Thursday 18 August 2011

The Age of Innocence - Edith Wharton

Newland Archer is part of a small circle of New York aristocracy. As a member of this small set it is up to him to help carry on the traditions of instilled into him. Newland doesn't have a problem with this and in fact sees it as his duty beginning with his engagement with May Welland. His life is planned out before him and he is happy. That is until May's cousin, Countess Olenska, makes an appearance after leaving her husband. Her reputation is slightly tarnished by the means of her escape and Newland is just as shocked as the rest of his circle. More so because it involves the family of his future wife. Quickly he becomes infatuated with Olenska and soon changes his mind. He rallies round the privileged in order for them to welcome her. He begins to doubt that life should be set out for him as it has and finds himself rebelling against it.

Before I begin the actual review, this image I have posted isn't the edition I have. Sadly I couldn't get a good picture of it. Mine is by the Everyman's Library. It's a lovely hardback with a simple cover. If any of you have the chance I recommend you go to your local bookshop and seek these books out. Just feel those pages inside and I bet you will end up at the till with one of them. I have never felt pages like it. So soft and smooth that it made reading from this book an absolute pleasure. I would have been happy reading almost anything.

Fortunately this book was just as good as it's binding. It won Wharton the Pulitzer prize for fiction in 1921 and she was the first woman to win it. Proud at first until she found out it was because her book was the less riskier choice. She quickly went from proud to irate. Either the judges didn't get the humour in the book or they chose to ignore it. Wharton was born into the society she portrays in the book and sets out to show everything she detests about it. Newland is the epitome of that. He is pretentious and a snob. He sees his future wife as a pretty little thing who will make his life comfortable and will share his opinions. May of course goes along with this belief as she was brought up to feel the same way. He spends maybe a couple of hours putting in time at the office but it's really just for show. A well bred man would never lower himself to be seen to be taken part in something as low as business. He in fact scoffs at a friends suggestion that he should go into politics. One character who is in the habit of business is reviled for it.

Only Olenska seems to play outside the rules. She wants her time filled with art, music and literature and all the people who can provide it. She was used to these things in Europe and is a little taken a back that such things are not socially accepted in New York. They only go further to tarnish her reputation. If Olenska had been anyone else Newland would have been just as disgusted as his fellow peers. In the end it's the people she chooses to associate with, new money and the reviled businessman, that irritate him. I wonder if Olenska mirrors some of Wharton's life as she too was in an unhappy marriage and liked to fill her hours with the same pursuits as Olenska.

We aren't meant to like any of these characters apart from maybe Olenska. I didn't dislike them either. Right or wrong they were a product of their time and upbringing. The end of the book jumps 26 years and Newland's son is poking fun at his father's way of life. In fact the last chapter makes a point of showing how much things have changed in that time and you are left thinking what might have been had Olenska arrived then rather than 30 years earlier.

A fantastic book. I think Wharton reminded me a little of Austen (although I am not sure Wharton would be pleased by that) her humour is subtler however. It's in the plot and the characteristics of the characters rather than their sharp wit. I think Newland could easily have irritated me but instead I found him rather funny thanks to Wharton's talent. I can't wait to read more by her.

One thing I do recommend is that you don't do what I did. If you pick up a copy of this book and it has an introduction read it at the end. I read it first (and I rarely read introductions) and whilst it was definitely interesting it also told me the entire plot of the book.

At the end of each post I am going to link my birthday giveaway. I don't know how to make it sticky and I would hate for anyone to miss out on the chance of signing up. So apologies if this gets repetitive. Birthday Giveaway!


  1. I agree with you that this novel has some of Austen's tone. I haven't read much more of Wharton, returning time and again to Age of Innocence with a certain obsessive devotion. With that said, I recently read two of her novellas and found the tone different from either Austen or AoI. I was eager to start reading more of her stories that took place in old New York City but had some other reading responsibilities I had to face first. So I did the responsible thing and returned the book to the library unfinished (gasp!) with plans to borrow it again in the near future. I'm curious to see what her tone is in other novels now that I've seen how different it can be.

  2. This book has been on my radar for so long! I've neglected to read anything by Wharton and plan on this one being my introduction to the author's work.

  3. I am to read this for my 100 Classics Challenge, this review bumped it up a few places in the tbr queue.

    Also, yes yes yes about the EL editions. They are my favourite. And Penguin taught me to never read the introduction before the book - their ed's always tell you the entire plot and what everything means (mind me, they even do that at the back of the book). Now Wordsworth ed are really good, their introductions generally don't have any spoilers; they leave them for the Notes at the back of the book.

  4. I did not think of it as being like Austen. I thought it was a bit more matter of fact than her. I liked it very much though and have read and reviewed it on my blog.

  5. Satia, that's a shame you had to give it back. I'm not sure I would be as responsible, lol. I do want to read House of Mirth. Another friend has read it and found it extremely funny (well, the word she used was witty which going by AOI is probably more relevant).

    FBT, now learned that the hard way. I'm sure I learned that about the Penguins too. I think I am going to have to treat myself to another EL next one. Which one to choose though?

    Mystica, there was just something about it that reminded me of Austen. I wouldn't say the book was like Austen though. I can't put my finger on what it was but as a result the characters had British accents rather than American in my head.

  6. I haven't read Wharton yet (gasp!), but I do have a copy of this title in my TBR shelves. I'm reading at least one classic a month this year, so this will likely be my classic for next month :) Thanks for the wonderful review!

  7. I love this book, but my favorite by Wharton is The House of Mirth. I am very anti introduction! I wish more books would have an afterword instead. It makes more sense. When there is an intro, I almost always wait until the end to read it, even when I've read it before, because I usually forget how it ended anyway.

  8. Julie this was my first Wharton. I'm looking forward to reading others she has written. I'm trying to read a classic a month too but I only started it a few months ago. I love classics but don't read them that often.

    Shelley, I agree. More books should have afterwards. One of my favourites this year, Miss Chopsticks had one and I'm glad it was there rather than at the start. It gave me more insight into the story but would have tainted my reading had I read it first.