The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence
by Edith Wharton
321 pages
First Sentence:
On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing Faust
at the Academy of Music in New York.

It's a bit of a boring introduction sentence, especially since the book is neither about Christine Nilsson or the Academy of Music, but Edith Wharton likes to display "pop NY culture" in her novels, perhaps as a way of saying, "Hey, I'm one of one Old NY. I know your trends and tastes." Edith Wharton was born into New York's elite. And she despised it and what it represented.

Our story opens with the formal announcement of the engagement of Newland Archer and his beloved, May Welland, and the introduction of a would be scandal, May's cousin Countess Ellen Olenska's recent fleeing from her dastardly husband. We never find out what exactly her husband has done but it is common knowledge that he is a scoundrel and she had every right to leave to protect herself. While everyone concedes that Ellen is not to blame, society has a hard time accepting her boldness in desiring a divorce(to leave is all right but to divorce is not allowed). As Ellen is completely different than Newland's native Old New York he soon falls madly in love with her. He then must chose between love and duty.

I can't say much about Wharton's ideology without giving away the plot. The ending was a little puzzling at first(as seems to be her trademark) but with a little analysis it becomes a story that is rich with moral guidance. After reading some of Hermione Lee's thick biography about Wharton I can see that she may have been writing these novels to speak to herself as much as society. She struggled in a loveless marriage for many many years before divorcing. There was at least one man to whom she was extremely close to both before the divorce and after. There was also an affair at one point. Edith's life was very unsatisfying and depressing except for her writing.

(This review is slightly modified from the review on my blog. I removed the more personal final paragraphs that don't have much to do with the review.)