This book feels very Austenian at first: how a family makes money is much less topical than how it keeps it via strategic ball-going and strategic marrying. But the point where this novel ceases being Austenian is where it starts becoming good.
Let me get something straight. The Strategic Ball-going Society can be the setting of a story I thoroughly enjoy, but I need the protagonists to hate it. I need them to hate it like Winston and Julia hated Oceania. It’s not a question of solidarity with the characters — it simply guarantees something consequential will happen in this stupid, soul crushing place. Rock this boat, somebody. You’re limited to drawing room gossip sessions about the Miltons and the Granbys and the Skillingbrokes while you plan your luncheons: do something more worthy of contemplation than marry each other after pursuing the wrong people for 350 pages.
But The Age of Innocence is not what its opening suggests. Edith Wharton does a head fake toward Austen and then makes a fast cut toward Thomas Hardy, and what you eventually find is a pair of lovers struggling to liberate each other from their societal Purgatory.
New York in the 1870s is a very small place if you’re rich. It marks the twilight years of “Society” (the kind you capitalize) — where high-standing families intermarry and reputations are made or broken depending on who invites you to dinner. The Age of Innocence is about a period in America where the old money tradition is about to marginalized by people who can actually get rich, too, by doing something. The American Dream had antagonists, and these established aristocrats are them, perched on high and digging their talons in harder than ever.
Newland Archer is the grown-up golden boy who is discovering, albeit slowly, that he wants more than the staid tradition of the same dinners, the same operas, the same smoking room conversations with the same intellectually unambitious people. And he’s discovering this too late: he is betrothed to May Welland, pixie-like Stepford wife extraordinaire. May’s cousin, Ellen, has returned disgraced from Europe after fleeing a marriage gone sour. Taking pity on her (and to avoid marrying into a tainted family), Newland helps Ellen recover her reputation and legally counsels her not to divorce her overseas husband.
And expectedly, he becomes drawn to her. She’s a candid free spirit who lives alone among the Bohemians and is a natural coquette. Newland can barely bring himself to acknowledge it when it’s happening, but his attachment to “Madame Olenska” is growing much stronger than is… appropriate.
Pangs of New York
Wharton’s discreet prose kept me leaning into the book: character reactions are subtle but telling, and notorious affairs are hush-hush but there. The most memorable scenes for me were the dark, intense fireside encounters between Ellen and Newland and Newland’s wedding day, where you reach the distinct, terrifying conclusion that he isn’t just marrying May– he’s marrying everybody in the social circle.
Speaking of the social circle, it is indeed populated with vivid characters who are mostly loathsome except the titanic Mrs. Manson Mingott, where Wharton dispenses all her best fat jokes (“…the immense accretion of flesh which had descended on her in middle life [was] like a flood of lava on a doomed city…”)
Granted, when the plot enters the latter half of the book, the record starts to skip.
Ellen: Here we are in a secret place. I’m thinking of going back to my husband.
Archer: No! No! No! No! No!
Ellen: Then, will you leave May?
Obviously the conflict is between Newland’s desire for Ellen and his obligation to family and tradition, and there’s enough tension here to keep you guessing if this putz will actually take the plunge… even if nothing happens for a while. But how much does he actually love Ellen as a person as opposed to a promise of lust and freedom? By that same token, since May is merely a smiling android, you get the impression that the person definitely doesn’t hold the appeal for him, either, but rather the promise of a secure lifestyle.
The book’s uncompromising ending is a thing to admire, and sealed it for me that when I closed The Age of Innocence I closed a great (though sometimes irksome) book. And one better catering to my cynicism than I expected, which should get me excited for Wharton’s more famous Ethan Frome. I hear that one ends quite nasty.