First I have to say that I think that the previous reviews of this book have been great. I’m just hoping that I can add a few more things of interest.
Edith Wharton won the Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence in 1921. She was the first woman ever to win it. However, her joy was short lived as she discovered that the judges had chosen it because in their opinion it was “the American novel which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life and the highest standard of American manners and manhood”.
She had written it to be a satirical and dark comedy of manners, but whichever way you take it, the fact is it is very well written and amazingly detailed, full of social history.
I think that Newland Archer underestimates his fiance May as he is under the impression that he will have to educate and mould her to resemble his married lady friend with whom he had had an affair.
In reality he gave up on her even before they were married.
When he meets May’s cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, who has left her husband, he is at first worried that he is going to be affiliated with a family which is about to have a scandalous divorce. However, in the course of his negotiations with Ellen, on behalf of the family who want to avoid the divorce and subsequent scandal, Newland falls in love (lust) with Ellen.
Status and family name is all important in this society and Ellen’s family can’t think why she would want to give up her title of countess and become a divorced woman.
It has been mentioned that people have found the names a bit confusing, with surnames cropping up as first names often. This still happens in Scotland with boys’ names. The women are reluctant to give up their maiden names completely and so they are given to the eldest boy as a first name or sometimes a middle name. In fact we have done this in our family, we have also used one grandmother’s maiden name. Obviously in 1870s New York society it was important to remind people that they were the product of two wealthy, influential families.
Newland had led a very narrow life compared with Ellen and when he tells her that he wants to go with her into another world where words such as ‘mistress’ won’t exist- where they will simply be two human beings who love each other. Ellen replies –
“Oh my dear- where is that country? Have you ever been there?” she asked, and as he remained sullenly dumb she went on: “I know so many who’ve tried to find it; and believe me, they all got out by mistake at wayside stations at place like Boulogne, or Pisa, or Monte Carlo- and it wasn’t at all different from the old world they’d left, but only rather smaller and dingier and more promiscuous.”
I think if they had run off together then it would only have been about six months before Newland regarded Ellen as the trollope who had ruined his life. He would have been miserable living a life being ostracised by the only society that he had ever known.
The ever generous May would have welcomed him back though and he might have learned to appreciate her attributes, which he hadn’t managed to do in 26 years of marriage.
This was a re-read for me. I read it about 20 years ago when Gore Vidal (whose writing I love), waxed lyrical about Edith Wharton’s writing and I think he was correct.