(As is becoming a regular thing, when Mr. Kaggsy heard we had another club reading week coming up, he offered to provide a guest post – this time on Edith Wharton’s classic “The Age of Innocence” (which I have to confess that I *gulp* haven’t read yet…) I’m afraid he’s got a little carried away – brace yourselves, it’s quite long and goes into quite a lot of detail….)

The Age of Innocence, first appearing in the United States in 1920, is described by a half century later US printing as: “A brilliantly realized anatomy of New York society in the 1870s, the world in which (the author) grew up, and from which she spent her life escaping.” American Edith Wharton (1862-1937) wrote the novel after the end of World War I and the book’s title can be loosely applied to the period in which the story is set, at a time when the city’s ‘old order’ still subsisted. Wharton received the Pulitzer Prize for her book in 1921, it being the first novel written by a woman to win. Her life in Manhattan society during the Victorian era enabled her to present with realism a view of the privileged classes and the restricted circle in which its members conducted their lives.

Before turning to the story, there is some interesting history relating to the book. The Age of Innocence was first serialised in 1920 as four monthly instalments in the Pictorial Review, an American women’s magazine in print from the end of the twentieth-century to the outbreak of World War II. The ensuing hardback was published the same year by D. Appleton and Company, New York. A first edition asking price is now £30,000 for a pristine copy, or one signed by the author, the book originally priced at two dollars. First dust jackets pictured a young Victorian female, thought to be inspired by the child in the 1785 painting by Joshua Reynolds, bearing the same title as the novel. Wharton penned extensive revisions between the serial and book publication, and made even more changes after the second impression.

US hardbacks: D. Appleton & Company 1920 first edition; Grosset & Dunlap 1920s (by arrangement with Appleton); Modern Library 1943.

With 2020 being the novel’s centenary year, new anniversary editions are to be found, with no doubt a continuing plethora of Kindle types and other renderings. Given also that The Age of Innocence is out of copyright, the modern era affords endless opportunities for reprints and digital versions in the public domain, hence a flurry of new runs in recent years, or, latterly, print on demand and ‘self published’ offerings. Numerous assorted versions have appeared, either as audio or academic studies, in collections including the author’s other works, or as translations in various countries.

There have also been screen and stage presentations of the story. In 1924, The Age of Innocence was filmed as a silent movie, followed by a Broadway theatrical production in 1928. The play ran for six months, with over 200 performances, and is still performed today. This was followed by a Hollywood screen version in 1934, an RKO film adaptation based on both the novel and the play. The script was almost a complete rewrite, its pace brisk and scenes quite ‘talky’, while length was only around 80 minutes, leading to subtleties and nuances being lost. This first screen presentation with sound was creditable enough, with a level of sincerity and an ending which was contemplative, avoiding the fashion for a ‘tearjerker’. Edith Wharton died three years after the film, in France; whether she saw it, or the silent version, or how she might have regarded them, is not known.

In 1993, director Martin Scorsese brought to the screen a faithful and plush adaptation of the novel, with the trio of main characters portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis as Newland Archer, Michelle Pfeiffer as Countess Ellen Olenska and Winona Ryder as May Welland, she being Oscar nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. Scorsese dedicated the film to his actor father, who died the same year as the film’s release. The script borrows extensively from the novel, the characters liberally speaking lines of dialogue from the novel. Throughout the film a narration extracted from the book is spoken by actress Joanne Woodward, providing a feeling of nostalgia, as if looking back on events. The movie could rightfully be called definitive, being Oscar nominated for its screenplay. The length was almost double that of its 1934 predecessor, allowing the camera time to study lingering looks conveying a player’s thoughts, or to glide over many elegant interiors and atmospheric outdoor scenes. A slower and gentler tempo offers a more refined treatment of the multi-layered story. Almost no detail is spared and the lavish production has been rated as one of the best page-to-screen adaptations, perhaps Scorsese’s masterpiece. Between the two movies, Edith Wharton was honoured on a US postage stamp, in 1980.

