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The Age of Innocence has been described as a feminist text, as satirical study of New York Society at the beginning of the 20th Century and a love story all of which would be to some degree accurate. It was critically acclaimed when published and won Edith Wharton the Pulitzer Prize.
Although Edith Wharton had been a product of the genteel New York Society, which features in the book by the time of writing, she had become completely estranged from it. After a painful divorce late in life she rediscovered herself in Europe and lived an active to some unseemly life as a woman on independent means in 1920s Paris. She had forsaken her country of birth and her background and only once returned to the US in order to accept her literary award. Wharton understood the nature and failing of the New York high society and her own experienced make up much of the content in many of her book most particularly in The Age Of Innocence.
Newland Archer is part of the 'old' families living a comfortable life in the centre of Victorian New York high society. He has a beautiful fiancée Mary who he will eventually marry with the blessings of all his peers. The social hierarchy to which he belongs is very rigid and expects all members to play their part. Customs, manners and rules of social engagement are all-important and exert an almost stifling control over everybody's lives. Into this ordered existence comes a beautiful European Countess, a cousin and childhood friend of Newland. She has been tentatively re-admitted into New York society although her estrangement from her husband casts a dark shadow over her reputation.
Newland finds himself attracted to her and thus begins an internal struggle that could ruin his social standing and change his life forever.
WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT
Whartons writing comes out of experience, sometimes a painful and bitter experience. She writes beautifully and with a real insight about the hypocrisy and double standards of the rich New Yorkers. She delves ever deeper into 'polite' society to expose the tensions and suppressed emotions that lie just beneath the surface.
The hero of the story Newland has to choose between the two women in his life but gradually he realises that the choice might not even be his to make. Taking into account Whartons own husbands infidelity and the pain that caused her Wharton could have been more scathing and less sympathetic to Newlands plight but she realised that in many ways he was trapped by his position his attitudes and his birthright. As a whole the novel is a revealing study of a society completely underpinned by a stringent belief in class and privilege. A society that even at the time the novel is set in the early 20th century was beginning to falter and disintegrate.
The observations that Wharton makes and the detail used in characterisation are a delight. Light satire is used to lampoon the snobby attitudes that pervade the actions of the characters and in many ways the social intricacies and subtle nuances of manners described reminded me of Jane Austens observations in Pride and Prejudice a century earlier. There is a clear message that the role of this society is a repressive one that denies both men and especially women the ability to make choices freely without breaking free of their upbringing and ultimately running the risk of being alienated from their peers. There is a also a sense of nostalgia in the story and it has to be remembered that Wharton was in this novel looking back at her youth and is some ways regretting the passing away of the security that such a tightly regulated set of social rules provided.
Despite the examination of New York society and the criticism of its morals Age of Innocence is really a love story, made even more passionate by the repressed emotions of all the lead characters that eventually boil over in the key moments of the plot.
As you would expect from a prize winning novel the use of language is a key attraction. There are some amusing and brilliantly observed characters that are brought to life by the use of precise language, none more so than the larger then life Mrs Mingott the overpowering matriarchal figure of the family
One of these rooms had been turned into a bedroom by Mrs. Mingott when the burden of flesh descended on her, and in the adjoining one she spent her days, enthroned in a large armchair between the open door and window, and perpetually waving a palm-leaf fan which the prodigious projection of her bosom kept so far from the rest of her person that the air it set in motion stirred only the fringe of the anti-macassars on the chair-arms.
Whartons prose style is heavily immersed in symbolism. Flowers and colours are used everywhere to reflect the moods and atmosphere in the story. The novel is also enlightening to a modern reader since it describes in lush detail the trappings of the upper class New Yorkers, the clothes the houses the carriage and their social activities dinner parties, theatre visits, promenades and the like producing a vivid evocation of the time and location.
Age of Innocence is compelling and rewarding read it was the first of Whartons books that I came across on a recommendation form a friend and to be honest my preconceived notions of it where such that without such a strong recommendation it is not the type of book I would have normally chosen to read and consequently I would have missed out on one of the classic novels of the 20th century.
It is a beautifully written and masterfully structured novel, which kept my interest throughout and without giving too much away the ending cannot fail to move even the most emotionally guarded of readers.
'The Age of Innocence' can be bought from most good high street bookshops in paperback (384 pages) as part of the Penguin Books Classics collection (ISBN: 0140622055) for £1.50.
Thanks for reading and rating this review.
© Mauri 2005
Countess Olenska, separated from her European husband, returns to old New York society. She bears with her an independence and an awareness of life which stirs the educated sensitivity of Newland Archer, engaged to be married to May Welland.