambassadors.”
April 23, 2011
“There was no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free”
The Age of Innocence. By Edith Wharton. Many editions.
By Janice Harayda
American novelists often condemn or ridicule men who dabble in love. Edith Wharton portrays such a dilettante with depth, complexity, and a sympathetic wit in The Age of Innocence, a book that her biographer R.W.B. Lewis rightly calls “one of the few really first-class works of fiction to win the Pulitzer Prize.”
Newland Archer tends to find more satisfaction in thinking about his pleasures – love among them – than in their fulfillment. This trait threatens his well-ordered life when the alluring Countess Ellen Olenska returns to New York on the eve of his engagement to the placid May Welland. But Wharton doesn’t seek to condemn her protagonist for his inability to resist either the newcomer’s allure or the dependable comforts offered by his fiancée. She aims to show how others conspire to keep Newland in line with their reverence for the “invisible deity” who blesses their opera boxes, ballrooms, and dinner tables adorned with women in towering ostrich feathers and men in patent-leather pumps.
Wharton’s post–Civil War New Yorkers call their god “Good Form,” the outward expression of their taste. Others might identify their deity as an overdeveloped sense of tribal propriety. The great theme of The Age of Innocence is the power of social custom to thwart the individual desires of both sexes. Ellen arrives New York seeking the freedom missing in her marriage to a callow Polish nobleman, but her free-spiritedness and impenetrable past quickly begin to shut doors to her. Newland has too much loyalty to his tribe to take the decisive action required by their attraction, and his ambivalence requires her to make her own decision about whether to stay or return to Europe.
The elegance of The Age of Innocence lies partly in Wharton’s refusal to cast Newland as a coward or a fool. He is rather a product of a society that has its own appeal for him. And he is too intelligent not to see the injustices and contradictions that its mores involve. At first Newland has hazy fantasies of awakening in May the intellectual curiosity she lacks, perhaps by reading the Faust story to her beside Italian lakes. He eventually concedes defeat with a droll awareness of his limits and hers. There was no point, he realizes, in trying to emancipate a woman “who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free.”
The Age of Innocence brims with such wry observations that help to justify its frequent billing as “a comedy of manners and morals.” Like the greatest comic novelists, Wharton knows that the finest wit comes not from topical one-liners but from ludicrous, incongruous, or absurd situations that reflect enduring human needs or wishes. Unlike Henry James, to whom she is so often compared, she is never windy or opaque but writes as clearly and economically as she constructs her plots. No one would say of Wharton that she was “incapable of offering a thought without pinning a flower in its button-hole,” as the biographer Leon Edel said of James’s letter-writing. And her instinct for clarity helps to explain the effectiveness of her wit. As in Jane Austen’s novels, you always know who is being tweaked.
In a defining scene of The Age of Innocence, Newland and May visit an exhibit of Early Bronze Age and other antiquities at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There they see glass shelves crowded with items labeled “Use Unknown,” a symbol the pointless customs of their circle. The ritualized expectations of upper-middle-class New Yorkers don’t lead to tragedy as in Wharton’s The House of Mirth, in which Lily Bart is unable to save herself from the consequences of her failure to marry. The customs instead inspire a banquet of observations that include Newland’s on his fiancée: “What could he and she really know of each other, since it was his duty, as a ‘decent’ fellow, to conceal his past from her, and hers, as a marriageable girl, to have no past to conceal?”
Best line: “There was no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free; and he had long since discovered that May’s only use of the liberty she supposed herself to possess would be to lay it on the altar of wifely adoration.”
Worst line: Newland Archer sees “a warm pink” blush rise on the cheek of his future wife as she sits behind two other women in a box on the opposite side of the Academy of Music, an opera house. It is hard to imagine how he could have seen so slight a change from such a distance without – and even with – opera glasses, which Wharton gives no sign that he has used.
Reading group guide: By far the best reading group gruide and discussion questions for The Age of Innocence appear along with other helpful material on Wharton on the site for the Big Read project of the National Endowment for the Arts.
Furthermore: This review is based on the 1992 Collier/Macmillan paperback edition of The Age of Innocence, which has an introduction by R.W.B. Lewis and uses the text from Novels: The House of Mirth / The Reef / The Custom of the Country / The Age of Innocence (Library of America, 1986). Wharton became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction when The Age of Innocence received the award in 1921. Daniel Day-Lewis starred as Newland in the 1993 movie of the novel. The website for Wharton’s Massachusetts home, The Mount, has more on her life.