And so to the novel, with an assurance that no substantive ‘spoilers’ appear in this review, nor are any of the later plot elements revealed. The story, penned in around 100,000 words, is largely divided into two equal halves, entitled Book I and Book II, the latter carrying a belated powerful revelation; arising from this, the last part of the book is reflective. In this way, The Age of Innocence encompasses the past history and continuing lives of the two main family clans, the ongoing events and later, in retrospect, the unfolding of events during future years.

As will become apparent from the author’s treatment of her main protagonist, she clearly knew lawyer Newland Archer better than he ever did himself. The novelist’s study of him is crafted with insight and sincerity, and as the central figure he is seen in three successive guises. An early first reference is to a former time, involving a younger man’s affair with a married lady, since ended. The story proper now takes place, charting Archer’s life as a person embroiled in the fashionable structure of New York’s high society, but feeling drawn to a more free and easy lifestyle, one he imagines “common” people and foreigners enjoy. His restless feelings and stirrings cause him privately to react against the class system in which he has been raised, but of which he seems inescapably a part. Inevitably, as the novel commandingly portrays, there comes a time when someone such as Archer has made his choices, that of enjoying or enduring the life for which he has opted, whether willingly, or regretfully. The third phase of Archer’s life, and the novel, is reflective, now that he and the reader have experienced all the events which have taken place, or, in the end, did not happen.

North American hardbacks: Engage limited 1000 copies Canada 2016; Inkflight ‘centenary’ limited 100 copies Canada 2019; Scribner 100th anniversary US 2020.

The late nineteenth-century upper class values of delicacy and propriety are those which the novel’s illustrious New York family members resolutely observe. The formidable men and women protect the dynastic name, in the cause of duty, even to the exclusion of their own happiness; the scourge of scandal outweighs any desire to venture beyond the bounds of propriety. There is much regard for tradition and history and the novel’s title can be seen as an ironic comment on the polished outward behaviour of the city’s two main illustrious families. They are hailed as “the very apex of the pyramid”, while their internal dealings are kept private and concealed, in particular to maintain and protect a woman’s honour. Subjects of etiquette and convention are matters of pride, but they belie hypocrisy and artificiality. Thus, to the relief of Archer’s family and that of his fiancée May Welland and her household, his recent affair has been brought to an end and without any public exposure, allowing dignity and good taste to be kept to the fore.

The story embracing New York high society as it does, the opening setting is that of an opera, the venue being approved of as “small and inconvenient, and thus keeping out the ‘new people’ whom New York was beginning to dread and yet be drawn to.” Here, the preserving of class values is at risk of being undermined, such is the refusal of the upper echelons of society to mix with those from the lower reaches of the city. Archer of course arrives at the opera fashionably late: “New York was a metropolis, and perfectly aware that in metropolises it was ‘not the thing’ to arrive early.”

Across the theatre Archer can see his fiancée, the sheltered May, seated in her family’s private box, which he visits. His future romantic partner presents as a vision in virtuous white, the male visitor contemplating “her absorbed young face with a thrill of possessorship in which pride in his own masculine initiation was mingled with a tender reverence for her abysmal purity.” However, Archer is then smitten at first glance by a lady introduced as his fiancée’s cousin, “… a slim young woman, a little less tall than May Welland, with brown hair growing in close curls about her temples and held in place by a narrow band of diamonds.” It soon transpires that the pair knew each other as children, he having once stolen a kiss from her. Countess Ellen Olenska has just returned from abroad, having unconventionally left her Polish count husband, turning her back on an abusive marriage. Thereupon, despite Archer being betrothed and the titled lady, ‘spoken for’ in law, an early passion is ignited within them.

US paperbacks: Scribner 1968; Collier 1992; Signet Classics 2008.

