First Impressions on Finishing Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence

The Fair Toxophilites by John Leech, ante 1864

The Fair Toxophilites by John Leech, ante 1864

The Age of Innocence is the first book I’ve read by Edith Wharton, though I remember going to see a film version of The House of Mirth many years ago in London. I enjoyed this book very much. It is, of course, beautifully and subtly written with an eye for manners and society reminiscent of Austen yet with more of a sense of the dark undercurrents of life.

The first scene of the novel, at the theatre, draws you into the heart of the action, as we share the perspective of the protagonist, Newland Archer in the midst of his extended social circle including his new fiancé May and her family.

In May’s family box, Newland notices an unfamiliar woman of unconventional appearance, her dress somewhat shockingly décolleté in contrast to the modest ruffles guarding his fiancé’s virginal throat. This is May’s cousin Countess Ellen Olenska, who has arrived in New York in flight from Count Olenska, her Polish husband, who has apparently been guilty of the most flagrant and sordid infidelities.

We are thus introduced to the tiny, closely interrelated upper-class circle of New York society of the 1870s, the era of the author’s own childhood. Edith Wharton sometimes cannot help rather archly drawing attention to the huge technological and social changes that will occur in the intervening fifty years between the date of the novel’s setting and her time of writing in 1920, making her characters speculate dubiously on whether the new invention of the telephone will ever become a daily reality.

This is a very different New York from the New York of modern reputation. Compared to Paris or London, the city is still a provincial, puritanical backwater where there is little to satisfy avant garde taste in art and music. Here, providing social entertainment on a Sunday is a shocking innovation and, bizarrely, it is the done thing for women of the highest echelons to import the latest fashions from Paris, and then pack them away for two years because it would appear vulgar to be seen dressed in the latest fashion.

Countess Olenska, brought up abroad by an eccentric aunt, besmirched by her scandalous circumstances, yet with family connections that entitle her to a place in that small elite circle causes a disturbance in the peaceful and certain world of these old families. The awkwardness is papered over when representatives of the oldest and most respected of the families pointedly go out of their way to extend social courtesies to her (to the extent of inviting her to dinner with a visiting duke) and thus the problem is treated by simply refusing to publicly acknowledge its existence.

Avoiding unpleasant or controversial topics, maintaining discreet decorum at all times are, we learn, among the primary concerns of this elite and are achieved from behind the scenes with a silent, Machiavellian ruthlessness beneath surface civility and bland smiles. Even as the grand matriarch, Catherine Mingott recovers from a slight stroke, brought on by the shock of another family scandal, she robustly blames her indisposition on eating chicken salad late in the evening, so that a stroke is brushed aside as a mere case of indigestion.

It transpires that this steely, smiling propriety in the face of adversity is inherited to the full by Catherine’s granddaughter, May Welland.

As Newland becomes increasingly besotted by the continental and bohemian charms of Countess Olenska, he grows correspondingly bored and disillusioned by his wholesome, clear-eyed and conventional fiancé and then wife. In doing so, he severely underestimates May Welland. Though her husband finds her reactions to his favourite poetry an embarrassment, though she is genuinely shocked at the idea of marrying during Lent or of inviting an impoverished French tutor to dinner, May’s narrowness of mind does not preclude an acuity of perception and iron strength of will.

In an early scene, we observe May taking part in a game of archery. It was a Victorian fad for ladies to engage in the sport, shooting at straw targets. Archery requires no unseemly exertion, can be performed in decorous full-length dress and involves the competitors striking elegant, classical poses in artistic evocation of Diana and her nymphs. Archery, however, is, in essence, a deadly sport capable of wreaking silent and sudden destruction from an unexpected angle. While artistically comprising the epitome of virginal beauty, Diana also had a dark side, ruthlessly destroying any who offered her insult, whether it was Actaeon unwittingly intruding upon her as she bathed or Niobe who mocked her mother for having only two children to Niobe’s nine. It is May who bears away the prize on that day.

While Newland is absorbed in his passion for Countess Olenska, rushing around after her on often the most dubious pretexts and reacting with unwonted violence when anyone advocates her return to her husband on favourable terms, he seems only vaguely aware that his odd behaviour is being observed and conclusions being drawn by those around him, not least his wife. What Newland doesn’t expect is his wife to act, yet act May does, eventually; discreetly but pertinently speaking to Ellen herself, informing her cousin that she is pregnant with her first child with Newland a couple of weeks before that is, in fact, medically confirmed.

In a climactic scene towards the end of the novel, there is a return to the theatre to see the same romantic production that had entranced Newland at the moment of his initial besottment with Ellen. He is determined to abandon May for Ellen or at least consummate his passion with her. For the first time in their two years of marriage, his wife is wearing her wedding dress. (It is a comparatively recent tradition that brides’ dresses should be distinctive white confections to be worn only for that occasion.) She accompanies her husband home in their carriage and there makes the revelation that, following some quiet conversation, Ellen has decided to retire to the continent to live without her husband on a reasonable stipend negotiated by the family. As May gets out of the carriage, she trips awkwardly, ripping and dirtying her dress. Beyond all the quiet words and the kind smiles, the torn, besmirched wedding dress tells its own story. May has fought hard to save her marriage and she has fought dirty.

The elegant farewell-cum-victory dinner which May insists on holding for Ellen finally brings home to Newland that the family has acted in quiet concord to avert scandal and extirpate the threat to this most respectable of marriages. Now Ellen is leaving, the family are unitedly polite and kind in their farewells, only keen to keep any unpleasantness unspoken, yet this elegant and civilised dinner represents May’s triumph over a rival and the victory of a highly stratified and conventional society against any challenge to its conventions. Welland has no option but to bid farewell to the woman he loves and resign himself to life with a woman who bores him.