You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.
© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
March 6, 2011
“She had been bored all the afternoon by Percy Gryce … but she … must submit to more boredom … all on the bare chance that he might ultimately decide to do her the honour of boring her for life.”
Edith Wharton on Lily Bart, the heroine of her novel The House of Mirth
March 2, 2011
The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton: A Biography. By Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge, Clarion, 184 pp., $20. Ages: See discussion below.
By Janice Harayda
Edith Wharton said that she hoped her biographer would “find the gist of me,” and Connie Wooldridge meets that test in this lively account of the life of one of America’s greatest novelists.
Born Edith Newbold Jones, Wharton came from the elite New York family that inspired the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses.” Her parents and their circle looked on writing anything except poetry as an unworthy profession, especially for women. And Wooldridge rightly credits Wharton with escaping from the social expectations that might have stifled her career while observing those mores closely enough to write The Age of Innocence, the first novel by a woman to win the Pulitzer Prize.
The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton also shows how Wharton defied sexual codes by having an affair with the journalist Morton Fullerton while married to the unstable Teddy Wharton, who was conducting his own adulterous romance. Of Wharton’s marital relations, Wooldridge writes: “The sexual side of her marriage to Teddy was a failure.” This sentence will shock few children at the upper end of the suggested age range for this book. But the line comes across as a gratuitous attempt to justify or at least explain Wharton’s adultery, though Wooldridge doesn’t link her subject’s poor sex life to her infidelity. And young readers who are ready for such material could have handled more information on the great themes of Wharton’s fiction (especially that of the conflict between individual yearnings and the imperatives of a rigid social order), which get less attention than their creator’s fascinating life.
This biography has more than 80 black-and-white photos and illustrations of every stage of Wharton’s life from early childhood through old age, including pictures of her glorious homes in Newport, New York, Paris and Lenox, Massachusetts. And all of these help to make up for the few questionable judgments in the text. One page reproduces mock reviews that young Edith wrote of a novel called Fast and Loose that she began just before her 15th birthday. “A chaos of names apparently all seeking their owners,” Wharton-the-satirist said. She called “the sentiments weak, & the whole thing a fiasco.” Wooldridge need not fear that she will face similar assaults for The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton.
Best line: One of many good quotes from Wharton, in this case about her girlhood: “No children of my own age, and none even among the nearest of my grown-ups, were as close to me as the great voices that spoke to me from books.” The “great voices” included those of Plutarch, Homer and Milton.
Worst line: A caption on page 21 says: “One of Edith’s mock reviews of her first novel.” The book makes clear that Wharton started a novel at the age of 11 and that the mock reviews describe “another novel,” her second, that she began at the age of 15.
Ages: Clarion bills The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton as a book for ages 12 and up, and its mature content justifies the recommendation. But many preteens and teens reject books with the format of this one, which is that of a modified picture book: They want biographies that look like books for adults. So The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton, good as it is, may be a tough sell to strong readers over the age of 9 or so.
Published: August 2010
You can also follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.
© Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
June 12, 2009
On this site I’ve often faulted publishers’ reading group guides for their poor quality –- poor in part because they tend to pander to book-club members with loopy questions like: “The heroine of this novel is a one-eyed snake charmer whose parents were abducted by aliens. Have you ever known a one-eyed snake charmer whose parents were abducted by aliens?” Gee, I’ll have to think about that one! I might have known one-eyed snake charmer, but her parents got in the space ship voluntarily and technically weren’t abducted! How about you?
So I was heartened to find that the U.S. Government has posted more than two dozen free reading group guides that are more objective and helpful. The guides come from The Big Read, a National Endowment for the Arts program intended to encourage reading, and most cover major American works of fiction for adults or children, such as My Antonia, The Great Gatsby, The Age of Innocence, The Call of the Wild, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. But a couple deal with books by authors from other countries — Naguib Mahfouz’s The Thief and the Dogs and Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich – and the NEA plans soon to post companions to the poetry of Emily Dickinson and others.
You can download the guides for free at the site for The Big Read. And some libraries can get printed versions and CDs with more information at no cost. (I learned about all of this when I found a stack of free reader’s guides and companion disks for To Kill a Mockingbird at a small-town library giving them away to patrons.) Along with warhorses such as The Grapes of Wrath, The Big Read guides deal with a couple gems that are less well known, including Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl.