1920 – the age of innocence ~ edith wharton

Finally, FINALLY, Book to the Future enters the Twenties – quite possibly the most elegant decade of all time! Huzzah!

Something I’ve purposefully tried to avoid so far in my writing for Book to the Future is comparing the books I’ve read to each other…even though randomly comparing books to each other is something that’s always felt natural to me. But I can’t help but notice something that a lot of the books I’ve read for Book to the Future have in common – so many of them are about love…

I’ve read twenty-four books since starting this project in April. Of those twenty-four books, at least eighteen of those could be called love stories. From the painful, unfulfilled love of Andre Gide’s Strait is the Gate, to the forbidden love of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, to Virginia Woolf’s wickedly subversive Night and Day, to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, which explores a man’s love for…himself. They’re all love stories, in their own way…

Not that there’s anything wrong with love stories, of course. I can’t resist a good romance. But when you sit down and think about it, it’s amazing how much of human art throughout time has been devoted to love – in all its different aspects and forms.

I’ve been thinking about love a lot lately. Possibly because I’ve been to a lot of weddings.

Anyway, this week, I’m reviewing another love story. A love story that completely blew my socks off

The Age of Innocence

by Edith Wharton

Published in 1920

New York, New York. I’ve always had a strange obsession with New York. I’ve always considered it one of the world’s most amazing, fascinating cities. And, in the 1870s, it was more amazing and fascinating than ever..

Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence could, I guess, be classified as a work of historical fiction. It was published, of course, in 1920, but most of the book’s action happens in the 1870s, when New York was so much smaller. And, just like any small town, all the important families of New York know each other. But also like any small town, there are strict rules surrounding every aspect of life. One wrong move can mean social suicide.

Newland Archer is understandably pretty happy with his life. He’s in his mid twenties, he’s a lawyer, and he’s from a rich family. Oh, and he’s just about to announce his engagement to New York’s most beautiful young woman, May Welland. They’re the perfect couple.

But on the very night Newland and May are to announce their engagement, May’s cousin, Ellen Olenska is reintroduced to New York society. She’s just come back from Europe…without her husband.

The moment Newland Archer sees Ellen Olenska, he begins to lose his heart to her. She’s beautiful, intelligent, kind and unconventional – in a way his bride-to-be could never understand. Everything she does is mysterious and different.

For the first time, Newland begins to question hie perfect life, his perfect job, his perfect fiancée. Every time he and Ellen meet, he’s more and more conscious of something missing from his life. The bond between them grows stronger and stronger. But Ellen already married – and Newland is engaged to another woman. Oh dear.

With the date of his wedding getting closer with every passing day, which life will Newland Archer choose? The life of a dutiful husband? The life everyone expects of him? Or will he find the courage to throw it all away – his job, his reputation – to be with the woman he truly loves?

The Age of Innocence is the kind of book that forces you to open your eyes, to re-examine your life, and all the facts that you just take for granted. For instance, from the book’s opening pages, this passage was the first that really made me sit up and take notice; that made me realise what I was reading was special. Newland is at the Opera, and observes of the prima donna warbling on the stage:

“She sang, of course, ‘M’ama!’ and not ‘he loves me’, since an unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences. This seemed as natural to Newland Archer as all the other conventions to which his life was moulded…”

– Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence, page 4

And that’s what The Age of Innocence is really all about, right there in that paragraph – the “unalterable and unquestioned laws” that surround us that we never dare to question. Should we blindly go along with these rules…or should we break free from what society expects of us and live as we choose?

Oh, and if that passage made you chuckle, or at least smile, then you’re not alone. Something you might not expect about The Age of Innocence is that it’s actually quite funny. Even the title is intended ironically: The Age of Innocence depicts a time when it was seen as perfectly acceptable – even a rite of passage – for young men to conduct affairs with married women. The strict rules governing society that I mentioned earlier seem to apply more to women than to men. Such affairs were simply not spoken about in polite company. Women, on the other hand, were expected to be sweet and virginal – hello, double standards. The so-called “age of innocence” is anything but innocent.

Wharton’s unexpected, ironic sense of humour also extends to the way she describes her characters. More often than not, she omits telling us what her characters actually look like in favour of showing us what they’re like in short, witty one-liners. For instance, May’s father, Mr. Welland “was a mild and silent man, with no opinions but with many habits”. Brilliant. And then, there’s the way Wharton returns time and time again to funny little details, like the chronically obese Mrs. Mingott, or the Archer family’s bad chef.

The details. It’s the sheer amount of detail that Edith Wharton packs into The Age of Innocence that makes it such an enthralling read. I admit: I purposefully took as long as I possibly could to read The Age of Innocence – because I didn’t ever want this book to end. Within the space of just a few pages, Edith Wharton had me under her spell. I wanted to remain in these pages, in this story forever. The way she evokes New York of the 1870s is nothing short of captivating. Edith Wharton’s writing creates for the reader a thick web of vivid little details that will lift you from the dreary here-and-now and have you feeling as if you’re really there. Even though Wharton is essentially criticising, even satirising the social scene she describes, she can’t help but bring New York and its people to life with a loving touch. It’s the details that make all the difference.

For the most part, Edith Wharton’s writing is clear, witty – and, at the sane time, beautiful. But one problem I experienced reading The Age of Innocence was that sometimes, when the characters speak, there’s so much that they don’t say, so much that’s implied, that it can be difficult to work out what they’re actually trying to say. There are a lot of meaningful glances. But really, that’s my one real criticism of what is a brilliant, must-read book.

Although I didn’t want The Age of Innocence to ever end. as even the best books must, it ended. However, The Age of Innocence has one of the most perfect final chapters I’ve ever read. It’s utterly, utterly perfect. It’s the way a final chapter (or an epilogue) should be written. No, I won’t tell you what happens, because I wouldn’t want to spoil the ending of this book for anyone who hasn’t read it. But let me just say that the last chapter of The Age of Innocence reads like an essay in how to end a book. It’s no wonder this novel won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for literature.

(Okay, the ending of The Age of Innocence might leave some readers feeling a little...unsatisfied. It mightn’t be for everyone. But, speaking for myself, I thought this was the perfect way to end the book. I loved Wharton’s final paragraph to absolute bits and pieces)

Already, I want to go back. Back to the glittering, gleaming, golden New York of the 1870s. I want to fold the cover open, crease the spine and begin reading again. But there’s no time. I need to move on. There are so many other books awaiting my attention.

A word of warning to whoever’s next on my reading list: The Age of Innocence will be a tough act to follow.


Official Book to the Future Rating:

Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!

Should I read it?

Yesyesyesyes! Especially if you love off-centre romance stories – the stories that celebrate imperfect, awkward, sad, star-crossed love – as much as I do. Or, if, like me, you’re a fan of New York. Edith Wharton’s New York is so beautifully described that you won’t want to leave.

In a word:


Author: Michelle

Reader, writer, wannabe. Literary critic (with training wheels on). Blogging my way through the 20th century's classic novels in chronological order.

3 thoughts on “1920 – the age of innocence ~ edith wharton”

  1. Studied this book in Year 12 and I still love it! Your comment about details reminded me of a scene in Gilmore Girls when Lorelai says about one of Emily’s parties “Too much attention to detail? Edith Wharton is probably around here somewhere hiding under a table and taking notes!” (That was a paraphrase.)

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