March 2010

“Do New York”, Henry James advised his protégée, and Edith Wharton duly obliged with The Age of Innocence, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1921 and generally considered her masterpiece.  Set in the New York of the post civil war 1870s, but written for a reading public still reeling from the first world war, it is both a welcoming of the new age and a nostalgic farewell to the old one.

Newland Archer, a young lawyer from one of New York’s best families –  and from whose point of view much of the story is written – is looking forward to his marriage to May Welland, a girl also from the higher echelons, whose upbringing has equipped her to perpetuate the stifling, suffocating repression of old New York society, and not much else. But Newland doesn’t see the dangers in this. ‘He meant her (thanks to his enlightening companionship) to develop a social tact and readiness of wit enabling her to hold her own with the most popular married women of the “younger set”.’  Into their rigid world bursts May’s cousin, the Countess Olenska, bringing with her an aura of European sophistication and a whiff of scandal, having escaped from her debauched husband and returned to her family. From the start, Ellen Olenska represents May’s opposite: a hint of anarchy, a disregard for systems of order, and New York initially repels her, finding her scarcely less threatening than ‘new money’. Newland is fascinated by Ellen and, much against his will, a passionate bond develops between the sensitive young man and the tragic, worldly countess. To get out of the situation, Newland asks May to advance the date of their wedding and is humbled by her response: “I couldn’t have my happiness made out of a wrong – an unfairness – to somebody else. What sort of a life could we build on such foundations?”  But they marry, and it is not long before Newland realises his mistake.  However, old New York is on the side of May and what she stands for and her husband finds himself in conflict between his love for Ellen and his duty to society.

We learned early on that Newland Archer is “a dilettante, and thinking over a pleasure to come often gave him a subtler satisfaction than its realisation”; perhaps it is that facet of his personality which drives the novel to its inevitable conclusion, that and the discovery that both Ellen and May know a great deal more about what is “actually going on” than he does. Only at the end do we realise that his wife has out-manipulated her rival. The reader is invited to laugh at Newland, the real innocent of the story, but we pity him too.

With its chorus of hilarious characters representing the status quo, and its humorously ironic portrayal of fashionable American life in the late nineteenth century, The Age of Innocence delighted all but two of our number. Those of us who had recently watched the Martin Scorsese film with Michelle Pfeiffer, Winona Ryder and Daniel Day-Lewis agreed that it had heightened our enjoyment of the novel.

We next meet on Thursday 8th April to discuss When Will There Be Good News by Kate Atkinson.

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