Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Age of Innocence (1920)

I read this book by Edith Wharton for several reasons. I had never read anything by her before, it was on the Banned Books List, and I am trying to catch up on many classics that I have not yet read.

It can almost be called historical fiction since she wrote the book in 1920 but it takes place in the 1870s. It is a biting look at high society in New York with all of its strict rules and conventions. Everything is so structured, in fact that the characters find they don't even have to speak to share their thoughts.

Archer Newland is a young man who, in the opening of the book, becomes engaged to Mary Welland, the neice of Mrs. Manson Mingott and cousin to the Countess Ellen Olenska. He encounters her in her family's box at the opera and "communicates" his intention to announce their engagement.

As he entered the box his eyes met Miss Welland's, and he saw that she had instantly understood his motive, though the family dignity which both considered so high a virtue would not permit her to tell him so. The persons of their world lived in an atmosphere of faint implications and pale delicacies, and the fact that he and she understood each other without a word seemed to the young man to bring them nearer than any explanation would have done. Her eyes said: "You see why Mamma brought me," and his answered: "I would not for the world have had you stay away."

Even though Ms Wharton was raised in this society, she is very biting in her descriptions of the people and their daily lives. The introduction of Mrs. Mingott had my jaw drop in disbelief it was so mean.

The immense accretion of flesh which had descended on her in middle life like a flood of lava on a doomed city had changed her from a plump active little woman with a neatly-turned foot and ankle into something as vast and august as a natural phenomenon.

I would have been really bad to be on Ms Wharton's bad side!

On the other hand, I found charm in the characters looking forward to the future, Ms Wharton's present, our past. In this excerpt, Archer has a rendezvous with the Countess in the now famous MOMA.

They had this melancholy retreat to themselves, and seated on the divan enclosing the central steam-radiator, they were staring silently at the glass cabinets mounted in ebonised wood which contained the recovered fragments of Ilium.
"It's odd," Madame Olenska said, "I never came here before."
"Ah, well --. Some day, I suppose, it will be a great Museum."
"Yes," she assented absently.

I highly recommend this book to everyone. Don't wait to read it like I did. Now that you have heard about it, don't delay.

My recommendation for this book: +++++

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