The forthcoming experiences of the male protagonist and the two women who will impact on his life are, however, not the only important elements of the tale. Locations, secondary characters, tradition, death and dishonour, create a fascinating and essential background, notably one in which the author herself matured. Archer’s own mother has an unshakable view as to her son’s betrothal and how marriage should be conducted, but mainly from the point of view of continuing the family’s good name: “There was no better match in New York than May Welland, look at the question from whatever point you chose. Of course such a marriage was only what Newland was entitled to; but young men are so foolish and incalculable – and some women so ensnaring and unscrupulous – that it was nothing short of a miracle to see one’s only son safe past the Siren Isle and in the haven of a blameless domesticity.”

An approaching social occasion serves to have Archer more formally introduced to the free-spirited Madame Olenska, while elsewhere at the event May Welland is about to spread the word that she has become engaged to him. In contrast to the prospective bride, Ellen Olenska’s boldness is on view for all to see: “It was not the custom in New York drawing-rooms for a lady to get up and walk away from one gentleman in order to seek the company of another. Etiquette required that she should wait, immovable as an idol, while the men who wished to converse with her succeeded each other at her side. But the Countess was apparently unaware of having broken any rule; she sat at perfect ease in a corner of the sofa beside Archer, and looked at him with the kindest eyes.” In time May appears, spotted by Ellen, who covers the moment: “‘Ah, here’s May arriving, and you will want to hurry away to her,’ she added, but without moving; and her eyes turned back from the door to rest on the young man’s face.” Clearly Ellen is enjoying Archer’s company and not caring about social niceties

Soon May is encircled by several males, allowing nascent feelings within her intended and her cousin to continue developing unhindered. Archer is content to carry on conversing with his present company and does not mind May being temporarily waylaid. ‘Oh,’ said Archer, ‘I have so many rivals; you see she’s already surrounded. There’s the Duke being introduced.’ ‘Then stay with me a little longer,’ Madame Olenska said in a low tone, just touching his knee with her plumed fan. It was the lightest touch, but it thrilled him like a caress.”

After one or two later meetings, despite the difficulty in arranging what could be judged an indecorous rendezvous, the clandestine couple cannot ignore their strong mutual attraction. Ellen wishes to commence divorce proceedings and consults the legal firm at which Archer is employed. Conveniently, if ill-advisedly, he takes on the role of her lawyer, and here rises an additional obstacle. If he were to follow his feelings, betraying his fiancée May on one hand, and on the other becoming romantically involved with his client, it would mean prejudicing not only his social standing, but also his legal career. To complicate matters further for him, there is another apparent male suitor on hand for the countess.

UK paperbacks: Penguin 1994 film tie-in; Wordsworth 1994; Oxford University Press 2008.

To Archer, Ellen is a fantasy of freedom and escape, the feminine ideal, while May is the quintessence of established New York society. The two women represent, individually, a ‘decadent’ Europe and ‘innocent’ America, while the bastions of decency stand in the way of any reckless behaviour, leaving only private thoughts as a conduit to explore possibilities beyond the social order. “How quaint, how rosy-hued and idealistic it all was,” the narrator attests. The main players are confined inside their rituals, the family and social precepts having no real substance or meaning. The emphasis is on marital duty, avoiding any scandal, maintaining privacy and tradition. Even immediately after a wedding, it is a tradition that a matriarchal figure gives the wedding breakfast, thereby sealing the newcomers inside the circle of two now joined families.

Within this suffocating environment, Archer and Ellen are emotionally both lovers and kindred spirits. “Each time you happen to me all over again,” the countess reveals to her forbidden paramour. In the days ahead, the male confidante and aspirant wooer is invited to visit Ellen in her newly rented “peeling stucco house with a giant wisteria throttling its feeble cast-iron balcony… far down West Twenty-third Street… It was certainly a strange quarter to have settled in. Small dress-makers, bird-stuffers and ‘people who wrote’ were her nearest neighbours.” Although the invitation is not necessarily unusual in itself, Archer declines to mention it to May. Moreover, the evening he spends in Ellen’s company allows their relationship to evolve, although the meeting is brought to an abrupt end by the arrival of a person who could stand in the way of Archer’s developing, but seemingly impossible, expectations: “He was not sorry for the denouement of his visit: he only wished it had come sooner, and spared him a certain waste of emotion. As he went out into the wintry night, New York again became vast and imminent, and May Welland the loveliest woman in it.” He later buys May flowers and asks her out for a walk in the park.

