Warning: Contains spoilers. If you haven’t read the Age of Innocence go and read it now!
The Age of Innocence is a novel published in the early 1900s but set in the late 19th Century, centring around the New York “Gilded-Age” elite of New York City, and it won Edith Wharton a Pulitzer. I loved this book as soon as I read it. Unlike my other favourite classic, Pride and Prejudice, which took a couple of reads to get the full benefit, I fell in love with Edith Wharton’s prose immediately. I don’t even remember picking the book up, or what made me read it, but I vividly remember the first time I read my favourite romantic line in literature:
It’s so beautiful it made me shiver at the time. The entire book is a literary delight. And yet the characters aren’t immediately endearing. Firstly, this love is about an affair, which is usually pretty off putting. Secondly, the protagonist, Newland Archer, isn’t very likeable. He patronisingly fantasises about his lovely bride May, how sweet and unspoilt she is, and how he is going to teach her and help her become worldly wise. Countess Olenska, his love interest, is quite manipulative, and attention seeking, while acting all coy and vulnerable. But somehow you forget those things when they fall completely and utterly in love with one another.
Theirs is a visceral love, heartfelt and all the more angsty for it being forbidden. There are a lot of significant looks, tiny touches, seemingly innocent acts. As their love grows Newland starts to question the world around him, and what it means to be a woman in that world. How the Countess is shunned for leaving an abusive marriage and living alone. Yet he, who previously had an affair with a married woman which everyone turned a blind eye to, and who does very little productive in his life, is ranked among the highest echelons of New York society, where family connections and propriety are currency. These realisations, however, come too late for Newland and the Countess. Though he makes some cowardly choices in this story, unable to release himself from the shackles of expectation, we never know what he ultimately would have done. The choice is made for him. His passivity goes on too long, and the women in his life take control. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why I like it. The women in this story, while restricted by societal mores of the time, ultimately have their own agency.
Wharton’s novels are often bittersweet, and while I wouldn’t call it a happy ending, everyone seems to end the story happily enough. Although the love story doesn’t have the resolution that I would wish it to, the journey is so glorious that the final destination becomes less important.
If I can write a love story one tenth as beautiful as this Wharton novel, I will be a very happy author indeed.