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The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton: John C Adams Reviews

Book name: The Age of Innocence

Author: Edith Wharton

Publisher: D Appleton & Co

Format: ebook, print, audiobook

Genre: Literature, romance

Publication Date: 1920

Star Rating: 5/5

I always really appreciate Edith Wharton's writing, and The Age of Innocence is one of my favourite novels in any genre by any author.

Edith Wharton largely wrote society novels set in the late eighteen hundreds. Even after moving to live in France, old New York formed her most regular subject matter. She rebelled against its strictures and its lack of interest in the intellectual, but that didn't stop her writing about it.

The Age of Innocence won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and is recognised as Wharton's greatest novel.

Just as gentleman lawyer Newland Archer announces his engagement to eminently suitable twenty-two-year-old May Welland, he is rocked by the return of Countess Ellen Olenska to New York.

It's the 1870s, and society is doing its best to hold firm against the kind of modernisation it regards with profound suspicion. This includes divorce.

Ellen is her own woman, and she rejects turning a blind eye to her noble husband's infidelities to return to live in the society in which she grew up.

Newland's feelings for Ellen grow in tandem with his disappointment with May, who is the good-naturedly perfect product of her upbringing but evidently has very little sense of herself.

At least, that is how her future husband perceives her. Since the point of view in this novel is generally Newland's, it is difficult for the reader to get a handle on May. The pressure on him to go through with the marriage is intense since May is regarded as the ideal bride by his family.

However, he worries about losing the best part of himself by succumbing to a respectable match. His ennui grows as he faces spending the rest of his life this way and Ellen's originality appears to offer an alternative.

May is sensitive enough to recognise that Newland's feelings for her have changed. She ascribes this to a hankering for the married woman he was previously involved with. In fact, he is now deeply in love with her cousin Ellen.

Despite that, buckling under the weight of social expectations, Newland goes through with the marriage. But this is just the beginning of their love triangle.

The Age of Innocence features plenty of literary exuberance from Wharton. In the film version, this was delivered via a narrator. There is a persistent sense of the writer's presence.

I didn't object to this, but there were moments when it felt like the flow of witticisms and clever phrasing detracted from the sincerity of the story.

Newland's character is more complex than his struggles with convention imply. May, often overlooked as a young woman with no depth, is a character that has grown upon me over the decades since I first read The Age of Innocence.

The self-possession to maintain her esteem intact, both publicly and privately, while trying to keep her marriage going, does not belong to someone without deep reserves of personal strength and dignity.

Ellen was vividly imaginative and individual. She and Newland are often described as two sides of Edith Wharton's temperament: the embracing of originality in Europe and the social pressure to conform back in New York.

The portrait of old New York is that of moneyed, landed, complacent individuals. They are about to receive a terrible financial blow within decades that would rock their world, and from which the old families would not recover without injections of wealth from intermarrying with the nouveau riche, something that back in the 1870s they were smugly able to avoid.

It is fascinating to read about these lives knowing how much will change for them in the century to come. Indeed, Edith Wharton glimpsed as much and shows the reader the considerable but futile hard work required to resist progress, even back then.

Thank you for reading my review of The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton.

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