In essence, the author is the observer and storyteller, chiefly assuming the persona of Newland Archer. Skilfully, she reveals the lawyer’s inner feelings, as he appears outwardly to be conducting his client’s matrimonial business. He is additionally conflicted by the risk of Ellen’s wider family name becoming besmirched by virtue of her divorce, affecting Archer’s own impending marriage to a member of the same extended family. Thus the troubled lawyer takes it upon himself to dissuade the countess from pursuing a divorce, perhaps a selfish act, or perhaps unconsciously to make her ‘free’. However, her halted intentions and thereby remaining married fail to stem his love for her. Moreover, when May hears of the stayed proceedings, she believes it is out of love for her that her betrothed has prevented the divorce. Archer resolves that the only way out from the maze in which he feels trapped is to advance his own wedding date and prevent in the meantime his remaining ‘vulnerable’. From this point on he is beleaguered by an accumulation of concerns: societal niceties, legal obligations to his firm, longings for his client and his own family considerations, not least of all his fiancée.

As time passes, Archer strives to focus upon his romance with May, becoming less troubled with Ellen’s possible divorce, or any chance that she might remarry. “Since their last meeting he had half-unconsciously collaborated with events in ridding himself of the burden of Madame Olenska. His hour alone with her by the firelight had drawn them into a momentary intimacy on which (events) had rather providentially broken.” And yet, in truth, the afflicted lawyer cannot bear thoughts of his client being courted by other men. Even from a distance, the countess later moving away, the now disunited couple still share feelings in notes, Ellen wishing Archer was with her.

UK paperbacks: Virago 1992; Penguin Classics 1996; Oxford World’s Classics 2008.

Book I progresses, with travel and later private meetings occupying future events. As events unfold, approaching half way through the book, we have not heard the last of Archer’s original affair, that which he conducted before he became associated with either May or Ellen. Only one person is clear on her plans, May favours a long and typical engagement, followed by a full wedding ceremony. During the period of impending marriage, Archer cannot help but fantasise about being married to Ellen, were it to be possible, while he sees marrying May as more of an impending fate, a loveless society union. Thus the legal, matrimonial, societal and family constraints, not least of all the tentacles of tradition, remain locked in play as Book I begins to draw to a close.

Book II’s outlook is concerned with hoped-for wedlock, assorted family gatherings, excursions and pastimes. Ahead await possible European travels and the occasional Grand Tour, all of which may serve to leave behind the earlier days of the Metropolis and its characters’ lives and loves. Meanwhile, the privileged classes fill their liberal free time with fashionable pursuits. “…Archery… which had hitherto known no rival but croquet, was beginning to be discarded in favour of lawn-tennis; but the latter game was still considered too rough and inelegant for social occasions, and as an opportunity to show off pretty dresses and graceful attitudes the bow and arrow held their own.”

The Age of Innocence in many respects presents as an elegy to the time in which Edith Wharton grew up, a society of wealth and class, hidebound by its own self-imposed order. As for the story’s denouement, the momentous revelations which conclude events are delivered briefly and effectively. There follow some closing reflective pages, from which questions form in the mind of the reader, thoughts dwelling on possible different outcomes; which of course is how it should be.

(Phew! Thanks for that, Mr. Kaggsy – possibly the longest post ever on the Ramblings!! I did consider splitting it into two parts, but then thought it was better left as one piece. I expect whatever appears tomorrow will be a little bit shorter…. :D)