This is my first review of the year. I have been reading a lot, and enjoying what I read, but I’m just not ready to think about what I read.
I was partway through The Age of Innocence when I realized this was a re-read, though from a decade or so ago. We meet Newland Archer (what a name!), a New York society gentleman in his early 20s, as he mostly sleepwalks through society – getting engaged to an appropriate ingénue, moving from home to the club to the opera along with all the other young gentlemen, and cattily gossiping about affairs, scandals, and cravats that are poorly tied. The universe he inhabits consists of a few ‘good’ families who uphold proscriptive rules and transgressions result in shunning. He is absolutely of this society, but he appears more curious and he presents himself as more progressive than his peers. For example, he reads poetry and, at the beginning of his society-approved engagement with his fiancée, May, he encourages her to read Robert Browning so she can expand her mind and they can have deep conversations. Once the conversations begin, he is so appalled by the quality that he hides when he reads poetry to avoid the possibility of conversation. So much for molding his ‘muse’!
In the hands of a less gifted writer, these types of interaction would make me hate Newland or May or both of them, but Edith Wharton is an amazing writer, and instead it conjured my memories of going to college and being exposed to really big ideas and no doubt sounding as patronizing and clueless as Newland! She also deftly demonstrated how the power dynamics between May and Newland were not as Newland believed them (he is the protector of her innocent mind and author of her soul), but really skew to May, who seeks to uphold the traditional values of her family and community. Does this make me like May less – why yes, it does; however, I am impressed by her determination to succeed. I started to type something about her stealthy moves to get her way, but then realized that was giving Newland too much credit; he’s a sometimes likeable, very confident boob.
A wrench is thrown into Newland’s carefully crafted hothouse world in the form of May’s cousin, the mysterious, scandalous Countess Ellen Olenska, who leaves her brute of a European husband and returns to New York society to lick her wounds and plan her divorce. Newland is reputation, skeptical of her charms, and attracted by the mysterious freedom that she seems to represent. Is she a person to him? I never got the sense that Ellen the woman made any impact on Newland. However, Newland’s desire to live authentically, with feelings and experiences, is a lot of what drives his passion for Madame Olenska. He observes “…a shiver of foreboding [as] he saw his marriage becoming what most of the other marriages about him were: a dull association of material and social interests held together by ignorance on the one side and hypocrisy on the other.” He doesn’t see examples of many other ways to live and, naturally, fears charting a new course, which would take him from all he knows, so he satisfices by pining for and occasionally championing Madame Oleska, who appears to have feelings for him, as well.
Wharton is so laser-focused on Newland that all other character’s motivations and feelings are filtered through Newland’s (frankly poor) observation skills. Clearly, he is the innocent referenced in the title, and he really remains so throughout the novel. His growth is stunted, so despite the tremendous privilege he has, he never really grows into the person he thinks he is. He never has to the way Ellen does or the way his children seem to; and he, unlike Ellen or other’s at the time, would have the privilege of do-overs if he stepped out of bounds and desperately wanted to come back simply because he was a white man and an Archer. This is also his (gentle) downfall, as he loses (perhaps) the thing he wants most when May hoodwinks him – something he doesn’t realize until a lifetime later after May’s death.
Wharton was a master at her craft so this novel is funny and full of moments of Fremdschämen on my part as Newland states the obvious or misses a very unsubtle reaction by one of his friends or family. She presents him as a man who is easily led while believing he is a leader – how many of us have worked with someone like this? The setting is pitch perfect. She knew this society and these people and she could write about them with a sharp, critical, yet somehow sympathetic eye as they paraded to their lawn parties and opera boxes believing they were making striking independent decisions, while trussed in a web of their making.