The Age of Innocence (1920) by Edith Wharton – a review
From the original review in the Washington Times, November, 1920: Edith Wharton has been called the foremost American novelist by both American and European critics, so a new book from her pen is an event eagerly anticipated. In The Age of Innocence she has produced a book which is the best, from every point of view, she has yet done.
The Age of Innocence is a story of New York society, circa 1870. More exactly, it is a mirror reflecting with startling realism the people and events of the period when “folks drove up Broadway in Victorias.”
With deft and certain touch Mrs. Wharton builds her sort around the society of the day, showing the absolutely artificial lives led by its members, their abject submission to rules and restriction prescribed by convention, and their distrust of, and hostility to, such of their people as evinced any desire for freedom of thought or action.
For the purposes of her story, Mrs. Wharton uses two young women of widely divergent and strongly contrasting personalities, and one man, in love with both women, and loved by them. Every motive, every mood, the state of mind, of each of these characters, is ruthlessly exposed to the gaze of the reader in the keenly analytical manner which is one of the distinguishing gifts of Mrs. Wharton.
The story opens on an opera night, with a ripple of excitement caused by the presence in the box of a social leader of Ellen, Countess Olenska. Ellen is an American girl, longtime resident in Europe, who has fled under circumstances of a somewhat compromising nature from her brutal husband in Poland.
By virtue of her influential family connection she succeeds in re-entering New York society, which accepts her, albeit reluctantly and disapprovingly. Ellen soon becomes discontented with the restrictions of New York society — she has lived too long abroad in an atmosphere of artistic freedom to endure patiently the artificial standards, the suppression of natural instincts and emotions, of Puritan New York.
Newland Archer is the man who finds himself in the dilemma of being engaged to May Welland, absolutely conventional daughter of the most conventional of families, and discovering he is being led by every tie of mutual taste and interest toward Ellen.
Archer’s position becomes most unenviable. In his profession, the law, he is called on to decided whether Ellen shall seek a divorce, and so start anew a scandal fast dying out, or whether she shall effect a reconciliation in the interests of her family’s social status. A divorce means that Ellen will be free to marry Archer, but opposed to this step is the accumulated weight of family hostility to divorce proceedings. In those times, New York’s Age of Innocence, divorces were simply not countenanced by the best families.
Wonderfully well written are the love scenes between Ellen and Archer, and the complications they cause between him and May Welland. May takes the attitude of the carefully sheltered women of her class, that of ignoring the situation, which makes it all the harder for Archer. The way out appears difficult to Archer, but eventually he takes the one path which leads to happiness for all concerned.